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geoffrey west on the value of free thinking

Connecting Maverick Minds


he Santa Fe Institute is both a rare bird and an odd duck: a research community without formal programs or departments, whose itinerant faculty of scientists and researchers engage in collaborative and wildly multidisciplinary work at the frontiers of neuroscience, network dynamics, complexity theory, and other elds. Though SFI research is open-ended and, by design, often less practical than theoretical, dozens of major corporations, from Procter & Gamble and State Farm Insurance to eBay and Cisco Systems pay $35,000 a year for the privilege of listening in on the conversation. HBR spoke with SFI president Geoffrey West about why such free thinking matters. Some people would say that the state of innovation is ne just look at the iPod, Google, and hybrid cars. Why do you think theres a problem? When you talk about innovation, you have to distinguish between the invention of some new widget and innovation on a very big scale, which is what were interested in at SFI. Looking at the great paradigm-shifting innovations that came out of American industry after World War II, things like the transistor and the laser, you realize that the driving force that gave rise to them was the enormously free innovation environment that places like Bell Labs fostered. This brought together serious scientists physicists, engineers, mathematicians from across disciplines and created a culture of free thinking without which its hard to imagine these ideas could have come about. SFI was founded more than 20 years ago in response to the suppression of that spirit which has long been the trend in academia and to the stiing of the free-thinking, risk-taking mavericks, people who have a broad view of their work and see how it ts into the big picture. Tenure and grant decisions are made with very narrow criteria in mind. And academic disciplines are divided into subdisciplines whose practitioners dont communicate. In the past few decades, corporations have generally followed this same path as they have focused on tightening business practices and improving efciency. That may be ne in the accounting department and for the generic structure of the organization, but its squeezing the life out of innovation. Your own research is on scaling laws in biology. Why would businesses be interested in that? Were nding that the equations for the growth of biological organisms like the relationship between their mass and their energy use look similar to the equations for the growth of a corporation or a city. In organisms, there are clear limits to growth. There are good reasons why there arent creatures bigger than a whale or a sequoia. Were wondering if there might be fundamental laws that constrain the growth of social organizations regardless of what they do. This is a work in progress, but its a topic that business, I should think, would be interested in. Our research group, by the way, is deeply multidisciplinary. Im a physicist, but Ive evolved into something like a biologist. And we have another biologist, two economists, a geographer, and an anthropologist. I dont think we could do this research without such a diverse group. gardiner morse Reprint F0603D Why should companies pay attention to organizations like yours? Im not saying that highly focused research labs cant create great innovations. Obviously they can. Probably 95% of research ought to be done in this conventional way. But my fear is that by eliminating that 5% reserved for the mavericks, we hobble our ability to discover the big, new ideas the next transistor. Thats a serious and tragic error. Though most businesses seem to have blinders on about this, there are companies that sense the danger in taking this narrow focus, and thats one of the reasons they come to SFI. Our business network has more than 55 member organizations that send people to our events to hear about whats on the cutting edge, interact with other businesses, and engage in the culture of open inquiry. Many of them tell us that their visits here stimulate ideas that they can take back to their companies. InnoCentive, Eli Lillys online brokerage that connects companies that have questions with chemists who can answer them, was inspired by network research at SFI. And Koichi Nishimura, the retired CEO of Solectron whos now on our board, told me that a talk on ant foraging he heard at SFI helped him think about ways to improve the companys distribution networks.

march 2006

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