world from space with lights connecting across countries
PHOTO: NASA

“Instinctive cooperativeness is the very hallmark of humanity and what sets us apart from other animals,” Matt Ridley wrote in "The Origins of Virtue." However, he also stated that, “It is a rule of evolution to which we are far from immune that the more cooperative societies are, the more violent the battles between them.”

Tightly knit communities are a wonderful thing unless you are an outsider. Some of the most destructive forces in history have been large, highly cooperative groups. The challenge today is how do we collaborate with those who we do not readily recognize as being part of our group.

The world has never been more interconnected. It is impossible for a country to achieve a decent standard of living if it doesn’t import and export. And it’s not just goods and services. It’s ideas and learning as well.

Progress is a multicultural, multidisciplinary collaborative sport. In 1900, the average number of authors per scientific paper was about one. By 2010, it was more than five. “Over the past five years, the number of papers in the Nature Index with more than a thousand authors has surged from zero to a hundred,” Nature wrote in 2018.

It’s not simply about quantity. A study by the UK Royal Society found that international collaboration led to better science that had a positive impact on societies and economies. Numerous studies show that scientific papers based on international collaboration are likely to be cited up to twice as often as those from a single country. “One in four scientific articles produced around the world were cosigned by a foreign collaborator in 2014, compared to one in five a decade earlier,” stated a UNESCO report.

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Differing Perspectives Necesary

It’s not simply about multi-country collaboration. Scientific discovery “increasingly requires the expertise of individuals with different perspectives — from different disciplines and often from different nations — working together to accommodate the extraordinary complexity of today’s science and engineering challenges,” the US National Science Foundation stated in 2006.

The greater the rate of change and the greater the increase in complexity, the greater the need for multidisciplinary, multicultural collaboration. Individuals and single discipline / cultural groups tend to think in like-minded, conventional ways. Novelty and innovation are more likely to be produced by the combining ideas and cultures.

Our greatest challenges today are how to create systems and structures that nurture and reward such diverse collaborative efforts. Old minds want to build walls. New minds want to build bridges. The objective is not to destroy the silos but rather to bridge and connect them so that they can actively interact and germinate new ideas.

Scientists are not by nature the most sociable, but they have found that if they want to actually solve complex problems, they must collaborate widely. It is no surprise that the rise in scientific collaboration maps almost exactly with the rise of the Web.

Never in human history has there been a multidisciplinary, multicultural tool like the web. Let’s use the web to connect outside our peer groups and comfort zones, because it is out there at the messy edges where the greatest fount of innovation and creativity lies.