The Opportunity of Uncertainty: The Block and McCormick Engineering share partnership best practices

The partnership that yielded The Block Museum and the McCormick School of Engineering’s collaborative Artist-at-Large Program, which brought Dario Robleto to Northwestern from 2018-2023, began seven years ago when McCormick wanted to expose its students to more art. Kyle Delaney, the school’s executive director of strategic initiatives and marketing, and his team invited The Block Museum’s director Lisa Corrin to collaborate in furthering those aims.

Lisa Corrin and Kyle Delaney

“We were initially thinking in a pretty narrow way about that, about how we get art up on North campus…The Block really prioritized thinking alongside us,” Delaney said. “We became open to the uncertainty of where this partnership could go, and I think it led us to some pretty unexpected and great places.” 

Delaney and Corrin spoke together as part of the Northwestern Office of Organizational Strategy and Change’s 2023 Best Practices Forum, held May 3 at Norris University Center. The Forum highlights shared learnings from successful initiatives across the University. Focusing on take-aways related to their unconventional partnership, Corrin and Delaney were joined by Dario Robleto for a conversation entitled “The Opportunity of Uncertainty: Interdisciplinary Innovation and Open-Ended Process.”

In the academic world, many of us often fear leaping into the abyss of an uncertain outcome. This fear can restrain curiosity, questioning, and the divergent thinking that leads to true innovation. How can we as staff and administrators build space in rigid processes to cultivate uncertain outcomes in order to achieve our greatest work?

-The Opportunity of Uncertainty: Interdisciplinary Innovation and Open-Ended Process

In 2018, the Block and McCormick came way from their early dialogues with a radically simple idea: an artist recommended by the Block would join the community of faculty and students of the McCormick with no specific outcome in mind. The units had faith that meaningful outcomes would emerge organically if they provided structures, resources, and space for informal interaction.

The artist—Dario Robleto—was the unanimous choice for the new initiative as his research-based practice operates in the interstices of art and science, eliding conventional boundaries between the two.

” I was brought in to think as much as I was to make in a traditional sense. And I can’t tell you how much I value that as an artist to be positioned in that way…Even with the best departmental intentions it’s not a given that time is carved out for the students to have conversations beyond their rigorous coursework. And so my position slowly mutated into fulfilling that need,” noted Robleto.

Synthetic Bioogy students with artist Dario Robleto and Julius Lucks, Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2023. (Photo by Joel Wintermantle)

Coming to campus for intervals of a week or more during three academic terms over three years, the artist participated in public and informal conversations, gave lectures, and made class visits. He probed the assumptions underlying engineering research, including the values that shape it, transforming teaching and learning along the way.

The panel discussed that Robleto’s Block Museum exhibition The Heart’s Knowledge: Science and Empathy in the Art of Dario Robleto is in some ways a culmination to his campus residency, but it also wasn’t the aim from the start. The purpose of the Artist-at-Large Program, Corrin told listeners, was to explore the artist’s process:

“The point was really to expose faculty and students to the artistic process, to the way artists think,” she said.  “We committed ourselves principally in this work to the process. And to the interactions and relationships that would be built, to the currency of the ideas that might be yielded from these relationships.”

Delaney agreed, pointing to a number of key lessons that will inform the partnership in the future:

“I think overall, we’re still moving from this proof of concept to sustained output phase. But we’re trying to do so in a way that will still allow us to embrace serendipity and to not plan too much, and to be sure that we remain comfortable not knowing exactly where we’re going. And I think that’s been the trademark of our partnership, is that we never knew exactly where we would be in a year but we knew that we would be in a good place because we share values.”

“I think I can confidently say that five years ago if we had tried to put a strict strategic plan in place for the art and engineering initiatives together, we wouldn’t be where we are right now because we didn’t know what we didn’t know. And so what we did instead was set a compass of our shared values and our shared goals and then remain open to those possibilities.”

Delaney and Corrin shared the discussion on thier open-ended model with over 400 staff members to catalyze university-wide thinking about innovative partnerships.

“We offer our project as a productive case study in how we all might push the rigid boundaries and definitions we might have around what forms our collaborations can take and expectations for what results they might produce.” said Delaney

The Opportunity of Uncertainty:
Key Lessons

• Learn to value process, not just outcomes

• Set a direction or compass and remain open to possibilities

• Look beyond your borders when solving problems

• Embrace uncertainty

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