Innovation Without Borders

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How cross-disciplinary collaboration has shaped, and continues to accelerate, Oregon’s business sector.

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There is no modern artist more counterfeited than Jackson Pollock. To anyone familiar with the abstract expressionist, it’s easy to see why.

To the untrained eye, Pollock’s work can appear to be random colorful splotches on a canvas. Even to the refined viewer, it can be difficult to determine whether an abstract painting is a genuine Pollock or a forgery.

In 2007 hedge fund manager Pierre Lagrange purchased what he believed to be a genuine Pollock at Knoedler & Co. gallery on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Four years later, after consultation with an expert on the matter, his $17 million purchase turned out to be a fake.

Teri Horton, the famous subject of the documentary “Who the $&% Is Jackson Pollock,” died last month after a lifelong quest to prove a painting she bought at a thrift store was a genuine Jackson Pollock painting.

Being a truck driver with a middle school education, her claim that her painting was a Pollock was initially dismissed. After 25 years of art connoisseurs dismissing her, she met with fingerprint and paint sample authenticators, many of whom expressed certainty the alleged Pollock was genuine.

Horton chose not to sell her painting despite receiving a $9 million offer, however, believing the painting to be worth closer to $50 million.

Her final instructions to her son were: “Sell that damn painting, but don’t you dare give it away.”

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There are certainly experts able to determine whether or not a painting is a authentic Pollock, but they are few and far between. Indeed, Horton and Lagrange could have spared themselves a great deal of anxiety had there been a method of authentication that did not rely on a handful of highly trained experts.

But no such program existed. Not yet anyhow.

That is because the answer to creating a machine able to authenticate a Pollock lies on the border of two different disciplines: art and computer science.

That bordering of two disciplines is exactly what attracted University of Oregon physics professor Richard Taylor to solving the problem. An evangelist of cross-disciplinary collaboration, Taylor designed a program that analyzed a painting’s fractals – geometric shapes with the same statistical characteristics as the whole – to determine whether or not the work was an actual Pollock or a fake.

After initially accepting the offer, Horton elected not to have her painting analyzed by Taylor’s program. Despite Horton’s refusal, Taylor’s invention has been deployed in a number of other Pollock authentication cases. 

Taylor believes collaborating across disciplines, and learning more than one approach to solving problems, is an essential, often under-regarded source of innovation.

As a student, he railed against the education system that tried to force people into disciplinary boxes. He found the restrictions hobbling and left students with an incomplete skillset. He has since become an advocate for cross-disciplinary education.

“Even though we are living in a highly specialized world, where you have to do highly specialized tasks from time to time, being a generalist can better prepare you for [real-world] tasks,” says Taylor. “This idea that you have to be a protégée of something when you’re six years old is not the right thing.”

At the University of Oregon, Taylor is head of the physics department, but he also studies psychology, physiology, geography, architecture and art. Taylor’s interest in multidisciplinary fluency has led him to give TED talks, as well as receive invitations to speak and lecture at the Nobel Foundation, the White House, the Pompidou Centre and Guggenheim Museum.

In Taylor’s experience, the ability to bridge disciplines, as well as the ability to use one area of expertise to inform another, has a long and storied track record of success.

Taylor believes that for the best innovations to happen, you need to have both highly specialized experts in a field, as well as people with minds flexible enough to bridge the divide.

“There is this fear among students that the subject of physics is owned by physicists, but really physics is just one of the languages you need to be able to understand the world,” he says. “We need to loosen the boundaries. A knowledge of physics is just a way for you to understand what you’re interested in.”

Taylor’s classes include “The Physics of Light and Color,” which can help explain physics to visual artists and color theory to physicists. In Taylor’s view, mixing different ways of thinking is what leads to inspiration and great ideas. “It works to identify synergies that catch people’s imaginations on fire,” he says.

