The value of  trans-disciplinary work has been demonstrated in a number of areas, proving its capacity for driving innovation. In fact, one good definition of “creativity” is simply putting together two or more things that would ordinarily remain apart. Numerous academic centers are explicitly inter- or trans-disciplinary. Stanford, for example, is attempting to incentivize such research with a dedicated grant program; Bio-X (interdisciplinary research related to biology and medicine, including engineering, computer science, physics, chemistry, and other fields); and the d.school (for multidisciplinary innovation); note that normal academic incentives and pressures serve to compartmentalize disciplines into hyperspecialized silos. While SFIP is in the vanguard of applying trans-disciplinary techniques to practical problem solving, it is certainly not alone.

Several recent and unusual pairings bring this idea, and the general necessity of cross-sector collaboration, into sharp relief. Especially within the context of the massive and urgent changes that must be accomplished on a global scale, we may all have to learn to work with the unexpected (and even “unsuitable”) partner in order to get the job done.

For example, the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Pew Project on National Security, Energy and Climate recently published Renergizing America’s Defense, which “…details steps the armed forces are taking to address their energy use and carbon emissions. Energy, the environment, the economy and security are inextricably linked. That is why the Department of Defense and the military services are stepping forward not only to understand these challenges, but also to demonstrate leadership in responding to them.  As the largest government user of energy, the department has a keen appreciation of the ways energy innovation can enhance operational effectiveness, bolster national competitiveness and increase energy security, all while saving lives and money and reducing the U.S. carbon boot print.”

The military has also been engaged by The Nature Conservancy via their land conservation partnership with the Department of Defense, stating that “…more threatened and endangered species live on military bases across the United States than on land managed by the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, Fish and Wildlife Service or the Park Service…. the development that is creeping up on  military installations around the country threatens both military training activities and species. That’s why The Nature Conservancy is creating partnerships with the U.S. Department of Defense to conserve hundreds of thousands of acres of these important habitats while also ensuring military preparedness. The Conservancy is working with the DOD at more than two dozen bases across the country to create protected buffer zones.”

Management Consulting stalwart Booz Allen Hamilton published a book some time ago that has only gained in relevance since. In Megacommunities: How Leaders of Government, Business and Non-Profits Can Tackle Today’s Global Challenges Together, “Experts show how leaders in business, government, and civil society can reach across national and sector divisions, forming collaborative “megacommunities” that are directed toward a common goal.

Megacommunities book cover art“A hurricane strikes a city; global warming threatens the environment; and a disease resists a cure—such problems are too large for any one authority to solve alone. Our increasingly globalized and interconnected world calls for a new type of tri-sector leadership in which business, government and nonprofits work together in a state of permanent negotiation. To be effective, tomorrow’s leaders will need to reach across national and sector divisions to form a collaborative ‘megacommunity.’ “

Finally, it’s cool to read that insurance giant Swiss Re and leading NGO Oxfam America have launched a joint risk micro-finance management initiative for farmers in Ethiopia: “The collaboration is aimed at helping communities most vulnerable to climate variability and change. The project focuses on an innovative pilot project to introduce weather insurance for a staple cereal crop in the village of Adi Ha, Tigray Regional State, Ethiopia. Drought-related risks are a primary concern throughout Ethiopia where 85% of the population is dependent on smallholder, rain-fed agriculture. The pilot will adopt a holistic approach to risk management, examining the suitability of weather insurance and risk reduction measures such as seasonal forecasting and improved agricultural practices. The efforts will be funded by Swiss Re and Oxfam America, with primary technical support being provided by the International Research Institute for Climate and Society at Columbia University.”

We’ll be seeing more of these unlikely partnerships, and we’ll need even more. Find the least likely collaborator you can think of, and take them out to lunch.  You never know when you’ll find yourself in bed with a stranger…