Michela Magas and I meet online. With her blonde bob and wide smile, she seems young, almost girlish. Yet Magas has amassed a wealth of experience in her life; she has already developed and achieved many things, set many things in motion. She is the founder of the Industry Commons Foundation and MTF (Music Tech Fest) Labs. She is an advisor to the EU and the G7. She is a member of the New European Bauhaus High Level Round Table, initiated by the European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. In fact, she is so deeply involved in so many projects, primarily concerning data-driven systems, that I quickly lose track and start to wonder how she does it all. She recounts last year’s total of 44 public speeches held and over 70 briefings for President, Commissioners and politicians authored in working days lasting 12 to 18 hours–while admitting that this summer she tried to step back a little.
Magas can be described as an innovation driver, skilfully and successfully bringing together often widely disparate worlds—science and art, design and technology, academic research and industry—in experimental spaces with the goal of collaboratively devising and testing new ideas. As a consultant on policy, she makes use of this ability to bring people together for the purpose of conscious decision-making that opens the door to long-term creativity, innovation and research and identifies new horizons of human possibility. Magas received an Innovation Luminary Award for Creative Innovation in 2016, followed by the title of European Woman Innovator of the Year in 2017. In 2019 she was recognised by the Leonardo Journal of the International Society for the Arts, Sciences and Technology, published by MIT PRESS, as an Outstanding Peer Reviewer.
Design methodology for a new way of thinking
Magas’s trajectory began with her studies at the Royal College of Art (RCA) in London, where she graduated with a Master’s in Communication Design in 1994. Quite some time ago—and yet the impetus kindled by her design grounding back then still shapes her work today. Born in Croatia, she left her homeland before the Balkan Wars to study in London: I had a very strong idea that London was the place to be, and it was! I did manage to get there even at the probably worst possible moment in my life, which was just before the Balkan war crisis. It was a dreadful idea to go to London as a kind of student from outside the European Union, coming from a country at war where the currency had collapsed … but I made it through. She proudly points out that the RCA chose her out of 600 candidates for just 15 places. But then came the challenge of raising the astronomical fees charged to foreign students, which her parents—then professors and professional architects in Zagreb, facing war conditions and unfavourable exchange rates—were unable to assist with.
In Magas’s eyes, networking was the most important aspect of the RCA. Her eyes light up as she strives to clarify her understanding of network as a network of ideas, a system of thoughts, but also a network of people who take these thought processes further. The best thing about it was my fellow students and how inspiring they were, how incredible everyone was. It’s not just a matter of working hard; everybody worked hard there. But everybody had to bring something interesting on board as well.
Although interdisciplinary networking was still rare at the time, while graduating in communication design Magas worked with the RCA’s Product Design department headed by Daniel Weil. A key point in her early career there was her collaboration with Peter Russell-Clarke, who later joined Apple and developed the first iPhone with Jony Ive. It was about how to conceptualise mass production, and we pushed the boundaries of something that was terribly unfashionable at the time. There was a lot of interest from the students, despite the fact that everyone thought the students there were going to do mainly high-level conceptual exhibitions, projects that were statement-oriented. But the way we were thinking about mass production and systems and recycling and things like that turned expectations upside down, opened their eyes and inspired them. To continue fostering this mindset, they decided to invite people from a wide variety of different fields to present their activities to the students. The aim was to bring all these brilliant minds together in a neutral space, free from any specific objectives, client obligations or hierarchies, and give them the opportunity to speculate about projects for the future. The energy that was sparked there was phenomenal, enthuses Magas: That was a major, major point of inspiration for me, and I passed that on wherever I could. And I think that materialised much later, about 10 years later, when I started getting actively involved in communities; then the same thing happened, just on a different scale. So it came out of the design methodology. It’s really about the idea of how we can open up as many perspectives as possible. Her main takeaway from working with people at the RCA, she explains, was the idea of using design to create a space for common understanding, incorporating different fields and areas of knowledge into design processes while taking collaborative prototyping as a starting-point for putting ideas into practice. Magas points out that working with other disciplines is a rarity in many areas, but is absolutely commonplace in design.