Tuesday 21 September 2010

Disruptive Innovation requires Interdisciplinary Thinking

I was recently leafing through a psychology blog, and a post about The Perils of Interdisciplinarity caught my attention. I very much agree with the statement, “Some of the most engaging research topics today lie firmly on the boundaries between two or more distinct subjects.”

Intersection between two subjects previously thought of as distinct is a ripe ground for coming up with new ideas. In business school terminology, pursuing single discipline research can lead to ‘incremental’ innovations, i.e. steady improvements on existing technologies. Interdisciplinary research, on the other hand, is where you are likely to find ‘disruptive’ innovations, which completely transform whole industries.

A few examples of interdisciplinary technologies that came to mind:
  • Nanotechnology, at the intersection of quantum physics, materials science and engineering. Nanomaterials are already used in some suncreams and cosmetics, and could potentially revolutionise medicine, computing, and the energy industry.

  • Biotechnology: at the crossroads between genetics and manufacturing, biotech has long been touted as a boom industry. Growth has not been as rapid as once predicted, but that is not to say it won’t happen. A lot of interesting work is going on around using artificial photosynthesis on an industrial scale to solve the world’s energy problems.

  • Photonics: the use of light instead of electrical signals in computing is another area that breaks boundaries between quantum physics, information engineering and materials science. A breakthrough was announced this week in the form of the world’s first ‘photonic’ chip capable of complex calculations. It seems that quantum computing may not be far off, which could render today’s information security systems obsolete.
I found it interesting to speculate which combinations of research areas I would like to see more of in the future. Combining some of the process-flow analysis techniques from chemical engineering with macroeconomics could lead to some interesting modelling of monetary / wealth flows; research in mathematical modelling of non-linear systems (chaos theory) might improve the design of manufacturing systems, and (to lead things back to psychology) the study of hallucination and dreaming might help us to understand the scientific basis of ‘time.’ All just wild speculation – but interdisciplinary thinking has to start somewhere...

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