May you live in interesting times.
It’s said to be a curse but perhaps it’s a blessing, though an uncomfortable one to be sure.
I like to think that problems are opportunities and that the challenges we face today represent the necessity from which our best inventions will be born tomorrow. I want to believe that when convention fails, invention prevails.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve reached the point where I no longer believe the old formulas will work anymore. I think we need new thinking. I think it’s time we all started crawling out from under our rocks and up from our silos and started looking around a bit to see who else is out there and how we can work together to get something done.
I think it is precisely in interesting times like these that we begin to seek out interdisciplinary solutions. What we need are more Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, more unexpected combinations that turn out wholes greater than the sum of their parts.
For example, 12 years ago, 17 people came together to try to figure out a better way to make computer software. They didn’t go in agreeing on much except that the different things they were doing weren’t working very well. But out of this unusual combination of people and ideas came the Agile Manifesto and all of a sudden something called the Agile method of software development was loosed upon the world.
Why did Agile pop up when it did? Because the software industry was in crisis. Projects weren’t getting completed. Budgets were busting left and right and balance sheets were burning down from black to red as some of the largest and previously most stable technology companies in the world—DEC, Wang, Prime and others literally programmed themselves into bankruptcy.
Then Agile came along and things got a little better. Twelve years later, things in the software world are getting better still.
We still face challenges in other domains.
The domain I work in is education. But I’ve spent some time in tech, too. Most recently, I worked as an Agile Product Owner on The Gates Foundation’s Shared Learning Infrastructure project, one of the largest education data platforms ever created.
Just prior to this, I began to think about how Agile ideas could be applied to solving problems in K-12 schools. I wrote an article about it and gave talks to techs at Yahoo and Google.
Two years later, I’m still writing and talking about Agile Schools. But more people are talking to me now, too. In fact, with each month that goes by, some person, some organization, or some conference organizer reaches out to me and expresses their interest in this idea or tells me that they’ve been thinking and doing the very same thing.
So we’re all having this interdisciplinary Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup experience. And I’m starting to think we might be on to something big beyond education.
We need more of this. We need more Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, more interdisciplinary cooperation, more multi-industry mash-ups. But we can’t just wait around for few millennia for an apple to fall from a tree so some English guy can figure out how gravity works. We must begin smashing chocolate and peanut butter together with regularity and intention.
The folks at IntraHealth International in Chapel Hill get this. That why they developed SwitchPoint, a conference that brings together people from different disciplines—tech/biotech, activism, arts and health—to brainstorm silo-busting solutions to pressing problems in global health and development. More than 350 people will gather on April 19th and 20th at the Haw River Ballroom in Saxapahaw to inspire and innovate regardless of industry, geographic or other boundaries.
Check out some of the unconventional collaborations featured at SwitchPoint: Music-makers collaborating with health educators to share information about preventing unnecessary malaria deaths (Durham’s Beat Making Labs). Scientists using 3-D printing technology to create organ tissue (Wake Forest University’s Anthony Atala). Problem-solvers using open source mobile technology to help 30 organizations improve health services in more than 15 countries (Medic Mobile).
If we live in interesting times, we need to think interesting thoughts and do interesting things, things we wouldn’t normally do like try to smash a software methodology into public education or 3d printing into tissue and organ generation.
If we want to change the world, we better start getting the people with the peanut butter to talk to the people with the chocolate. We better start getting software engineers to talk to teachers. We better start gettinginnovators to talk to humanitarians. We better start getting our chocolate in other people’s peanut butter.
What we really better start finding is more of these switchpoints, these unimaginable combinations that send us in new directions just like railway switchpoints send locomotives speeding off on a new track.
We live in interesting times. I think it’s time to flip the switch and see where the train of human ingenuity takes us.