His work on the benefits of cross-disciplinary collaboration has already begun to pick up traction. This fall the University of Oregon will open Tykeson Hall, which is intended to target students who come to university to explore what it was they want to do rather than those already locked into an area of study.

Taylor explains the new hall reflects a changing attitude about the role of specialization in students. “There was a time when students who hadn’t declared their major were seen as falling behind, but now it’s seen as a perfectly natural state.”

In Oregon at least, interdisciplinary collaboration is picking up steam at the university level, and there’s reason to believe the business community may even be further ahead.

Angela Jackson is co-managing director of early-stage venture fund the Portland Seed Fund, and has 15 years of experience as a venture capitalist, angel investor, and advisor to a wide range of tech, mobile service, and consumer product startups. She also serves as executive director of the Portland State University Business Accelerator. She has already seen the benefits of cross collaboration in the business sector, and looks for cross-disciplinary teams when deciding where to invest.

“As an investor, we don’t like mono-cultured teams at all,” says Jackson. “We liken it to dog breeding; it’s the mutts that end up being the healthiest. When you’re investing in a startup, you want to have a little mutt in there.” According to Jackson, having a team with different backgrounds leads to an overall innovation boost.

“We have to hear things we don’t agree with to become better thinkers. That goes back to interdisciplinarity,” she says. “Old thinking is that we need engineers and coders, which increasingly is a flawed notion.  A coder who can code is great, but without the ability to understand human need or how decisions happen, they’re not going to solve the next big problem.”

Jackson notes that while cross-discipline collaboration works well on the technical and development side of things, there’s plenty of good that comes from adding other disciplines to the business and marketing sides as well.

“There’s an amazing amount of D-1 athletes (highest level of intercollegiate athletes) who go on to found successful companies. They both involve a high-stakes environment, where a lot is on the line if you win or lose, and if you [lose] you have to be able to pick yourself up and move on. People with a performing arts background too. There’s a ‘the show must go on’ attitude that makes them successful.”

Jackson has plenty of examples of interdisciplinary startups having success, from college athletes who founded Red Duck Foods, a B-Corp-certified condiment company. She pointed to two industrial designers who founded Goodwell, a revolutionary eco-toothbrush line with no background in oral care whatsoever. The team developed a non-electric toothbrush that still vibrates via a biodegradable hand-crank system.

She also mentioned WildFang, a clothing brand which has gender fluidity in its products. The line was founded by a pair of former Nike executives who were envious of the options and variety of the men’s sportswear sections. Jackson also noted plenty of teams without disciplinary diversity fell flat.

While mixing disciplines together at startups may feel fresh to some, at Intel, Oregon’s tech sector powerhouse, cross-disciplinary collaboration is nothing new.

“My original training was as a chemist,” says Dr. Todd Younkin, who serves as executive director of the Joint University Microelectronics Program, or JUMP, an Intel partnership that seeks to deliver smarter electronics through cross-disciplinary collaboration.

Younkin takes a page out of the book of Apple CEO Steve Jobs, whom he sees as a progenitor of cross-disciplinary design in tech products. He cites the development of the touch-screen as a product of collaboration between technology and designers who had awareness of how humans best interact with products.

For him, Intel was an adopter of cross-disciplinary collaboration before it was cool.

“We’ve looked to neuroscientists to help us understand how humans compute,” he says. “We have communications experts. We even have anthropologists to help us understand how different cultures might react differently to the inventions we’re creating.”

Younkin and his company are working alongside biology and biochemistry experts to develop computers that understand DNA sequencing and create a DNA storage database. Younkin believes there will be continuing benefits from cross-disciplinary collaboration within the tech industry, especially in the emerging fields of artificial intelligence.

“It’s going to be a while before we really get machines to be able to reason or to create,” he says. He suggests that to create a chip with real human capacities we might need to involve humans with different ways of thinking.

And how might we create machines with real creative capacities?

“We ask poets how they find inspiration,” says Younkin.