Neil Seeman is an author, Internet entrepreneur and researcher. He is the author of Accelerated Minds: Unlocking the Fascinating, Inspiring, and Often Destructive Impulses that Drive the Entrepreneurial Brain.
Academia is where hyper-specialists, or “moles,” tend to thrive. Moles are animals that burrow deep in one specific hole for most of their lives.
But universities have tended to ignore the opposite of moles: the “mutts,” animals of mixed background, who sniff around a wide swath of territory and accumulate working knowledge in many disparate fields. Mutts imagine the universe as vast and ever evolving, requiring a wide angle view rather than one-track expertise.
With respect to the mole/mutt dichotomy, industry has generally leapt ahead of academia. Today’s rising industrial stars have realized that moles need mutts. The requisite alignment is evident in technology; we see it currently in AI and biotechnology, and in a range of fast-growing sectors.
So what can be done to make Canadian higher-education institutions see the value of mutts?
We continue to face an acute talent shortage in the multidisciplinary industries where we have the highest demand for workers: information technology and health care. And it’s not just about coders and doctors; AI, for example, demands interdisciplinary talents, including linguistics, ethics, math and computer science.
Meanwhile, the Information and Communications Technology Council has forecast that, by 2025, Canada will need 129,000 skilled workers in digital health and biotechnology, with training in data analysis, biostatistics, machine learning and information visualization.
The Globe and Mail’s 2022 list of Canada’s fastest-growing companies suggests that company leaders whose firms rank highly are more multidisciplinary than mole-like in their careers.
The founder of top-ranked Orion Construction Ltd. of Langley, B.C., Joshua Gagliardi, studied economics at UBC prior to a career in construction.
The president of second-ranked Power Staffing Solutions, a staffing and recruiting agency for IT and health care, is Saye Sathiyakumar, who studied graphic communications management at Toronto Metropolitan University.
Rebecca Kacaba, chief executive officer and co-founder of third-ranked DealMaker, a tech platform enabling firms to raise capital, pursued a degree in psychology at Western, followed by law at the University of Windsor. She rose to partner at an international law firm before starting DealMaker.
This success of mutts in industry puts a harsh spotlight on how they are neglected in academia.
Some surging business sectors, such as the Canadian video game industry, prize multidisciplinary people variously skilled in visual aesthetics, fiction and programming.
But among the top 50 undergraduate game design programs ranked by The Princeton Review, just two are Canadian: the Vancouver Film School and LaSalle College Vancouver. Many of the U.S. programs on the top-50 international list are now housed at that country’s top research universities, such as MIT and NYU, offering interdisciplinary scholarship and entrepreneurship training.
For innovation to blossom, we need to cultivate what some observers such as Marion Thain of King’s College London have called “radical interdisciplinarity” to redress the large societal post-pandemic problems we face, from social inequities to distressed health care to urban blight.
So let’s change the incentives. Imagine if interdisciplinarity were rewarded economically in the workplace. Publishing patents and academic papers that bridge disciplines could be a new path to the tenure track, more so than the number of scholarly papers in high-impact journals. CEOs of tech firms could award bonuses for new product launches that draw on inspiration from non-technical fields.
We can learn from Oxford University’s program in philosophy, politics and economics. Employers across the world readily recruit from the PPE program since its graduates are “Renaissance scholars,” an old term for mutts. And the PPE degree remains today among the most sought after by Oxford students, with a more competitive admissions rate than computer science or medicine.
Mutts are everywhere among us. But the biggest impediment to their ascendance in Canada’s work force is that moles, on the whole, don’t understand them.
My colleague, Diane Finegood, a specialist in systems thinking at the Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue at Simon Fraser University, explains that mutts can be perplexing to moles. Moles see the future as linear. Mutts see the future as an Einstein shape, aperiodic, containing infinite possibility.
Linear or aperiodic, for Canadian innovation to flourish, moles need to work together with mutts.