Interdisciplinarity, risk and opportunity


The development of new products and services to bring to the marketplace can be driven by scientific advances such as the development of antibiotics, plastics and microchips. However sometimes new and exciting market offerings can be created by bringing together existing technologies and skills sets.

The ability to successfully combine existing knowledge and skills in different areas is referred to as interdisciplinarity.

Interdisciplinarity involves the combining of two or more academic disciplines into one activity (e.g., a research project). It is about creating something new by crossing boundaries, and thinking across them.

For example, a company may already possess the component parts of the knowledge required to make a quantum leap forward, however these bits of knowledge are held in siloed areas. To find new opportunities, the specialised knowledge in different departments must be combined and made to work together.

A major route left for economies to stay innovative is better coordination among knowledge communities aimed at sparking synergy creation… For individual firms, this means management’s ability to combine knowledge of individual technologies and consolidate corporate-wide technologies and skills within their organisations.

Competing for Knowledge: Creating, Connecting, and Growing. Page 27

Personal interdisciplinarity

Personal success may also rely on the individual’s ability to combine knowledge and skills in different areas. For example, Leonardo Da Vinci combined scientific knowledge in different areas to advance mankind’s understanding of the body.

Leonardo’s notebooks clearly reveal his fascination with human development… He studied the anatomical composition of muscles and bones… To complete his work in this area, he described human movement as a mechanical system of interlocking parts, claiming his place as one of the first to conceptualize this idea. His notes in this field demonstrate the amazing combination of engineering and medical knowledge Leonardo possessed.

Amazing & Extraordinary Facts – Da Vinci, Notable Notebooks

Steve Jobs combined his deep understanding of humanities and the sciences to produce technically brilliant and attractive consumer electronics.

“I always thought of myself as a humanities person as a kid, but I liked electronics,” Jobs told me on the day he decided to cooperate on a biography. “Then I read something that one of my heroes, Edwin Land of Polaroid, said about the importance of people who could stand at the intersection of humanities and sciences, and I decided that’s what I wanted to do.” It was as if he was describing the theme of his life, and the more I studied him, the more I realized that this was, indeed, the essence of his tale.

Both at the corporate and at the individual level, opportunity is created when different disciplines are combined to create a multi-faceted result that satisfies difficult-to-reconcile requirements.

Risk and reward

Since opportunity presents itself at the intersection of discipline specific knowledge areas, it would appear that the more disparate the knowledge areas are, the more likely it is that their successful combination will result in a breakthrough.

On the other hand, the more disparate the disciplines are that must be combined to solve a problem, the harder it will be to develop the knowledge in each discipline to a level that will enable convergence of these knowledge areas, therefore the less likely the chances are of success.

The delivery of fusion electricity is not just about understanding plasma. You also have to know the materials you’re going to build the reactor out of. You then need to know how to build the reactor and put all the pieces together. You have to be able to maintain it and it’s really important that you factor this in right at the start. It is absolutely vital that you do all this in an integrated way. You can’t just say that we’re going to make something 10 times hotter than the Sun and it will work. You have to think about the integrated solution.

Professor Ian Chapman, chief executive, UK Atomic Energy Authority

We can therefore identify a correlation between risk and opportunity in interdisciplinary ventures

  • If the disparity between the required knowledge areas is great, then the venture may have great potential but will also have a high risk of failure due to the difficulty involved in overcoming the incompatibilities between the knowledge domains.
  • On the other hand, if the disparate knowledge areas easily exhibit homogeneousness, then the risk of not being able to get to the required result is small, but the outcome of combining the knowledge domains will be less significant and will have a lower return.

In conclusion

People and companies often look outwards for new opportunities, however their true path to success may lie in bridging the gap between their existing disparate skills and knowledge areas.

It may be necessary to look outwards for the catalyst that will enable existing skills and knowledge areas to combine, but real growth is almost always the result of grassroots inspiration.