Man and machine

By IAN DONNIS  |  September 24, 2008

That’s the goal, the equity of this cultural kind of revolution, industrial revolution, that happened here. And that has to be activated, has to be made the voice of Rhode Island. Because right now, as we know, the world is about natural resources, exploiting natural resources. We don’t have oil — we have culture. That’s the asset that’s here, so I want to be able to activate that asset. And that can lead to economic prosperity, because we have what’s authentic and real here.

I wrote a story about a year or two ago about the small but growing digital media-internet technology-design sector here, and a University of Rhode Island economist suggested i was being overly optimistic about the promise of that sector. Is it unrealistic to think it can become a serious economic driver?
Well, first of all, did he offer Pollyanna some better idea? [Laughs.] My point is that you focus on your strengths and you grow new strengths. Just now, we were talking about how the cultural strength is there, and you look at the new strengths in IT, and they are there.

I mean, there are tons of entrepreneurs around here, looking at technologies in new ways, finding some possible connections. An example is Item. It’s a design firm that two RISD alums started — it’s local — and they service a global clientele, because they’ve discovered how to connect technology and industrial design and manufacturing. And it all happens here. So that’s happening. How do you grow more of them? You don’t grow more of them by saying it’s impossible. You grow more of them by saying it is possible, and government-wise, there are tax credits to support this kind of new development.     

What are your top goals for what you hope to accomplish at RISD?
My top goal is to understand RISD. It’s a big place. It’s not just 4000 people. It’s 4000 people times 133 years. So that’s a lot of people, right?

So I’m trying to think about putting together a kind of sense of entire history of all the people that have come here. An institution that’s created people like Dale Chihuly, Jenny Holzer, [Seth MacFarlane, and others]. People have come through this mecca of creativity, and how does this all work? Is my challenge right now, to figure this out. I’m not going to figure it out tomorrow.

In taking on this role, you talked about how technology is outpacing our ability to use it, and you pointed to the importance of more traditional arts, like throwing a pot. Talk a little about that and why this was an appealing opportunity.
My career has always kind of oscillated. I grew up in a tofu factory, where we were very hand-crafted oriented; I went to MIT; I went to art school, I got back my hands. I went back to MIT again as a professor, and lost my hands even more. And then I sort of came back to here, and came back to my hands. So I’m kind of like trying salty, then sugary, then salty, then sugary.
 
You’ve put a lot of time into thinking about simplicity. What are you suggestions for those seeking a better balance between simplicity and complexity?
I think it’s about making good choices. I think it is so hard to make good choices that people get confused. It’s kind of like when you get to the supermarket. You get to see the tomatoes with the pesticides, and you never look at the organic tomatoes that are better. So organic approach, “better shopping,” is important.

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