The Fox of Many Hats and a One-Racoon Band Illustrations by nik harron.

This is part three of our Skills for the New Economy series. Read part one, introducing "eco-polymaths," and two, on "muses for the movement," for the full picture.

“It took an ex-physicist – Francis Crick – and a former ornithology student – James Watson – to crack the secret of life. They shared a certain wanderlust; an indifference to boundaries.” – Robert Wright

In the years following the Renaissance, knowledge expanded; it was a golden age of productive creativity. Information grew exponentially, and specialized knowledge and skill areas also increased. Moving from multi-disciplinary bastions where polymaths could study a variety of subjects, universities splintered into silos of specialized faculties. As organizational structures became compartmentalized, thinking became compartmentalized. Over the same time period, the planet’s ecological issues grew and became acute; humanitarian problems took on enormous proportions with a burgeoning global population.

Innovation theorists say that governments, corporations and citizens need to be more balanced – right- and left-brained, integrative – in order to truly address the problems we face today. Canadian business philosopher Roger Martin writes that successful people use integrative thinking to creatively resolve the tension in opposing models and form entirely new and better ones. Martin argues that integrative thinking has always been an advantage, but is especially so in our modern era of overwhelming information and complexity. The predisposition to consider a plurality of models holistically when fashioning hypotheses is a dominant trait in innovators.

James Orbinski is a pioneering integrative thinker. A professor of medicine at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto, in 2012 he became the Research Chair in Global Health at the Balsillie School of International Affairs in Waterloo, where he leads research on global health and climate change.

A modern Renaissance man, Orbinski is a doctor, humanitarian activist, academic and writer. He has a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Trent University (1984), an MD from McMaster University (1990) and a master’s degree in International Relations from the University of Toronto (1998). His extensive field experience in South America, Central Asia and Africa, with Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF; Doctors Without Borders) resulted in leadership positions with MSF in Rwanda during the 1994 genocide, and in Zaire during the refugee crisis in 1996-97.

The speech Orbinski gave when accepting the 1999 Nobel Peace Prize for MSF as its then-president is humbling. His courageous work with MSF in Africa inspired the movie Triage (2008), which featured at the Sundance Film Festival. Orbinski also wrote about his experience in the book An Imperfect Offering: Humanitarian Action for the Twenty-First Century (2009). The global recognition he has received for his humanitarian efforts is too extensive to tally.

The hard reality of climate change points directly to the need to address health outcomes and political conflict jointly with environmental concerns.
– James Orbinski

Orbinski has never gone for small challenges. These days, he is wrestling the two biggest issues of our time, at once: global health and climate change. “Climate change is the single most important factor affecting global health in the 21st century,” states Orbinski. “The impact of climate change in terms of health is massive and unequivocal.”

Orbinski has decades of experience providing medical assistance to the developing world in the face of war, famine, disease, and socio-political crisis. “In my own lived experience,” he notes, “famine has created the most profound effects of anything I’ve witnessed.” Orbinski continues, solemnly: “In 2011, there was a massive famine in east Africa that was directly caused by climate change. For me, the hard reality of climate change points directly to the need to address health outcomes and political conflict jointly with environmental concerns.”

Orbinski is leading the health perspective in the United Nation’s Environment Program (UNEP) interdisciplinary work to develop early warning systems for major climate change induced extreme weather events. Working with meteorologists, agronomists, climate modelers, sociologists and political scientists, he is a firm believer in the benefits introduced through a holistic view. “If you don’t look at the problem from different disciplinary perspectives, the solution will be incomplete.”

Photo: Losing Myself (2009, Toronto) Derek Shanks
Losing Myself (2009, Toronto) Derek Shanks

Engineering change

Tim Kruger spends his days looking at environmental problems through the lenses of various disciplines. He runs the Geoengineering Programme at the University of Oxford, where he is responsible for the coordination of interdisciplinary research applications in the area of geoengineering and the governance mechanisms required to ensure that any research in this field is undertaken in a responsible way. Because we may not be able to reduce emissions sufficiently to avoid catastrophic climate change, geoengineering tools are being explored to deliberately manipulate environmental processes, counteracting the effects of global warming, ocean acidification and drought, among other disastrous scenarios.

Funded by the Oxford Martin School, the program is multidisciplinary by design. “We are looking at a broad range of proposed techniques,” explains Kruger. “From using aerosols in the atmosphere to reflect sunlight back into space, to making clouds brighter, to physically removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and oceans."

Working in an interdisciplinary fashion requires a lot of patience. You need to act as an interpreter between disciplines.
– Tim Kruger

Kruger is one of the authors of the Oxford Principles (2009), a set of governance principles guiding geoengineering research. “Working in an interdisciplinary fashion requires a lot of patience,” admits Kruger. “You need to act as an interpreter between disciplines. In the morning I might be talking to a philosopher about the ethics of a proposal, and later talking to an engineer about thermodynamics principles. I don’t have a depth of knowledge as they do but I am able to bring them together, to help them understand each other’s perspectives.”

Even though Kruger has pioneered a potential geoengineering technique himself, he insists he is a generalist, not an expert. A graduate of the sciences at Cambridge University in 1994, he ran a startup in Nepal with his Canadian wife for seven years. He returned home to England in 2001, where he worked as an innovation manager at Shell in London. The experience of working for an energy and petrochemicals company turned his focus to climate change, and how to mitigate its effects through geoengineering.

Kruger’s geoengineering proposal involves the addition of alkalinity to the ocean to enhance its capacity to act as a carbon sink, counteracting the effects of ocean acidification. You can better understand the mechanism he proposes by watching this animated clip. Oceans have seen a dramatic increase in acidification since the Industrial Revolution, resulting in negative alterations to marine ecosystems, and the disappearance of a known buffer to global carbon dioxide absorption (the oceans have been absorbing a disproportionate share of atmospheric carbon dioxide for the past century). Kruger’s geoengineering technique and work at Oxford Martin have been cited in Nature, Science and The Economist.

What is left now, are those problems which are not amenable to being solved by a single disciplinary approach.
– Tim Kruger

Climate change presents systems problems, which involve multiple, complex mechanisms. “What is left now, are those problems which are not amenable to being solved by a single disciplinary approach,” concludes Kruger. “The problems that we are now facing are the ones that require a multidisciplinary approach.”

Who better than an eco-polymath to innovate approaches that require general knowledge of multiple environmental disciplines?

Long-standing subject areas have provided us with a variety of useful frameworks that innovators like Orbinski and Kruger can use to push traditional boundaries, giving rise to original lines of inquiry. “Interdisciplinary work demands that a problem be addressed in all of its dimensions,” concludes Orbinski. “Ultimately, what’s needed is an open mindedness to new ways of understanding.” Somewhere, in new dimensions of innovative research, we will find the tools needed to regain a healthy, integrative balance on our planet.

Natasha Milijasevic is a Toronto-based management consultant whose practice focuses on projects, processes, data, and how organizations can measure these to improve their social impact.  Her past research and publications span group psychology to business strategy.  

Wife, mother of two and occasionally exhibiting artist, Milijasevic also loves school: she has a BSc, MBA, PhD, and is going back for another one in health care analytics. Her degrees and consulting experience have taught her how to think about complex organizational and technology problems, but the perennials and butterflies in her garden help her to stop thinking about them.  

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