Designing the Future: The Role of Deliberate Diversity

Cornell_logo2-1s7ocw0I’ve just returned from a Cornell University class reunion that reminded me of several very important principles that have guided most of my work and my life since I was an undergraduate there fifty years ago.

Today I want to share one of many important insights that emerged out of three days of lectures, conversations, meals, and other on-campus experiences that are better left unmentioned. I have a deep and renewed appreciation that I am who I am today because of my seven years as a Cornell undergraduate and graduate student.

Cornell University is an unusual – and remarkably diverse – institution.

Cornell was founded in 1865 (shortly after the end of the Civil War) when Ezra Cornell created the campus by donating his farmland on the hills above Ithaca, New York, and bringing to life his vision of “an institution where any person could find instruction in any study.” That was a radical idea at the time, and it revolutionized higher education. Most existing colleges and universities were focused almost exclusively on educating preachers, teachers, and doctors.

In contrast, Cornell University was created to apply knowledge and improve the lives of ordinary people. Today it has fourteen separate colleges, schools, and cross-disciplinary programs. Their identities highlight the diversity that make Cornell unique:  Arts and Sciences; Architecture, Art, and Planning; Engineering, Industrial and Labor Relations; Human Ecology, Hotel Administration, Agriculture and Life Sciences, and the graduate schools of Management, Law, Medicine, and Veterinary Medicine.

Two years after its founding Cornell accepted its first African-American student, and the year after that its first women. Today over 50% of its undergraduate students are women, and the student body includes every minority group you can imagine, as well as students from all over the world.

But what makes Cornell so special isn’t just its student diversity and its wide range of course offerings; in my mind it’s the way the students and faculty interact, intersect, and collaborate,  using the knowledge they are creating to solve real-world problems.

As a case in point, consider the Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future. The Atkinson Center is not a separate school or department; rather it is a node in a network that connects people and ideas from across those Screen Shot 2015-06-08 at 3.00.15 PMeleven separate colleges to create programs, initiatives, and projects that address real-world problems and opportunities.

The Center’s vision is simple but noble and profound:

To create a world in which people can meet their needs and pursue their dreams without compromising the ability of future generations to do the same.”

We learned about the Center from Dr. Frank DiSalvo, its Director and a professor of physical science. The leadership team also includes three faculty associate directors who bring expertise in energy, the environment, and economic development. And the Center has 426 faculty fellows from every nook and cranny of the university.

But, again, the Center’s programs are not independent silos; rather they represent many areas of expertise that are made mutually more effective by their intersections and interactions.

Dr. DiSalvo described one of the center’s most successful initiatives – a series of bimonthly lunches that bring the faculty fellows and other specialists together around areas of common interest. But what makes these lunch conversations so remarkable is that, almost without exception, they attract people the center didn’t even know existed.

Dr. DiSalvo commented that often when the center hosts one of those lunch gatherings on a seemingly obscure topic he worries that only a few people will show up. But invariably 20-25 people will appear, engage with the luncheon host, and frequently end up forming project teams to turn the ideas they’ve generated into reality – ideas derived from conversations among people who otherwise might never have met, let alone connected around important opportunities for enhancing the future.

In a sense the Atkinson Center is like an incubator or an angel investor; it creates opportunities for collaboration and then nurtures the resulting ideas until they can become self-sustaining.

The Atkinson Center is a perfect example of what sociologist Donald Campbell called the “fish-scale” model of omniscience, first described in a chapter in the 1969 book Interdisciplinary Relationships in the Social Sciences (Aldine Publishing, Chicago). It also reminded me of a more recent book by Frans Johanson, The Medici Effect: Breakthrough Insights at the Intersection of Ideas, Concepts, and Cultures (Harvard Business Review Press, 2014).

The core idea in both books is that innovations occur most frequently on the fringes of a discipline, at the boundaries between bodies of knowledge (the edges of those overlapping fish scales), and through conversations that connect people with widely differing backgrounds and experiences.

And it takes a forward-thinking institution like Cornell to enable these cross-disciplinary conversations filled with breakthrough thinking and then to grow those ideas into meaningful products and processes that enhance the human experience.

Contact me for a free consultation about how you can generate cross-disciplinary conversations within your own organization. And ask me about how you can join my ongoing monthly “Talking About Tomorrow” open conversation series.