If only there were more workplaces structured like SFI. Similar to Building 20 at MIT, the structure encourages ‘haphazard’ interactions between people from different disciplines. These interactions appear to be a strong predictor of new ideas or conceptual breakthroughs due to the mountain of innovations coming from this type of interactive environment. We know little about the subconscious mind however it appears to be that when it is fed from the multiple ‘orthogonal’ perspectives available the result of the background processing is stunning.
Polymaths obviously thrive in such an environment therefore we can assume it should be a great training ground for developing the skills to become more polymathic. Finding the right balance between immersion and education would be critical to make sure the student has the right tools to engage in discussion well outside their domain yet is still off-balance enough to be forced to adapt.
Yet while Goldstein and McCarthy aren’t consciously trying to analyze topics as novelists, their perspective sometimes supplies a way of thinking that’s unusual among scientists. Bettencourt gave an example to describe the benefit of interaction with a novelist. “I was just talking with Cormac on crime in Mexico. It’s relatively well measured, but the motives are fluid and complicated. We were talking about organized crime, which involves many factors. You have to understand demographics, corruption, the police, the tolerance of people for violence, and to some extent part of the challenge is knowing the dirt, the visceral, the unquantifiable and messy aspects. Novelists tend to have a different view than physicists, who are always trying to abstract things away.” He continues, “The design here is to have an intellectually interesting place. And the payoff often doesn’t come immediately. But it’s impossible to do what we do without an environment so rich and diverse and haphazard.
The Daily Beast – Cormac McCarthy on the Santa Fe Institute’s Brainy Halls
The reference to Building 20 at MIT comes from this article on brainstorming in the New Yorker. The point of the article is spot on with its assessment of the failure of brainstorming. Criticism inspires adaptation and exploration to mitigate the obstacle. Without criticism people engaged in ideation have no yardstick to compare their progress against.
The New Yorker – Groupthink: The Brainstorming Myth