Scientist, installation artist, and TEDGlobal speaker Beau Lotto, head of Lotto Lab, a hybrid art and science studio at London's University College, speaks about his new education initiative, My School, as well as his insatiable urge to change the way we learn about our world.
What led to your pursuit of neuroscience?
One of my idols is my grandfather, who was an inventor. He was someone who did everything — a real renaissance kind of a person. My mom and I would sit on the back porch, and the whole point of sitting there was to create stuff. And [I remember thinking] if we could invent anything, what would we invent?
What helps you in your quest for new ways to see?
What motivates me is this sense of certainty that people have. I think if my work is trying to do anything, it’s trying to create a little bit more uncertainty, because I think through uncertainty comes understanding. Ultimately, I use science and other forms of interacting with people (whether it’s art, music, or any other medium) to inspire a more compassionate view of nature and human nature.
You are described as an artist-scientist in your TED bio. Do you believe there is a need for more artist-scientists to solve socially complex problems?
Yes. But I don’t see myself as a scientist or artist. I think these are different ways of communicating and interacting with people. Public art (though I call it “street science”) is not about visualizing science or making science more accessible — it’s about exploring an interaction with people in a different way. I call it “street science” [because] it’s doing an experiment that you would do in a laboratory, you just happen to do it in a public space. You put people in a position of making discoveries. You let people find the connections between parallels.
You’ve been working lately with school children. What made you partner with 8-year-old's?
[My colleague David Strudwick and I] are building a school called My School so that kids can take possession of their school. We have funding for curriculum and architecture for a different way of learning and a different way of teaching. The idea is to see yourself see and to create spaces that provide the opportunity to not just respond, but to experience the process of seeing. More deeply, it’s about trying to see the world differently — it’s about seeing the grays. The principles of the school are community, creativity, choice, and compassion.
The reason for the four C’s — and we could add a fifth, confidence — is that everything the school does relates back to, and responds to, these four principles. We feel that these are a potential consequence of being put in a situation of seeing yourself see.
What if we could create a situation where this is not just taught, but encouraged and pursued? The end result is that we create people who are far more adaptable. It’s about making people who can see things from different perspectives — because that’s really what we need in the future.
What type of curriculum will the school have?
We just received some funding to create what we are calling the “curriculum of compassion.” It uses illusion as a medium for teaching. And the idea is that the kids are going to make an object — a glass windmill, [for example,] with all the spokes of the windmill pointing up, like a flower. The glass spokes will be prisms. When the light hits, it will refract, and you’ll get an amazing rainbow. Around this object, the teacher can teach things such as ecology, renewable sustainability, design, art, architecture, engineering, but also perception, of course. When you look at the windmill, it will appear to spin one way, but when you look at it again, it will flip and look like it’s spinning in the opposite direction.
More importantly, we can also take kids who just don’t get the idea that people can have different perspectives on something, or that two communities can interpret something differently. And they can say, “Look, you see it spinning in one direction, but I see it spinning in the opposite direction. If you keep looking, you also see it spinning in the opposite direction.” Here is a situation where you’re literally seeing [something in] two different ways. Imagine this glass windmill as the symbolic representation of so much of what life should be about.