Is elBulli an algorithm? (II)

The question is this. elBulli revolutionised cuisine by applying particular work methods and creative formulas. Applied to other business, could this cause a new revolution? The team from The Table is investigating precisely this. We get into a conversation with Toni Segarra, Jorge Martínez and Enrique Gracián…

The question is this. elBulli revolutionised cuisineby applying particular work methods and creative formulas.Applied to other business, could this cause a new revolution?The team from The Table is investigating precisely this.We get into a conversation withToni Segarra,Jorge MartínezandEnrique Gracián… This is the continuation of a dialogue that beganhere.

Toni: We even said that a painter is a research laboratory.A painter who is painting alone in a studio is actually applying a method that is very close to that of a laboratory.

Enrique: Yes. The media has always sold the figure of the artistic genius who produces a work of art as if from nowhere. But that is a bit removed from reality. Look at YouTube videos of Miles Davis and you’ll see that he spent four hours looking for a sound and playing four notes. In Dutch painting there were large workshops where painters experimented with materials. It was a research process with a goal. We are trying to generalise the elBulli process so it can be applied to any type of company.And, as guinea pigs, we’re going to start with this advertising agency.

Toni: Let’s take a look at our case. We are trying to bring the elBulli method to the agency we have created to publicise the exhibition ‘Ferran Adrià. Auditing the Creative Process’ in order to see if it would work in the advertising industry.One of the first conclusions we have reached is that an advertising agency is not a black box [a predetermined production process that does not allow for experimentation].

Enrique:   Indeed.It is a constant white box [a research process with an aim],because you are always faced with the need to generate new information.The client provides some data, the agency sets a goal and then has to generate knowledge. Once the TV spot is made, or the poster, or whatever, it becomes a black box, but it begins and ends right there.It is not repeated.A new campaign means a new white box.An advertising agency is a white box factory.

Jorge: What needs to be done to “Bullify” an advertising agency?

Enrique: You need to do something that has never been done before: manage your own information. Create your own database. White boxes come from black boxes.This means that the data are very well classified.

Jorge: Ferran Adrià has an obsession with recording everything he does.He stores all his knowledge.

Toni: In some sense, his idea of always explaining his recipes made cooking more scientific. In fact, it was an idea that flew in the face of what had been until then in gastronomy. Restaurants, when they were black boxes, did not divulge their secrets. The secret of the interpretation was what made a restaurant different from the rest. Ferran, by contrast, gave 150 recipes away.That shows that it was not a restaurant.

elBulli is a generator of algorithms for restaurants

Enrique: It’s as if it came out of the medieval era. All the trades jealously guarded their secrets. Even the method for building cathedrals was highly restricted knowledge. None of this was in the public domain. But all that ended.We are in the 21st century and anyone who doesn’t get that we need to organise, manage and share, won’t be able to succeed.

Jorge: Does a black box always come out of a white box?Do you always have to start with an idea, a business, a project?

Enrique: Yes. This is the big question. If I have an algorithm, I know what I need to do. If I don’t have an algorithm, I don’t know what I need to do. You have a data set, you classify it using a search criterion. In setting a search criterion, you have to answer some questions.To sort things means to address a series of questions, and this is absolutely vital because you will achieve the goal you seek depending on the questions you ask.

Jorge: This is what Ferran Adrià is trying to do with theBullipedia.

Toni: He has generated a huge amount of data after reflecting on what he has done, and what he is seeking now is to order it properly. While researching, he found that the current order was not very helpful.He has generated a lot of data, but it is not sorted.

Enrique: Yes. I think his method is to constantly ask himself questions. To formulate a question is to formulate a problem.The apex of creativity lies in knowing how to consider problems.

Toni: The advertising agency tries to solve problems. Creativity is about solving problems in ways that differ from the usual methods.What elBulli does, however, is not to solve problems, but to create them.

Jorge: The first thing that would need to be done by an agency like the one we want to set up is to create problems rather than simply to solve them.

Toni: An advertising agency’s work starts with a commission. Others present us with their problem. In this case, however, at The Table, we need to start by posing problems.In this case we would need to reveal what the client’s role is.

To formulate a question is to formulate a problem

Jorge: With elBulli, the funding came afterwards. It came after elBulli became a research centre.A number of brands approached them because they wanted to be close to the excellence of Adrià.

Toni: That’s one of the key elements of elBulli and of this issue in general. elBulli never worked as a business model. Ferran was never interested in building a profitable restaurant. He wanted to build something else, and there was a moment when he found a new business model in that something: laboratories. Companies that take an interest in your patents and pay you to work on those patents. Those companies are interested in having people research something that they can then convert into black boxes. The evolution of elBulli went against the restaurant. That was what he achieved by disseminating, but everything Ferran did went against the restaurant, and eventually he closed.Now he has a foundation, the ultimate expression of the research centre. elBulli mutated from a restaurant into something else.

Enrique: Sure. Because the right questions were asked. Asking these questions is the key. To create a new agency, from the outset I am going to organise the information differently and set myself a goal. From there we can start working.The problem I see in the agency’s case is that there is no tradition of having the data organised.

