I’m just completing a fascinating project to explore best practices in interdisciplinary innovation.  The full report is published at (www.cl.cam.ac.uk/techreports/UCAM-CL-TR-760.html) Done for NESTA (www.nesta.org.uk) and working alongside an interdisciplinary team (see below) we have identified a number of policy options to enhance interdisciplinary innovation.

There were many findings that are useful beyond the policy implications, for innovators, for managers of innovation and for those who fund innovation.  For example:

  • using an interdisciplinary team to frame the problem offers huge potential to find radical solutions, simply because of the different perspectives and the opportunity to redefine the boundaries and the criteria for success
  • the power of ‘pole star’ leadership, in which the leader is able to set a direction for a multi-disciplinary (often multi-organisation) team that enrols them all, sets them in a common direction, but still allows detours that may result in breakthroughs
  • the way that disciplines have real value in providing frameworks and boundaries, while also constraining interdisciplinary practitioners because a single discipline cannot measure the full value of an interdisciplinary outcome (and hence back to the value of interdisciplinary problem definition and evaluation)

In addition to the outcome of the work itself I found it fascinating to work in a team that included an expert in interdisciplinary design (Alan Blackwell – www.cl.cam.ac.uk/~afb21/), an anthropologist (Lee Wilson – www.crassh.cam.ac.uk/page/114/lee-wilson.htm) and a leading thinker on the changing face of work in organisations (John Knell – www.john-knell.com).  The work was done under the auspices of CRASSH (www.crassh.cam.ac.uk/page/56/nesta-innovation.htm).

As noted above, the range of perspectives caused us to define the issue more broadly than might otherwise have been done, the people in the workshops came from a wider range of backgrounds, and the findings were more broadly based.  It was interesting to see the parallels and contrasts between innovation in sciences, humanities, policy, public and private sectors.

This project also sets up some themes for future exploration which I’ll pick up in future posts.