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Creativity-At The Boundary Of Robustness & Brittleness- Nancy Hillis MD & Bruce Sawhill PhD

Creativity-At The Boundary Of Robustness & Brittleness- This post is informed by conversations with Dr. Bruce Sawhill, Stanford educated theoretical physicist & mathematician.


Creativity At The Boundary Of Robustness & Brittleness


“Brittle” and “robust” are two adjectives that describe the behavior of systems, both natural and human-made. As you will see, they are also intimately intertwined with the concept of the adjacent possible.

A robust system is one that, when disturbed, tends to return to its former state, or at the very least, a persistent way of being that is also robust. They “keep on keeping on.” 

A very simple human-made example is a pendulum—when disturbed, it will swing for a while but always return to its original state of hanging straight down.


Newton's cradle toy

Newton’s cradle toy


Complex Systems


But the systems we are interested in understanding are complex systems—ones composed of many interacting parts, ones that interact with their environment, ones that learn and adapt.

When a robust system visits its adjacent possible, it incorporates it into its structure rather than ignoring it. New information can be taken in but the center will hold.

Why do robust systems do this? 

The systems that don’t behave this way, at least in nature, tend not to perpetuate, so they’ve dropped out of the game. Statisticians call this “sampling bias.”  We only have the survivors to work with.


Nature & Robust Systems


Nature is rife with robust systems, ecosystems being the most accessible examples as they are all around us.

Darwin called ecosystems a “tangled bank” of interrelationships, a webwork that can stretch and deform before breaking, a resilient whole without a single point of failure. 



Young Charles Darwin


Being robust does not mean being indestructible.

All systems will fail with enough adverse input. We’re running a large and dangerous experiment on Earth’s ecosystems right now.



The Water Planet


Humans tend to be feeble imitators of nature when it comes to conscious robustness.  We are able to create very limited versions of robustness, such as airplanes that fly straight and level when we release the controls or engines that limit their speed.


Unconscious Robustness


Unconscious robustness is another matter.

An oft-cited example is the system of providing New York City with food. There is no “Central Food Authority” that manages the process.

Thousands of grocers, restauranteurs, delivery companies, farmers, and warehouses all keep the system running through a webwork of relationships mediated by contracts and money.

New York has about a three days’ supply of food at any one moment, but the system of providing food works under a large variety of conditions without central direction or organization.

In this example, humans are acting more like natural agents than omniscient designers or engineers. Nobody knows or runs the whole system, but they keep their little part of it running and they all together generate robustness. 





Humans & Brittleness


Humans are experts in brittleness, even if they’re trying not to be.

Bridges that fall, dams that fail, buildings that collapse readily come to mind. And, even though it is hard to describe exactly why, we can look at an image of an object or environment and usually be able to rapidly tell whether it is natural or human-made.


Ruin of human structure


What lives at the boundary of brittle and robust?


We submit that artists often visit this place, particularly abstract artists.


Abstraction allows a work of art to be experienced in many different contexts, free of the burden of specificity created by representation. A profound work is relevant to many different observers and is in that way robust. 


I think that one of the ways that artists create profound works is to be inspired by forms and colors found in nature. 


Crystal Bridges Museum



Crystal Bridges Museum

Crystal Bridges Museum


Recently, we were at the Crystal Bridges Museum in Bentonville, Arkansas. It may not be the first place that comes to mind when you think of great repositories of art, but it is a phenomenon worth seeing. It’s a hidden jewel and one of our favorite museums.

There are wonderful paintings in the museum, but in this post we’ll take a glimpse at three outdoor artworks: a sculpture and two environmental installations.

One of our favorite experiences is walking underneath Louise Bourgeois’ enormous sculpture, Maman.

“Maman” is the French word for mother. This work was created in homage to the sculptor’s mother whom Bourgeois described as her closest friend. Looming and mysterious, this piece shelters the space much as the sculptor remembered her mother as both caring and protective.


Maman- Louise Bourgeois-1999

Maman– Louise Bourgeois-1999. Crystal Bridges Museum.


Wandering further on the grounds, we came upon this mesmerizing pool filled with mirrored balls.

This is Narcissus Garden by Yayoi Kusama. The work reflected a oneness and interconnection in the many images it continuously captured.



A Modern Day Medici


The fabulous Crystal Bridges Museum was funded by the largesse of Wal-Mart heiress Alice Walton, a modern day Medici. The Medici, after all, started as wool merchants, not so different than a chain of stores selling basic goods five centuries later.

Another artwork we found inspiring was a simple glass installation by Chihuly, looking almost like a crystalline structure that grew up from the ground.



The glass itself is human-made and brittle, but the experience created by superimposing a natural ravine with a human-made installation is robust in that it persists in memory.

It touches something deep inside us that is not easily erased.



In gratitude from my studio to yours,



P.S. If you enjoy this blog, you’ll love my book The Artist’s Journey: Bold Strokes To Spark Creativity


“One of the best Creativity books of all time” – BookAuthority

Review by the Book Excellence Awards
The Artist’s Journey by Nancy Hillis is a transformative guidebook that encourages readers do to away with self-doubt and dive deep into the world of abstract art as a method of fulfillment and self-expression.

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