Toni: I think that actually there is a tradition of accumulating that information. We do it every year at advertising festivals. They would be like the conferences that Ferran talks about, where chefs exhibit their recipes and their creativity. What we don’t do is analyse and conceptualise. We don’t try to understand what we have done in order to evolve from there. We are a profession that is doomed to repeat itself. By not analysing what has been done, it ends up being repeated. You don’t build on what went before.That’s the first thing that would need to be done, as Enrique says.

We are a profession that is doomed to repeat itself by not analysing what has been done

Enrique: One of the great features of the exhibition ‘Ferran Adrià.Auditing the Creative Process’ is that, after seeing it, visitors realise they have to create white boxes in their businesses, that is, they need to research, and they also need to learn a research method.

Toni: If visitors come out with this idea, what you are generating is, as one of the mottoes of the exhibition says, the feeding of innovation. You are promoting the idea that people can begin to consider how they can innovate. This is also something that, in the present context, is absolutely necessary.Virtually all the economic sectors need to mutate.

Enrique: In the past it was an option; now it’s a necessity.  You do it or, generally, you die.   The interesting thing is for the visitor to think about whether to research, and this leads them to reflect on their work. If they weren’t doing it before and from that point on they start doing it, they have already mutated.You are suggesting a different way of working.

Toni: That has not happened in literature either. It is very difficult to get a writer or a poet to analyse their own work. The same goes for artists in general. I don’t know if, as publicists, we believe ourselves to be closer to the idea of craftsmanship, that everything we do is new and original, and if that is why we think it’s not useful to collect such knowledge. Ferran, however, understood that without that reflection he could not create. He says that creativity is knowledge.If he did not reflect on what he had created, he could not do anything new.

Enrique: Creativity is highly personal. Information is not information if it is not accessed by more than one person. For example, the information that Stradivarius had was not information in the sense I am using here. No one could make a new Stradivarius after he died because no one else had that knowledge. Nobody had access to it. Imagine there is a creative person in an advertising agency. This man falls ill. Has he left any instructions? Probably not. This is becoming obsolete.We need to tend towards groups capable of producing by themselves.

Toni: That is the great debate. Is it possible to convert the creative process into algorithms at an agency, or in any activity? There is an urgent need for that to happen.There is a lack of financial control and monitoring of outcomes and efficiency, but at the same time it is very difficult to measure these issues.

Jorge: The most obvious proof that Ferran achieved it is that the chefs who have gone through elBulli and then set up their own restaurant have learned his methodology. It’s what they have taken away with them.Not so much a series of recipes as a way of working that was then reproduced in their restaurants.

Jorge Martínez, Enrique Gracián, Toni Segarra

Toni: elBulli has generated other elBullis.

Enrique: Yes. Because its circuits of black boxes and white boxes are very well made. We often try to define profiles, but I think the future is not moving in that direction. We are not going to establish monasteries in order to have innovative people in business.We need to give them methodologies.

Toni: I agree with the idea that the space makes talent flourish. The place must have a vital role in the agency. I always give the example of football teams. The perfect machine created by Guardiola at FC Barcelona, for example. Any good footballer who understood the Guardiola algorithm worked well in that environment. That same good footballer in another environment didn’t flourish.There are advertising agencies that have built sites that promote talent.

Enrique:   This leads to an interesting idea: the universalisation of the research process.   When an important discovery is made, it is said to be universal. It is not universal because it existed before and someone saw it and said: ‘Oh! I’ve discovered the law of gravitation’. What universalises it is communication. Newton discovered the law of gravitation, but if he hadn’t told anyone, it wouldn’t be a universal law.This concept is essential.

Toni: If he hadn’t publicised the falling apple, there would be no law. In fact, the falling apple is an advertisement.It is a very clear way to summarise this law.

Enrique: If it wasn’t for Voltaire, the first science journalist in history, Newton would not have been well-known in Europe. His theories would only have been known in very small circles.Then there was a media explosion with Einstein. They almost made him into a rock star.

Toni: You said that elBulli reminded you of the principles of modern science and the Invisible College…

Enrique: In 1600, when modern science began, the only ones who could play – and I say play almost literally, since all research has something playful about it – were aristocrats who had money. For some reason that no one can explain, they all converged on the Oxford area. They went looking for places where craftsmen had worked before and turned them into laboratories. They gathered people with handicraft skills there, people who could make tools, and began to research. The field of science was born there.This process has many similarities with what Ferran did: the construction of a laboratory, the right tools, the professionals who needed to be there…

Jorge: The laboratory as a habitat.Not as a space between four walls…

Enrique: As a space where it is possible for all these phenomena to occur, with the right individuals. Communication, as we have said, is essential for universalisation. The ability to write about a discovery in a common language that others understand is what makes it universal. The Invisible College was a group of people who were passing around all the information about what they were doing. They called it the Invisible College because it had no physical headquarters. It was virtual. When you read the by-laws of the College, it’s like reading something from the 21st century. It’s amazing. Some time later they set up a physical space and from there began to issue their notices and promote their concepts. elBulli had a laboratory, tools and professionals, but it did not universalise, in the scientific sense, because there aren’t another fifty laboratories in the world that are working like them. elBulli was a pioneer.What it did was to popularise.

Jorge: That’s what it aims to do with its Foundation and the exhibition.

Enrique: It is almost a necessity.