Creativity and the Olympic Torch
Does cross-disciplinary design work?
The Olympic Torch was produced by a collaboration of designers, architects and sculptors. Is working across sectors always more effective?
Trained as a designer, a fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects, and best known for his sculpture, London's Thomas Heatherwick is hot right now. His London 2012 Olympic Cauldron [Flame] was lit at the finale of the Opening Ceremony.
A cross-disciplinary flame
The press were overwhelmingly positive about it. From the Guardian: “the Olympic cauldron [flame] acquitted herself elegantly at the opening ceremony, raising her fiery petals at the end of the night to form a perfect dandelion of flame and set a new standard for understated first-night aesthetics.”
The flame also had the usual, slightly strained, Olympic symbolism. The 204 copper petals each represent one of the competing nations. Each petal was attached to the long pipes in the centre of the arena.
The cauldron was developed at the Heatherwick Studio which he founded in 1994 with the aim of “bringing architecture, design and sculpture together within a single practice".
Heatherwick is huge in London right now - so the cross-disciplinary approach seems to be paying off.
As well as the Olympic Flame, he has produced the latest version of the London double-decker bus. He has a fantastic bridge at Paddington basin (left). And a major retrospective of his work at the Victoria and Albert Museum, just about the most prestigious place to have one.
But does cross-disciplinary collaboration work?
An article by Lee Fleming in the Harvard Business Review suggests that generally, cross-disciplinary engagement is actually worse than sticking to your own professions. But when it does work, it has a bigger impact.
“In other words, as the distance between the team members’ fields or disciplines increases, the overall quality of their innovations falls.
“But my research also suggests that the breakthroughs that do arise from such multidisciplinary work, though extremely rare, are frequently of unusually high value—superior to the best innovations achieved by conventional approaches.”
And this does seem to be true with Heatherwick. He’s had some big successes - including the flame and the bridge - but also some high-profile failures.
His sculpture B of the Bang (left) cost £1.5 million and was a huge 56m-high sculpture of 180 giant steel spikes. Soon after completion in 2004, one spike broke off and fell 100ft to the ground.
Although no-one had been injured, eventually 22 spikes were removed as a safety measure.The installation was removed in 2009 because of these safety concerns.
So he’s had a few misses, and a few hits. But overall it appears that for a genuinely creative project, a cross-disciplinary approach is worth the risk.
Cauldron. Thanks to eageriseager on Flickr Creative Commons.
B of the Bang. Thanks to George M Groutas on Flickr Creative Commons.
Bridge. Thanks to SNappa2006 on Flickr Creative Commons