30 March 2010


About a month ago, James asked if I might be interested in guest lecturing a class that he teaches at Parsons. Well, the class was last week (Information Design, made up of Sophomores and Juniors I believe) and went really well (I think, at least)!

I talked about interdisciplinary approaches to solving problems, which I fortunately get to do a fair bit of day to day. The basic premise of my chat was that the more complex a problem gets, the more thinking from various points of view /backgrounds /disciplines needs to come into the picture to solve it. It's a bit more jumbled than trying to draw a clean, linear path from problem to solution.

I gave a bunch of examples to illustrate this a bit more: I talked about how my Social Psychology background helps me do my job better by giving me a knowledge of group decision making, motivations, and behavior. I talked about how the more Laura sends me articles and papers about Urban Planning, the more I realize that it has a ton in common with digital strategy.

And then I gave some examples to illustrate that standing on the fringe of one's field yields a lot more disruptive & interesting ideas than standing in the middle of it and recycling the same thoughts over and over again. (This is why I only read one or two advertising-related blogs and everything else is about, well, everything else). My two favorite examples are about insects; those who know me IRL are probably sick of hearing about them by now.

That's a Morpho butterfly. When they are around different types of atmospheric vapors, the scales on their wings change color. An engineer at GE – Radislav Potyrailo – studied this and figured out how to apply this to sensor technology. Long story short: enhanced security sensors will soon be available in public places – the subway system, a concert venue, an airport. Radislav was able to connect the dots enough to see a relationship between butterfly wings and our safety.

Honeybees. In this SEED Magazine article from last summer (I recommend it to every single one of you), I read about Thomas Seeley, a Biologist at Cornell who has been studying honeybees for 30 years. He noticed over time that "there are intriguing similarities between how the bees in a swarm and the neurons in a brain are organized." Seeley is publishing a book later this year (Honeybee Democracy) that talks about what we can learn from the complex decision making processes in honeybees ("swarm intelligence"), and how we can apply these learnings to decision making in large groups.

Amazing, right? Neither Radislav and his team nor Thomas Seeley could have ended up here had they not been thinking beyond their own disciplines. People like this don't have to read volumes on transportation modeling or neuroscience to be able to solve complex problems, but having a basic knowledge of what's going on in other places at least helps them know where to start, or who to talk to next. And most exciting: how to adapt this high-ish level knowledge to their own areas of expertise to turn it into something completely different.

When I was leaving the office to go to Parsons that day, I told Alex I was nervous that the students would say, "What does this have to do with me?" He left me with a very comforting, "That's exactly the point!" Oh, right.

Prepping for talking about all of this was so fun, mostly because of the very nature of my chat – my inspiration came from all over the place. Here are some sources (almost in the exact order of my coming across them); please to enjoy:

  • Information Design on Wikipedia

  • Interdisciplinarity on Wikipedia

  • Biomimicry Institute

  • Purple Numbers and Sharp Cheese – BBC Radio 4 Reith Lectures 2003 - The Emerging Mind

  • Reflections on Interdisciplinarianism

  • Mike Arauz: What Behavioral Psychology Can Teach Us About Engagement

  • Lateral thinking on Wikipedia

  • Negative capability on Wikipedia

  • Agile software development on Wikipedia

  • BBC – Nick Bryant's Australia: Visionary architect

  • Metaphor on Wikipedia

  • No One Knows What the F*** They're Doing (or "The 3 Types of Knowledge")

  • Finally: If you were in that class, hi! It was a pleasure to chat with you all last week. I learned some good stuff ^^ And a HUGE thank-you to James for thinking of me talking to an Information Design class (via interdisciplinary thought) in the first place!
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