Interdisciplinary work is widely considered a hotbed for innovation and a worthwhile means of tackling complex problems.
“Doesn’t matter what you learn, you can still change the world”
We live in interesting times. Everything we learn today, however esoteric, can be beneficial to our careers in some way or the other. In fact, it has always been true (Steve Jobs learnt calligraphy in college as a fun class, and so the first Mac came with multiple fonts) but the current number of opportunities for interdisciplinary collaborations have just exploded.
The National Science Foundation, the premier grants-giving body of the Government for the advancement of science, defined interdisciplinary research as:
"Interdisciplinary research is a mode of research by teams or individuals that integrates information, data, techniques, tools, perspectives, concepts, and/or theories from two or more disciplines or bodies of specialized knowledge to advance fundamental understanding or to solve problems whose solutions are beyond the scope of a single discipline or area of research practice."
It is a great definition. As technological advances increase, the traditional straightjacketing of roles is not working much. Most domains are becoming multi-disciplinary with the new focus being on a holistic view of everything, rather than just a specialized view. Collaboration across disciplines is the norm. A great example is the domain of chemical ecology – study of how organisms use chemicals to interact. And because chemical activity is universal, this domain involves botany, chemistry, microbiology, mammalogy and entomology coming together to find solutions.
With 2020 behind us, one thing we know is that Many Brains are Better than One. Interdisciplinary work is widely considered a hotbed for innovation and a worthwhile means of tackling complex problems. It therefore holds a clear place in academia, as insights from diverse perspectives afford researchers a clearer understanding of topics of interest. Cross-disciplinary research can be commissioned as well; for example, industry players often call upon experts to address broad societal challenges, including economic, ecological, and population-based trends attributable to globalisation."
Another example is smart communities - involving computer and information science, education and human resources, engineering, geosciences, social and behavioral sciences and economics, to design smarter living and working spaces. In fact, large companies like Google (Sidewalk Labs) and WeWork are using this discipline to develop new living zones that are far more efficient and ecofriendly than current cities. In fact in their annual letter
for 2019, Bill and Melinda Gates have also identified buildings as a domain to attack and bring to near-zero emissions as it impacts climate change significantly.
Yet another emerging domain is data infrastructure bringing together electrical engineering, mathematics, statistics, and theoretical computer science communities, to harness the power of data collection and assimilation across diverse domains like climate conditions, processing industries, hazardous materials handling etc.
Another way to frame this collaboration amongst domains is convergence research - the merging of ideas, approaches and technologies from widely diverse fields of knowledge to stimulate innovation and discovery in order to solve wide ranging challenges like understanding the human body – which involves disciplines like biology, medicine, computer science, engineering, physics, chemistry, or colonizing the universe – astronomy, physics, chemistry, molecular biology before architecture, material sciences, communication technologies, etc. come into play.
As computational power increases and the world becomes more connected, new paradigms of behavior will emerge. A lot of social research including philosophy, theology, sociology, psychology and human behavior is evolving and the discussion around morality in the context of autonomous and more powerful non-human beings is taking centerstage in a lot of places.
Therefore, it is an exciting time to remain a life-long student with an open-mind ready to learn and try new things and domains.