I recently had a chance to speak with Bruce Mau, an eminent Canadian designer and the founder of Bruce Mau Design and the Chicago-based Massive Change Network. Mau’s work ranges from creating a museum of biodiversity to urban renewal projects in Guatemala. We discussed embracing innovation, fact-based optimism and how we’re living in a world that’s more connected and mobile than ever before.
Congratulations on receiving the 2015 Design Excellence Award from the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s friends group Collab, joining such esteemed company as Zaha Hadid and Frank Gehry. Their legacies are built structures. What do you hope is your legacy?
Great question. Our work is what I call “product agnostic.” It’s not a methodology limited to one outcome or product. It could be a building, it could be social movement, a product or a business — it’s very diverse. For me, my legacy is in the method — the intellectual and creative method that we call 24 hours to massive change, the design ethic and the concepts to help people do that. My legacy is both the outcomes of our work and the method.
With Rem Koolhaas, you co-authored S, M, L, XL, which has been described as “a graphic overture that weaves together architectural projects, photos and sketches, diary excerpts, personal travelogues, fairy tales and fables, as well as critical essays on contemporary architecture and society.” What was the most interesting thing you took away from your work with Rem Koolhaas?
The real project was the culture of architecture and the reality of design. One of the challenges of design communication is that we make it look easy, as if it emerged as fully formed. The reality is so much different from that. The reality is collaboration. The practice of architecture is one of the most synthetic that we know. Architects synthesize hundreds of different methods, technologies, processes into one coherent whole. That is one of the most important methodologies we have today. We’re inventing new scientific domains, new technologies all at the fastest pace ever. That produces noise, but design and architecture makes it music. The practice of making music from noise is one of the greatest challenges and opportunities we have. Our work is to take many contradictory inputs and synthesize those into positive, productive, new clarity. That is what we tried to do with S, M, L, XL, to reveal that reality. That’s what I try to do with all my work.
Rem is one of the most amazing people I’ve worked with. He is extraordinarily generous and one of the best collaborators I’ve encountered. He can get people to do things they don’t think they can do. He can work with anyone of any caliber — it’s an amazing talent. We had a close relationship that was very important to my creative development.
You have said, “Our life, from womb to tomb, is a designed experience. If we want a great life experience, we have to design it.” How have you designed a great life?
Great and challenging question. The thing I did that was very important, that I did in some ways naturally when I was quite young, was realize I wanted to work differently than others at the time and make content the basis of everything I did. I knew if my work was about content, I would have an education that lasted my whole life long, and have the beauty of exploring ideas constantly.
I imagined that there were particles revolving around the earth — people I wanted to work with and needed to connect with. I realized the only way for them to find me was to put out a clear signal so people could see what I wanted to do. That proved to be the best thing I ever did. Just by sticking to what I really wanted to do. I lived like a student for a decade, very modestly. I allowed myself to only work on things I really loved. People thought I was crazy. But I’m still putting out a clear signal about what moves me to work. The more you can do that, the better chance you have to design the life you want to live, and to contribute to the things you believe to be of value.
You lead the Massive Change Network and say that our moment in history is the best time to be alive and working. Why such optimism, and how does it square with national politics here in the U.S., which seem to be very pessimistic?
I go on fact-based optimism. If you look at the media, you’d think we’re going to hell in a handcart. But the reality of our time is that we’re more collaborative, global, connected, wealthy, mobile, than at any time prior in human history by a radical long shot. The reality is we have pessimists, disasters and stupidity, but they are a rounding error on what’s really happening. We’re collaborating to solve problems that have been vexing us for a long time. Small pox is no longer ravaging human kind. Same with polio. We will eliminate polio, probably within the next decade. I go with the facts and don’t let the noise color my perspective. As a designer, I have to be optimistic. I have to find opportunity. I cannot afford the luxury of cynicism.
Your work has ranged from countries (Guatemala and Panama) to institutions of higher education (Arizona State University) and corporations (Coca-Cola). What lessons did you take from these experiences to help city leaders change policies and programs?
The most profound came from Mayor Daley, reflecting on his work and the work I had done. He related to me that we need to reinforce stability in order to embrace innovation. If you are the “massive change people,” it seems strange to be committed to reinforcing stability. But people can’t be innovative from a place of fear. Knowing things will be OK allows them to innovate and embrace possibilities. In all projects, we found ways to innovate.
In Guatemala, we didn’t need to do the work ourselves. Mobilizing action and celebrating people finding solutions is universal. I’m working with Freeman now and there’s no possible way that I, or any small group, could actually design all the solutions to the vast range of design challenges facing Freeman every day. But what we can do is galvanize all of Freeman to do this. That’s the beauty of our practice: We can magnetize a movement to take on challenges.
I love one of your 24 principles, “New wicked problems demand new wicked teams.” What’s the best way to break down the silos of institutions and bureaucracies, and create these “new wicked teams”?
The new problems do that for us. They no longer fit the silos or categories we already have. Almost all of the new big challenges are cross-disciplinary, cross-sector. In some ways, articulating the challenges and the potential impact allows us to organize “renaissance teams” around these problems. “Renaissance teams” came from Bill Buxton, head of research at Microsoft, who used to work with us. You can’t be a renaissance person anymore, because no one can master more than one or two practices. But you can be a renaissance team. These problems are wicked, they’re beyond our individual possibilities. Together, we do things no individual could ever do.
Every day, I try to follow another of your principles, “Work on what you love.” Sometimes, though, it’s necessary to work on what you “need.” What are some ways that you have turned “needs” into “loves”?
I’ve not been good at that. That’s why I lived like a student for a decade. I’m not very good at faking it.
But I’m voracious in my interests. There isn’t a problem I am not interested in. No matter how arcane it is, somehow I’ll find a fascination in it. I’ve worked on strange and apparently boring things, but I’ve found them quite fascinating.
So a better answer might be, find the love in the opportunity. Because I have a product agnostic approach, there isn’t anything that isn’t connected to something else. There are ways of fitting the things you need to do into the network of what you love.
Tom is president, CEO and publisher of Next City. Before joining the organization in 2015, he directed the Center for Resilient Design at the College of Architecture and Design at the New Jersey Institute of Technology. Prior to that, he ran the Regional Plan Association’s New Jersey office, and served as a senior adviser on land use for two New Jersey governors. Tom is a licensed professional planner, and a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners, as well as an adjunct professor at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, where he teaches land use planning and infrastructure planning.