Cross or nought

The world’s challenges are inter-disciplinary. Research for their solutions needs to be the same, argues Keith Harrison-Broninski.

Shortly after my book, Human Interactions, was published in 2004, I met with professors at a Management School that had recently received a donation to construct an impressive new building. So, I was expecting to enter an environment full of optimism, challenge, and energy. I set out my formal theory of collaborative work; the professors listened in silence. After the cursory debate that followed their parting comment was: “Well, good luck with changing the way people manage things.”

Was the dismissive reception a comment on my work? Were the professors disillusioned with management theory altogether? Or did they dislike any ideas that crossed conventional boundaries? Further encounters with academics showed that it was most likely the latter.

Around the same time, I agreed to work with a renowned professor of mathematics in his bid to help industry make use of academic work in process calculus. We set up a joint working group with thought leaders in Business Process Management (BPM).

As a first step, we arranged a conference. On the morning of the conference my enthusiasm took a hit, when one of the academics shared with me how he had been confused by people talking about something he hadn’t heard of, “called BPM.”

Inevitably the conference was a parade of papers presented into the void. The academics were there only to promote their own work. They rattled through their arcane papers so fast that the industry thinkers in attendance couldn’t engage. Soon the working group fizzled out.

These and other interactions with academics would be amusing, if the situation as a whole wasn’t tragic. To solve global economic, social, and ecological crises we need a broad-based approach to systemic challenges. Why are cross-disciplinary approaches so difficult to get off the ground?

Interactions with academics would be amusing, if the situation as a whole wasn’t tragic.

In a 2017 Bank of England working paper, An interdisciplinary model for Macroeconomics, the authors claim: “Insularity is partly a natural consequence of stratification because academic disciplines exist as partially ring-fenced areas of enquiry where specialists develop and focus their attentions … Inter-disciplinary work involves extra costs, particularly those arising from co-ordination across subject areas, from the most respected journals having a natural bias to that field and from the difficulties of accurate reviewing across subjects.”

This focus on cost is a natural one for an economist but the most significant barriers are practical. It takes a lot of effort to maintain the expertise necessary to advance in a specialist field. This leaves little time to keep up with research in other fields. And the pressure is especially great for academics who teach as well as research. Preparation of cross-disciplinary material can seem like an overwhelming task. Facing questions from students may be daunting.

There are, however, encouraging indicators in some quarters.

In his 2015 paper in Nature, Interdisciplinary Research by the Numbers, Richard Van Noorden finds that different disciplines respond differently to these challenges. Health in particular “seems very interdisciplinary because it incorporates broad fields such as public health and social aspects of medicine.” There may be more to this than a connection between health and other social sciences. Health is not an abstract discipline. It doesn’t deal primarily with symbols in a formal notation. Health is about people, and its practitioners feel responsible for their welfare. Health professionals typically care deeply about patient outcomes, and learn from experience that wellness is far more than the absence of illness. Wellness is a holistic condition reaching far beyond indicators of physical and mental wellbeing.

Recognising this, at its foundation in 1948 the World Health Organisation proposed that health should be linked to “physical, mental, and social well-being, and not merely the absence of disease and infirmity”. The Faculty of Public Health of the UK’s Royal Colleges of Physicians defines three overlapping domains in which public health practice should operate, going beyond health services to include health improvement and health protection. Health improvement addresses inequalities, employment and housing, family and community, education, and lifestyle interventions. The aims of health protection include cleaner air, water, and food and prevention of war and social disorder. The “wellness wheel” (Figure 1) depicts some of the ways in which wellness depends on other areas of life.

Figure 1: Wellness wheel

Four years on from Van Noorden’s paper, a  further statistical analysis in the same journal opened with a call to arms: “Addressing many of the world’s contemporary challenges requires a multifaceted and integrated approach, and interdisciplinary research has become increasingly central to both academic interest and government science policies.” The paper goes on to demonstrate evidence for a common-sense notion – that higher interdisciplinarity is associated with higher research impact. Academics working in health are not the only ones who know this.

Computer Science departments from Finland to India have flown me out to give keynotes. Academics in information technology (IT) were always keen for new ideas, and didn’t mind how far out of their comfort zone this took them. Feedback on the lines of “We’re not ready for this yet,” was almost always followed by, “but we will be.”

IT is self-consciously about the future.  Thought leaders in the subject are constantly looking for new opportunities to exploit with technology. The pace of change renders textbooks out of date almost by the time they are published. By contrast, many other disciplines focus on consolidating a corpus of knowledge. They teach a canon of standard reference works that changes only at a glacial pace – and despite the vast range of modern progressive thought, economics is a prime culprit (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Citations in and out of disciplines by discipline (Haldane and Turrell, 2017, from data in Van Noorden, 2015)

My journey through progressive research in multiple disciplines has led me to an axiomatic model of community-based economics (see box). This approach, of combining formality with openness in the search for practical remedies to systemic social issues, is what global society needs.

The further you look, the more gaps you will find in your thinking but gaps are not threatening; they are opportunities to create positive change.

Any academic who agrees will see the need for a broad-based approach to literature review and peer review. And they will wish to reposition their outputs. To do this takes not only hard work but also confidence. The further you look, the more gaps you will find in your thinking but gaps are not threatening; they are opportunities to create positive change. Now that global society faces existential threats at multiple levels, arguably, all academics need to think in this way. Research topics must seek to make real positive impacts on society. Research methods must include collaborative structures – for which formal collaboration theory may well be a critical enabler.

Only in this way can academics pull their weight. Societal challenges are generally systemic, and therefore wide-ranging in their causes and consequences. A pandemic is not just a biological issue. It is technological, sociological, financial, economic, political, historical, anthropological, artistic, and more. The same applies to financial inequality, political extremism, climate change, anthropocene extinction, tax evasion, mega-crime, cyber-terrorism, and other modern threats to global wellbeing.

