When a chef, a classical pianist and an organisation designer connected around an Oxford experimental psychology lab, a new movement was born. And London Fellow Daniel Ospina, aged 28, was at the heart of it.
“Crossmodalism” synthesises art, science, and entrepreneurship, supporting learning and collaboration across disciplines, ideas, and communities.
Daniel explains: “It started roughly three years ago. The problem is that people go to university and study, say, economics. Then they start their career as an economist. Their colleagues and friends are all economists. They marry other economists. For most of their lives, they are in this bubble of a profession.
“That means that everyone they are surrounded with has the same mindset. They have the same mental habits and look at problems the same way.
“But innovation, where people create extraordinary stuff, comes from cross-pollination, from looking at things with a fresh angle. We wanted to allow people to explore outside their disciplines and make those new connections.”
The original founding group at the Oxford lab started as three people, and quickly grew to five, including a perfumer and a neuroscientist. Over drinks or dinner, Daniel would share his own professional expertise structuring innovation processes and learn from his friends from other disciplines. But then, the group started to grow: first one person at a time, then much more vigorously.
People were really excited by the idea, Daniel says.
“They would say, ‘I didn’t want to think in this narrow box, but I didn’t know how to articulate it. I was called a scatterbrain. Now I can see the value in it!’”
The group now has about 900 members, with active chapters in London, Berlin and Bogota (Daniel is Colombian-Belgian). Other members can be found in Singapore, Paris, Amsterdam, New York and elsewhere.
While the community has an online space on Facebook, the magic happens at its offline, face-to-face events, facilitated carefully to maximise deep conversations which go beyond the obvious, and relationships which sustain over time.
All kinds of projects have emerged. For example, The Feelies (a multisensory production house founded by a member) worked with the perfumer and Greenpeace to create a multi-sensory VRabout an Amazonian tribe threatened by a planned dam. The project developed empathy among the ‘viewers’, helping to galvanise international action and winning the audience award at Sheffield Doc/Fest in 2017.
In another initiative, the chef worked with a designer to create a new kind of spoon, based on the shape of a human finger. The utensil is designed to increase the perceived sweetness and creaminess of food – potentially allowing food to be made more healthily, with less sugar and fat. This project has been featured on the BBC and in a number of magazines worldwide.
So far, so successful. But growth has its price – especially since the entire project is staffed by volunteers, with no revenue model underpinning it. And that’s where the big current challenge lies.
Daniel says, “It’s starting to take so much time out of our lives that we need to reconsider. We have needed to slow it down a little bit. It’s been a passion project – but if we want it to reach its potential we will have to approach it very differently.
“We have looked into various funding options, but funding organisations need to see a very direct correlation to outcomes,” Daniel said. “There are foundations that want to fund particular pieces of research – but nobody who wants to fund the space where the ideas for truly groundbreaking research come from.
“As a group, we know about the projects that people tell us about – probably only a fraction of what is actually happening. The impact is one step removed. It would take a humongous amount of money to quantify that impact exactly.”
Daniel became a Fellow only recently. One of his motivations was to find Fellows who might have ideas about potential revenue models for Crossmodalism. After all, the RSA is “the Society with its nose into everything”. Could you help, perhaps?
And Daniel has advice for anyone seizing their Power to Create. “Whatever you decide to do, entertain the possibility that it might grow – a lot! Growing this was never the intention, but we encountered this real need.
“There’s a beauty in exploring beyond one’s little box. Human knowledge is vast, way bigger than any individual can ever explore. Through working with others, valuing deep diversity, working with people that think differently – that’s where exciting things happen.”
If you’d like to find out more, you can do so – and contact Daniel – via the community’s website, http://crossmodalism.com.