David Edwards was several glasses of wine deep when he floated the idea to a couple of friends. It was the kind of absurd statement that...
David Edwards was several glasses of wine deep when he floated the idea to a couple of friends. It was the kind of absurd statement that materializes between drinking buddies at a certain level of inebriation, the kind of idea that gets swatted down as soon as it reaches the open air. The kind of idea that makes you realize how out of it you are.
“What if you could breathe food?” Edwards asked.
These were not ordinary drinking buddies. Edwards is a Harvard professor of biomedical engineering who had made millions developing a new aerosol technology that allows diabetics to take insulin by breathing—no needle required. His friends: Thierry Marx, a double-Michelin-starred French chef, and Jerome Bibette, a chemist and physicist who had charted new ground in the scientific understanding of colloids. It was the summer of 2007. The three were lunching in a Carthusian-monastery-turned-resort just outside Bordeaux where Marx worked as head chef.
Marx “sort of shook his head,” Edwards says. Then: “He told me it was a good idea.”
Edwards gets a lot of ideas. He catalogs the most promising ones on his personal website, davidideas.com, where they are listed in the order that he releases them
to the world. So far there are 29. Such as idea 10: “a way of making plants more intelligent.” Or idea 18: “a new way of exploring museums.” Or idea 23: “a new kind of bottle using the biological cell as inspiration.” Some of these ideas appear to be philosophical questions. When he writes a book about one of his ideas, he counts that as an “idea” too.
Back in the converted monastery, the three friends had gathered to discuss another idea of Edwards’s that was set to launch in mere months: an educational, commercial, and cultural framework for incubating more way-out-there ideas that don’t immediately solve any problems, make any money, or even make much sense. It’s idea 9, Le Laboratoire: a place where ideas could be born, evolve, and be “exhibited” to the public for feedback.
Edwards was on the hunt for a spectacular notion to be exhibited at Le Lab. Enter idea 12: breathe food. It doesn’t seem within the realm of biological possibility, but that makes it a perfect fit for the theoretical zone in which Edwards works. “We’re suspending reality,” he explains. “I look back on it as an attempt to retrieve that bubble of creativity, that sandbox that I had as a child.”
Over the past half decade, Edwards has constructed an “idea funnel.” It begins in Cambridge, where he runs an educational program that manifests as engineering courses for Harvard undergraduates (idea 8: the Idea Translation Lab) and fellowships for Boston public high school students (idea 17: the ArtScience Prize). They are encouraged to engage with the absurd, so the resulting ideas seem straight out of the pages of SkyMall 2050. Ideas like “argument resolution hats”—feuding parties strap them on and wait for the devices to calculate a compromise. Or the “dream player,” a device that captures the activity of your sleeping brain so that “you could watch your dreams, a kind of fascinating morning television!” This semester, a group of young women are researching the possibility of “sending odors around the world.”
The students are learning real-world stuff like intellectual property law and team communication. Most of their ideas never mature into a marketable product—many can’t even identify a market where such a thing could possibly be sold. But any concrete outcomes are beside the point. Edwards believes this kind of exploration has the potential to locate “surprising, impossible-to-foresee approaches” to solving global problems.
“Plenty of people are thinking in very short-term incremental ways,” says Dr. Beth Altringer, a psychologist who specializes in human innovation and lectures alongside Edwards in a Harvard engineering class called “How to Create Things and Have Them Matter.” Usually, constraints on time and money push ideas out of the “exploratory phase” and straight into testing and peer review before they have a chance to reach their full potential. Real-world institutions rein in the idea, push it through existing frameworks, find a way to convert it into cash as quickly as possible. The idea gets smaller and smaller and smaller. Edwards’s method “anchors students in a pretty far-out place,” Altringer says. Students decide whether to continue to pursue an idea by answering the question, “Are you excited about this?”
After class, some students—those who snag the ArtScience Prize or outside educational grants or a personal invitation from Edwards—head to Paris, where their ideas marinate further in Le Lab’s office and gallery space. There, Edwards commandeers his laptop from a giant geodesic beanbag in a space he calls the “LaboBrain.” He and his students work with guest artists, designers, and chefs to chart their ideas on “a kind of cave formed by a giant white board made of fiberglass.” When an idea has matured, Edwards throws a gallery opening where it is celebrated as art and the public is invited to consider it. The press tags along. Edwards takes the opportunity to explain “how science would benefit art and art science by freeing ideas to dance.”
When Le Lab opened to the public in 2007, early exhibits featured “a giant neuron of bubble gum,” “strange filters containing living plants,” and later, “aerosolized chocolate”—Edwards’s first take on the idea of breathing food. Visitors were befuddled. “Few journalists could say even what Le Laboratoire was,” Edwards writes in his 2008 book The Lab. “They searched for words. Le Laboratoire seemed out of touch, perhaps elitist.”
While Edwards is preoccupied with blue-sky ideas, the students in his cultural exhibition program have come up with some compelling real-world concepts—a soccer ball that converts kids’ kicks into energy, a way to light South Africa using dirt, a water bottle that expands and contracts based on how much liquid it holds (idea 22: the Pumpkin— several of Edwards’s listed ideas were initially conceived by someone else in Le Lab).
Practical applications are a happy side effect, though, not Edwards’s end goal. “Fundamentally, bringing ideas to an audience is an effort to understand oneself,” he says. “This is not ‘How do I make money?’ It isn’t even ‘How do I change the world?’ It’s ‘Who am I?’”
And who is David Edwards? In a photo on his site, he appears seated at a table in front of a kind of culinary bong. His mass of wavy inventor hair is glossy brown, his stubble silver, his spectacles round, lips turned down, eyes smiling. A drinking glass with a gray fog curling out of it is tipped delicately between three fingers in his right hand. Edwards, who is 51, has been called a Willy Wonka, a mad scientist, a Nutty Professor. He has the eccentricity of these characters, coupled with the institutional support of Harvard and his own deep pockets. Like them, he’s found a way to pursue his most outlandish ideas.
Outside the realm of fiction, “idea men” run the gamut from practical entrepreneurs to out-there imagineers. Steve Jobs took the mouse out of Xerox PARC and put it into the hands of everyday people—a brilliant packager. Ron Popeil convinced late-night TV viewers that mundane household activities could be accomplished faster—a brilliant pitchman. Sir James Dyson applied the theory of the sawmill cyclone to the vacuum cleaner—a brilliant inventor, but confined to the sad world of carpet cleaning.