Crises are cross-disciplinary. Researchers that position themselves within a self-contained field of study, and the teachers who defend those boundaries, can do little to contribute to the solutions we need.

The Supercommunities model for community-based economics
In the late 1980s I was researching a mathematical model for project management. I came to believe that unlocking the true nature of collaboration would offer a way to remove the friction from societal processes of all kinds. This in turn would remove the systemic barriers that prevent new modes of operation from entering the mainstream. Three decades of further research showed that formal collaboration theory on its own wasn’t enough.

From work with the NHS on disseminating innovations, I saw how wellness initiatives that included holistic care from the community led to a step change in patient outcomes. I learned of techniques devised by positive psychologists and approaches emerging from progressive economics that could create replicable mechanisms for them. I did action research on the viability of applying these ideas to wellness in deprived inner cities, which showed how it was also necessary to divert capital flows from equity and bond markets into social enterprise, for which a new stakeholder model is necessary. None of this will work unless communities face up to 21st century realities, by taking ownership of their data, learning from it in order to create positive change, and using it thoughtfully to establish the necessary trust relationships.

My new book, “Supercommunities” (2021), builds on these ideas to set out a methodology that integrates socio-economic and socio-political ideas into a comprehensive, formal response to global challenges. Supercommunities is a new social operating model in which governments and corporations look beyond their current ways of working to transform themselves into enablers of collaborative, supportive communities – hyper-local, hyper-connected, hyper-aware networks in which people work together to create economies that are not only sustainable but also caring.

In order for such a wide variety of organisations to interact effectively across boundaries, they will need more than a general understanding of collaboration principles. Capitals and assets must be identified, maintained, and improved. Prevention of illness must be distinguished from promotion of wellness, and the latter made fully holistic through the incubation of community initiatives that draw from best practice examples worldwide. Social enterprises must tap into global capital markets. Open-source technology must be deployed to create digital hubs for delivery of community services, which automatically capture and maintain data on capitals, assets, wellness issues, and financial flows.

A supercommunity evolves from within to meet new challenges in times of crisis. It removes friction from collaboration so that local people become stakeholders and local organisations work together effectively. Today, a tiny fraction of global investment is into social impact. Supercommunities offers investors worldwide the chance to unlock the true potential of finance by becoming stakeholders in good things.

Keith Harrison-Broninski

Keith is an author, speaker, and technology/business consultant specialising in collaboration across organisational boundaries as well as social technology for wellness, community, and finance. Keith’s first book was “Human Interactions”, …

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2 Comments on “Cross or nought”

  1. A fascinating article, Keith. I absolutely agree re. cross-disciplinary approaches are often so difficult to promote (a reflection of the impact of our deeply atomised world/society) and your reflections on how the pandemic is ‘unveiling’ these issues in a stark way.

    Did you happen to read John Harris’ article in the Guardian earlier this year entitled ‘How do the faithless live in a pandemic?’?

    In your book, which I valued reading, you write clearly about the impact your Jewish roots have upon your understanding of community which heartened me. Rare is the moment in these post-modern days when ‘experts’ acknowledge the significance of their faith in shaping their thinking and offer any thoughts on what I believe is one of the most damaging issues facing society today – the ever-widening ‘sacred/secular divide’.

    I believe the Church has much to answer for when we look at how this has developed and it is an important issue to address. For a number of reasons Frome is the ideal place to address this difficult and often contentious problem, especially ‘at a time such as this’.

    My interest and involvement with Active and In Touch, coupled with what is unfolding around us, has further awakened my awareness of how important it is that we address the problem. Any possibility of a cup of tea/coffee or something stronger sometime? I live near the station in Frome, will happily come wherever suits you.

    Thank you for what you’re dong.

    1. Hi John

      Thanks for this thoughtful comment.

      It was interesting to read in John Harris’ article how European Jews dealt with the Black Death, which for them included not only infection but also persecution, by thinking in terms of community and rebirth. Jews have learned a lot about how to deal with distress, including the power of ritual to heal and bind. Reading the Kaddish was a help to me at my father’s funeral, as was re-learning enough Hebrew to do so. The words have an ancient rhythm that connects all those present to those who have come before.

      I agree wholeheartedly with you that religious institutions have a responsibility to ensure ritual is available to communities when needed. This means ensuring that ritual is for people (not the other way around) as well as moving with the times. All branches of Judaism stress that observance should always be dropped if there might be a negative health impact. The Reform Jewish tradition has treated boys and girls equally for over a hundred years. Lionel Blue, the most popular rabbi of modern times, is openly gay.

      By contrast, the Church of England’s current LGBTQ+ policy is divisive. And pointless – it was inevitable that popular pressure would force Justin Welby and others to change their stance. Not showing true leadership on this from the start was a missed opportunity. When Welby visited Frome, he had the support of the packed hall until asked how he would deal with a vicar who blessed a gay marriage. On replying that he would have to discipline them, he lost the room.

      There are many examples of religious communities that adopt such approaches, of course. I often cite Jehovah’s Witnesses as an example of a community whose fear of losing members creates a vicious circle of repression. But we need also to remember that in the middle ages the Ottoman Empire was a beacon of enlightened liberalism, encouraging discussions between thinkers from all persuasions, whilst the Catholic Church was obsessing about witches and burning people alive. There is nothing intrinsic in any religion that determines its tolerance. Its religious leaders who do so, and it’s them we need to hold to account.

      I look forward to catching up in Frome after lockdown is finally over!
      Best wishes, Keith

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