The Art of Climate Change

Interview with an MIT researcher on science, design, and optimism

It was Thursday night at the Asian Art Museum. Opaque black balloons hovered over a grand stairwell leading to the main event. Hosted by Perennial Restaurant owners Anthony Myint and Karen Leibowitz, the night’s exhibits invited attendees to explore food, drink and their impact on the environment.

Asian Art Museum Thursday Night Takeover on Food, Drink and Climate Change

Each balloon in the canopy represented carbon emissions. While passing underneath, attendees could tug on a balloon and with a satisfying pop, release a message on a way they could impact the world’s CO2 levels with seemingly small choices. The point? Individual decisions can — and do — add up.

The thought leader behind this interactive installation? MIT researcher and IDEO resident Ani Liu.

Ani, an artist and technologist currently completing her Master’s degree at MIT’s famed Media Lab, spent the summer with us in IDEO’s Food Studio. Trained in fine arts as well as architecture, Ani found herself increasingly inspired by a whole new medium: science. It’s a strange intersection with surprising crossovers, and is the basis of her research in what she calls “speculative storytelling”. She came to IDEO to learn our approach to design in food and to inspire us with her unique perspective on science and art.

I chatted with Ani about her experience creating this exhibit and what we could learn from it.

Ani checks out the bottoms-up view of an early prototype

Q: Working in cutting-edge science and technology must be exciting — to get to see and think about their potential and how they might impact the world. Were there any similarities here?

A: Yes! ​​My work focuses on the emotional and social potential of technology. ​Not how we might be replaced by robots or defined by algorithms​ — but how we might use technology to make ourselves better understood by the world and essentially, be more human. ​ ​That was the same with the installation — we didn’t want to ​overwhelm ​visitors with climate change or make them feel insignificant.​

Q: Climate change is a heavy topic, and can be overwhelming, and frankly, quite scary. It’s so massive, doing anything at an individual level can feel futile. How did you approach that in the exhibit?

A: In the face of such a big problem, we wanted to make you feel that you could do something.​ To not just dwell on the immensity of the problem​, but to feel empowered to act. ​ We wanted to emphasize that collective action makes a big impact, that even taking one small step​ matters.​

Q: Speaking of humans, I know you collaborated closely with several other designers during the entire process of creating the installation. How was your experience working with other IDEO designers?

A: It was a really amazing feeling to know you’re with capable people who have your back. The level of confidence I felt was akin to diving into a trust fall with my team. For the first time, I actually delegated parts of the vision and gave up control over so many of aspects of an installation. And it ended up better because of that — we created an experience none of us could have or would have done on our own.

Photos taken by IDEO culinary designer Danny Brooks