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Weird curves and
remarkable results

Growing up in Seattle, Jeff Weers practised so much baseball that by the time he began playing at Puget Sound University he could hurl a ball at 95mph (150kph). His fastball wasn’t his only weapon. Weers was adept at curveballs that could lure a batter into a swing-and-miss.

While injury cut short his baseball career, Weers went on to gain a chemistry doctorate and a position as chief science officer at global pharma firm Novartis in San Carlos, California. It was while developing an inhaler for cystic fibrosis patients that Weers found inspiration in his childhood field of dreams.

American kids learn baseball with wiffle balls, hollow perforated plastic spheres, and as Weers says, “You can really get some weird curves with a child’s plastic ball that you can’t get with a baseball”. Those weird curves brought Weers a moment of insight: could the same aerodynamic principles of the wiffle ball be applied to respiratory drugs, for superior delivery to the lungs?

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Free thinking

Weers and his multidisciplinary team, which included biologists, chemists, engineers and a theoretical physicist, developed a dry-powder antibiotic spray made of microscopic balls. Created by particle engineering, the balls looked – and more importantly behaved – exactly like the wiffle ball. Slower speed, reduced inertia and above all a tendency to produce wild curves led to a new form of drug that navigated the bend of the throat for optimal delivery to the lungs.

By combining the disciplines of chemistry and aerodynamics – with a childhood passion for play – Weers’ breakthrough illustrates the promise cross-disciplinary approaches hold for developing novel solutions in science, business and policy-making. Evening pints between a botanist and a physicist can toss up weird curves of thought unlikely to emerge when people hunker down in specialist bunkers. The phenomenon is turbo-charged by AI and data analytics, which tests, validates and opens up new directions for the interplay of human minds.

“Innovations almost always come when the problem is addressed by someone from a new perspective,” says Julian Birkinshaw, professor of strategy and entrepreneurship at London Business School. “If you’re trying to solve a physics problem with traditional tools, chances are other physicists have looked at it. If you bring in someone from bioengineering or chemistry they offer a different perspective.”

An ancient approach to build the future?

Silo-busting and multidisciplinary approaches – buzzwords of the digital age – are hardly new. At Aristotle’s Lyceum, philosophers hobnobbed with cosmologists, rhetoricians, musicians, biologists, physicists and historians to lay foundations for the modern world. Leonardo da Vinci, as is well known, was an artist, engineer, anatomist, architect, botanist and palaeontologist, while Niccolò Machiavelli wrote brilliant plays in addition to masterpieces of political theory and military strategy – each fruitfully exploring the thinker’s central preoccupations through a different lens.

The ancient origins of multidisciplinary approaches underscore just how deeply rooted the silo-based modus operandi has become in the industrialised world, despite having a relatively short hegemonic dominance. The particular European vision of separation of tasks and division of labour, as analysed by Max Weber in his 1905 study The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, and held by him to be central to the ideal bureaucratic society, only became the world’s dominant model of progress in the 20th century. It yielded spectacular economic results, yet corralled individuals into specialisms within rigid hierarchies.

Today, intriguingly, academic institutions are instead channelling the approaches of Aristotle’s Lyceum to tackle the pressing challenges of our time. Harvard University recently established a Climate Change Solutions Fund to foster multidisciplinary research, for example, while the University of Chicago launched a think tank devoted to urban issues – bringing in researchers from fields ranging from the humanities to computer science.

But does it work?

The multidisciplinary ethos sounds promising, but is it more than just a fanciful idea to justify the salaries of strategic consultants and academic faculty planners? In myriad realms, the evidence suggests it is. One of the most breath-taking examples of the power of weird curves is the Atlas Project at the CERN nuclear laboratory outside Geneva. When the team behind the world’s largest particle collider discovered the Higgs boson – known as the God Particle because it holds keys to the origins of the universe – the academic paper explaining the breakthrough had more than 5,000 authors, including physicists of all disciplines, engineers, data scientists, mathematicians and more.

In the belief that cross-disciplinary strategies truly work, CERN has also invited sociologists, anthropologists, historians and philosophers to study ways to foster innovation through interdisciplinary scientific collaboration.

