In This Issue
The Bridge: 50th Anniversary Issue
January 7, 2021 Volume 50 Issue S
This special issue celebrates the 50th year of publication of the NAE’s flagship quarterly with 50 essays looking forward to the next 50 years of innovation in engineering. How will engineering contribute in areas as diverse as space travel, fashion, lasers, solar energy, peace, vaccine development, and equity? The diverse authors and topics give readers much to think about!

Incorporating the Arts to Create Technical Leaders of the Future

Monday, February 8, 2021

Author: Linda A. Hill

Engineering education should be reimagined to create a new generation of technical leaders prepared to dream, invent, and steward the future.

What Do I Mean by a Technical Leader?

I mean a leader like Ed Catmull, cofounder of Pixar, who with his colleagues leveraged the intersection of technology, art, and business to create the new industry of computer-graphic animation and build one of the most successful studios of all time. He received his PhD in computer science from the University of Utah in 1974 and retired in 2019 as president of Pixar and Disney Animation. Throughout his tenure, Pixar harnessed the power of both engineering and storytelling to capture hearts and minds across the world and remind us of our common humanity.

Why has Pixar been so successful? Because, like his cofounder Steve Jobs, Catmull understood the power of the arts and design to transform customer and cultural experiences. As he puts it, technology, the arts, and business are all first-class citizens in the company.[1] In addition, “We’re not just making up how to do computer-generated movies, we’re making up how to run a company of diverse people who can make something together that no one could make alone” (Hill et al. 2014, p. 8).

Catmull set the stage for dozens of artists and researchers to innovate, with profound impacts both on how films were made and experienced and on the evolution of the computer graphics industry more generally. In 2019 he was selected for the A.M. Turing Award, often referred to as the “Nobel Prize of Computing.”

How Can the Arts Help Develop Technical Leaders?

Although many believe otherwise, leaders are more made than born. Over the next 50 years, education will play a prominent role in developing engineers into leaders equipped with both technical expertise and a passion to learn with and catalyze action among diverse actors eager to innovate.

Drew Faust (2014), former president of Harvard University, explained that a liberal arts education can be “a passport to different places…and different ways of thinking.” Tomorrow’s engineers will need to not only appreciate how technology and data analytics inform and shape every interaction and experience—for better and worse—but also be equipped to apply technical and other skills to make bold, human-centered decisions and build agile organizations and ecosystems. For that, their education will depend on a fusion of technology, the arts, and leadership.

The arts provide space to grapple with existential questions of identity, purpose, and complex societal challenges while cultivating communication skills and the ability to build connections with others. Through participation in the arts, engineers will develop different ways of thinking about human-centric and nature-inspired design, including empathy and critical problem-solving skills to frame and ask generative questions both to uncover what really matters to stake-holders and to engineer solutions consistent with biomimicry (instead of only or primarily mechanistic) principles.

Moreover, the arts provide a forum for engineers to exercise their moral imagination—to pursue not just what should be, but what could be.

Lessons from Current Leaders

My collaborators and I have spent hundreds of hours with men and women who have built organizations that can innovate with speed and a sense of shared purpose. Not surprisingly, many of our interviewees have been engineers using technology to fulfill bold ambitions.

We learned that game changers who shape the future understand that leading innovation is not about setting direction and inspiring people to follow—this conception of leadership works only when the solution to a problem is known. The wicked problems engineers will face will demand novel, sometimes audacious solutions. The role of leaders will not be to come up with a vision and move people to follow them, but rather to engineer environments in which people with diverse—and divergent—talents can cocreate a better future.

Leadership development is largely a process of learning by doing. Engineering education in the future will include immersive and experiential pedagogical methods, where students practice leading innovation. Like pilot certification, engineers will be required to complete leadership practicums to earn leadership certification. The goal is to inspire engineers to acquire the mindset, knowledge, and networks required to innovate time and again, through collaboration, diversity of contributors, experimentation, coping with failure, and inclusive decision making.

Existing Initiatives

A number of initiatives exist to encourage cross-disciplinary discourse and make education more integrated and problem-focused.

For example, at the MIT Media Lab, Neri Oxman has pioneered the new field of material ecology to construct art installations, products, and buildings that are biologically informed and digitally engineered.

The arts provide a forum for engineers to exercise their moral imagination—to pursue what could be.

Larry Smarr and his colleagues at the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology (Calit2) have created a “collaboration-ready,” purpose-driven ecosystem of faculty and students from engineering, the physical, biological, and social sciences, and the arts and humanities to address a range of pressing societal needs: from working with firefighters to create crisis response technologies to creating analytics for personalized medicine and the visualization of ocean pollutants.


The need for leaders able to traverse systemic problems and orchestrate action for the collective good is acutely clear. Integration of engineering and the arts will determine how effectively schools educate coming generations of technical leaders. How courageously deans, administrators, and educators navigate complexity with moral integrity and hone collective genius to address unprecedented challenges and yet-to-be imagined opportunities will set the stage for innovating the future.


Faust D. 2014. College helps students dream of more than a salary. Opinion column, USA Today, Oct 23.

Hill LA, Brandeau G, Truelove E, Lineback K. 2014. Collective Genius: The Art and Practice of Leading Innovation. Boston: Harvard Business Review Press.


[1]  Personal communication, Oct 2.


About the Author:Linda Hill is the Wallace Brett Donham Professor of Business Administration and faculty chair of the Leadership Initiative at Harvard Business School.