The Three Intersecting Circles of Innovation
By Shlomo Maital
My attention was recently drawn to a three-year-old report, done by MIT scholars, for the health science research community. The report is The Thid Revolution: The Convergence of the Life Sciences, Physical Sciences and Engineering. The authors, which include stellar figures like Profs. Phillip Sharp and Robert Langer, argue that “convergence will be the emerging paradigm for how medical research will be conducted in the future.”
In order for this convergence to happen, they say, we will not “not simply collaboration between disciplines but true disciplinary integration.”
Today, the structure of nearly all the universities in the world is obsolete, ancient, creaky and counterproductive. It is based on faculties, which are silos that work in direct opposition to convergence. The exceptions are research institutes that are cross-disciplinary, specifically nanotechnology. My university has a Nanotechnology Center that draws scholars from many disciplines, and the resulting integration has been tremendously productive. A small example: Prof. Hossam Haick, whose discipline is chemical engineering, but who has harnessed nanotechnology, electronics, chemistry, physics and engineering to produce an ‘electronic nose’, which can sniff cancer molecules, for instance. He recently delivered the first course in Arabic, on Coursera, on nanotechnology.
Structure is not strategy, it is sometimes said. But, sometimes it is. Let’s change the structure of universities. Let’s find a way to restructure them, so that each faculty member has a very clear area of expertise, a clearly-defined discipline, but also has broad knowledge of other fields and above all, works as part of a convergence interdisciplinary team. And for this to work, their offices have to be adjacent…. Despite IT and networking, nothing beats face-to-face conversations over coffee.
Convergence poses a big challenge to those who would innovate. You need to achieve two conflicting goals, both of which are highly challenging.
First, as Nobel Laureate Dan Shechtman repeatedly urges, you must become expert, truly expert, at SOMEthing…. his expertise was in electron microscopy, and it enabled him to overcome fierce opposition to his discoveries, and ultimately win the big prize. You need deep knowledge in at least one field or sub-field.
Second, you need to become curious and learn a great many things about a great many fields, not in depth but sufficient to understand them. You need wide knowledge, surface knowledge, in just about everything. Even if you have team members who have deep knowledge, it still helps a lot to innovate if you have basic understanding of other, distant disciplines.
In future, all the major breakthroughs will occur at the point of convergence among several disciplines. In order for you, innovator, to be there, you need to acquire depth, and breadth.