12.01.2006

Interdisciplinary

I've taken to sitting in the back of some of the many free lectures and symposia that are offered at nearby campuses.  My bosses have encouraged me to get out of the office and meet people, which I do: a recent seminar on the Temple campus connected me with an old colleague, who informed me of another event on campus later that day, where I bumped into yet another colleague and made some other contacts.  Plus, I always bring drafts of the reports I'm working on, and there's something about being away from my desk that helps me to sort through my ideas and make meaningful edits. 

Of course, in between pressing the flesh and making corrections, occasionally I'll look up and take in the educational presentations themselves.  And I've noticed a recurring theme, even across the disparate mix of topics I've exposed myself to (this month's offerings have included water and sanitation, business law, and state contracts).  And that theme is the interdisciplinary nature of most of life's most interesting problems and solutions. 

Take today's conference on the Penn campus on the topic of Africa and the G-8.  PhD candidates made up most of the presenters, and in looking at their bios, I noticed the following academic disciplines represented: African-American studies (twice), political science, sociology, communication, geography, design, and mechanical engineering.  You can make a few pretty easy points off of this.  One is that no matter your training, you're likely needed for our world's biggest issues.  Two is that the really interesting stuff happens when you get multiple disciplines together. 

And three, then, is that the really productive people/organizations/regions are those who have access to these interdisciplinary mash-ups.  From a people and organization standpoint, you'll do well for yourself if your network is diverse.  And from an organization and region standpoint, you'll do well for yourself if you become a place where a diversity of people want to be, and where you give them room to riff of each other.   

Alas, a lot of people, organizations, and regions are characterized by closed minds and siloed thinking.  Academic institutions, government bureaucracies, and large corporations are all too often sub-optimal in their cross-department sharing and in fact sometimes implictly or even explicitly seek to squelch it.  Residential neighbohoods and ethnic groups close ranks in a desire to "be with our own," treating foreign outsiders as bogeymen and scapegoats instead of sources of innovation and flavor and vibrancy.  Individually, we are guilty of our own prejudice or laziness that keeps us from being more welcoming to new ideas, new people, or new experiences. 

On a positive note, there are organizations and regions that are doing a good job at being hubs of interdisciplinary activity.  The city of Portland organizes lunchtime rock concerts to attract and mix its hip young population.  Amy Guttman, president of the University of Pennsylvania, has hung her hat on the notion of interdisciplinary work in areas such as nanoscale research, studies of the brain, and bioengineering.  Countless firms are abandoning offices in favor of shared, project-oriented work space.  And knowledge workers themselves are abandoning offices in favor of working elbow to elbow in coffee shops and other favorite public gathering places. 

When lots of different kinds of people are given space to get together, tell stories, and laugh, that's called a good cocktail party.  When lots of different kinds of people are given space to get together, tell stories, and laugh - in the context of producing solutions to our planet's most vexing problems - that's called changing the world. 




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