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Cultivating serendipity

At New York University (NYU), Professor Christian Busch is studying how insights born of the meeting, even clash, of diverse minds breed innovation – specifically whether apparent twists of fate can, in fact, be cultivated through strategy, playfulness and factors such as workplace design. It’s the subject of his book The Serendipity Mindset.

“Serendipity, unexpected encounters or observations that lead to outcomes such as innovation, is best cultivated through collaboration across disciplines,” says Busch, director of NYU’s Global Economy programme.

And he points to some interesting techniques for trying to bring varied disciplines together. At Web Summit, the world’s biggest tech gathering, for example, seemingly insignificant factors such as typographic choices for name tags or the length of exhibition booths, are meticulously engineered to encourage spontaneous – and serendipitous – conversations, while complex metrics such as eigenvector centrality (a measure of a person’s influence in a network) come into play with conference organising.

In the business sphere, Busch notes, Steve Jobs asked architects to design a campus for Pixar “to maximise inadvertent encounters”. His vision of Pixar’s headquarters as a single space, with an atrium at its centre, enabled Pixar artists to work hand-in-hand with computer scientists, building synergies of culture as well as discipline.

Crowdsourcing democratises innovation

InnoCentive has triggered an explosion of interdisciplinary creativity with its open innovation crowdsourcing platform, designed to enable organisations to pose “challenges” to researchers around the globe and compensate the best proposals with rewards. For example, Dow Chemical tapped InnoCentive to crack a synthetic lubricant challenge involving “entrepreneurship, chemistry, agriculture and physical sciences”. NASA, meanwhile, used the platform to find a method to test heat-resistant Kevlar fibre for use in space, a problem that brought together engineering, test design and materials science.

Interestingly, the more people engage in multidisciplinary approaches, the more they find essential similarities lurking in disparate fields. Barrnon, a scallop-dredging specialist in Appleby, England, is today cleaning up nuclear “sludge pools” at decommissioned atomic plants. At the BP Institute at the University of Cambridge mathematical models of the movement of sediment when it is transported from riverbeds into the sea showed it has a lot in common with the way airborne microbes flow around buildings. Building on the knowledge of geologists, microbiologists, mathematicians and building engineers, they are examining ways that better ventilation could prevent airborne infections taking hold in hospitals.

Changing hearts and minds

For such methods to succeed in the corporate world, cultural shifts are required to tear down the mental walls of company hierarchy. Only by liberating workforces from the ingrained bureaucratic systems identified by Weber in the early 20th century can cross-disciplinary approaches achieve their potential.

Instead of monolithic companies, says Ben Robinson, co-founder of strategy consultancy Aperture, multidisciplinary models leverage networks to bring together the best minds, often from outside the organisation. Robinson sees the smartest firms moving from supply-side to demand-side economies of scale, fostering diverse ecosystems to satisfy pockets of demand around the world. In this vision, the Ford Model T ethos – of one-size-fits-all mass production – gives way to an AI-driven paradigm that caters to individual needs. To make it work, smart thinkers from across specialisations are required to build both strategies and solutions.

“It's very much based on creating ecosystems rather than putting a wall around the business,” says Robinson. “There’s demand both in small and large companies for this kind of multi-disciplined strategy team.”

Zen and the art of engineering

Silo-busting involves not only looking outside one’s discipline, but also inside it – to question entrenched assumptions. A research team from Stanford University and Santa Clara University reported in Harvard Business Review that mindfulness helped engineers tap unfamiliar creative approaches.

The researchers said engineers rely mostly on linear “convergent thinking” involving a series of steps to arrive at a single answer. They contrast it with “divergent thinking” that fans out from a problem to generate many possibilities – an approach fostered by cross-disciplinary methodologies.

The researchers theorised that mindfulness meditation might promote divergent thinking in engineering. In experiments they found that students with higher baseline mindfulness “performed better” at divergent tasks, while 15-minute mindfulness meditation sessions “improved the originality of ideas”.

Who were the authors? A multidisciplinary team including a Stanford mechanical engineering PhD graduate; a global authority on mindfulness and compassion; and a senior researcher at the Stanford Women’s Leadership Innovation Lab. 

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