Jake Arsenault is a University of New Brunswick entrepreneur-in-residence and the CEO of The Black Arcs, a scenario planning solution for urban environments. Expanding on a project completed for his University of New Brunswick PhD, Jake's first venture, (Inversa Systems) used gamma-ray imaging technology to assess infrastructure. Jake also holds a BSc. in Mechanical Engineering from the University of New Brunswick and is a graduate from the Wallace McCain Institute’s ELP program. His interests range from psychology, photography and marketing to technology and design.
MS: When did you get interested in creativity?
JA: I think I was born interested in creativity! I was that hyper-active kid in class who was always highly driven to explore ideas and construct objects. Curiosity is at the heart of creativity, and I've always been interested in just about everything--except following the rules. I seek many answers to significant questions, not just "the" answer.
My academic interests really flourished in my PhD program. My main advisor, Dr Esam Hussein, showed me how to channel and organize my wide-ranging ideas into very structured and disciplined thinking combined with clear arguments.
MS: Can you describe your first step in this process?
JA: I find that bubble diagrams, such as the example shown here, are especially helpful in shifting from relatively random thoughts and impulses to a practical plan or meaningful narrative. When we tackle complex problems, especially with clients and collaborators, we must communicate quickly and clearly. Mapping things out helps to put content into a meaningful sequence. Busy people don’t have the time or patience for rambling!
MS: What does The Black Arcs do, and why is it important?
JA: Lori Clair and I co-created The Black Arcs, a company that is developing an online tool for exploring the inter-relatedness of land use issues. Designed for consultants, city planners and anyone with an interest in the core issues impacting their town, the simulator is modelled on a video game to make it as engaging and accessible as possible. We are blending art, design, math and the humanities to develop a technology that can make vast complexity both intuitive and accessible.
With the simulator, users can change the layout of a city--and then, see the result. Moving buildings (such as schools) changes who will drive, walk or take the bus. This change then affects other systems and resources, such as public transportation, the placement of parks, and so forth. Our simulator gives city planners and the general public an estimate of the total financial, health and environmental impacts of the change.
MS: This is such a novel approach to problem analysis! How do audiences respond?
JA: Anything that offers multiple options can be hard to pitch to traditional decision-makers. They tend to seek the one right answer, supported by extensive metrics. By contrast, broader audiences tend to be fascinated by our simulation. We set up a large touch screen at the Sackville Farmer's Market and had people lining up to test it out. When we returned to the market the next week, the number of people who wanted to "play" had doubled. We don't need "the best" model--we need a model that is accessible and informative. The quote "all models are wrong; some are useful" really applies here. An effective model provides useful information about a problem. By contrast, the solution requires judgement.
MS: And yet, the stimulator is beautiful and engaging, as well as informative.
JA: Yes! We are strongly committed to great design--and that requires attention to detail combined with a commitment to effective communication. This is demonstrated in the following two examples. In the first, buildings are shown as three-dimensional objects. This is more "realistic" and seems more sophisticated than the two-dimensional rendering shown in the second example. But the second example is actually the better choice for our model. Users can see the "people" more clearly and the overall file size is much smaller, making the model run better on more systems. A model becomes most effective when it focuses on the essentials and is extremely accessible to any user.
MS: I've found that STEM majors are especially hungry for creativity coursework. It seems to open up new ways of thinking and serves as a counterbalance to the more linear approaches they encounter in most of their courses. Have you had a similar experience?
JA: Yes--in two ways. First, academic programs tend to focus on building deep knowledge within a discipline. This is important--but taken to an extreme, it can narrow our focus until we know everything--about nothing, so to speak! Real-world solutions to complex problems don't live in silos. They require a blend of strengths from multiple disciplines. Second, creativity coursework invites a hands-on, collaborative and inquiry-based approach. Students can "play" their way to understanding. They are invited to generate new knowledge, rather than simply master existing information that they read in a textbook.
MS: You mentor UNB students in the Summer Institute TME program. What advice do you offer to these students?
JA: I customize my approach for each one. Their start-ups are often quite different, and their needs are distinctive. I often act as a sounding board and encourage them when the obstacles seem overwhelming. Getting a business launched requires guts as well as ideas and funding--and perseverance is crucial.
MS: What is your connection to the Atlantic Centre for Creativity?
JA: I am a supporter at present and could be a resource. I would love to give a workshop or presentation at their next conference, projected for 2019.
MS: What would you most like to see the ACC accomplish?
JA: I think creative thinking needs to be widespread and more interdisciplinary. Having a designer on a tech team or a historian involved with city planning can increase our understanding of context and supply additional skill-sets. Too often, we associate creativity with the visual and performing arts--but really, creativity can stimulate better problem-solving in any discipline. If you just bring in a designer at the end of the project, to make it look nice, you squander a valuable resource. You want that mindset up front, to help define the problem, propose options and set goals. Interdisciplinary work really takes off when we fully engage everyone's distinctive strengths!