About ten years ago I gave a talk at a meeting of the Max Planck Society on how IBM Research works, how we organize and measure ourselves, how we pick research topics to work on. I closed the talk by stating that much of the future of research would be in combining many skills and work in interdisciplinary teams. When I look at how we work today, I have to admit this vision did not yet fully materialize.
When I look though at the big challenges mankind faces, be it dealing with climate change, with resources becoming scarcer, feeding the quickly growing population of our planet, dealing with a quickly ageing society and its healthcare challenges, having enough energy available to allow us to live the way we have become accustomed to, I find that the only way to approach any one of these very interrelated challenges lies in the collaboration of engineers and scientists of many different professions.
Take for example, a project the Zurich lab is involved in called EDISON. Here we work with partners, including DONG Energy, Oestkraft, Technical University of Denmark, Siemens, Eurisco and the Danish Energy Association to develop an intelligent infrastructure that will make possible the large scale adoption of electric vehicles powered by sustainable energy. The concept is simple, when less wind power is available (either because Mother Nature isn’t producing any or a storm causing disconnects), vehicle charging is automatically adjusted down to the available amount of green energy – and in the extreme case they plug back-in, but instead of charging, the vehicles give energy back to the grid – creating a balance of supply with demand. (video)
In this project we have electrical engineers, computer scientists, economists, and applied mathematicians collaborating to find a solution anywhere from a viable business model down to knowing how much a car’s battery can be discharged without the driver/user/owner being adversely impacted.
Clearly no single discipline could solve this challenge alone, yet it appears extremely difficult to assemble world-class teams to work on these problems. There are concerns that the work is too applied, it is too focused on solving a particular problem, cannot be generalized enough and – there are no conferences where the results of the work could be presented.
While I understand all these concerns, I believe as scientists and engineers we have the obligation to demonstrate that interdisciplinary work is where we can have the most impact on our society and the planet itself.
I wonder what you think the inhibitors are and how we can overcome these to apply ourselves to what really matters for our and our children’s future?