Seeking a culture of serendipity

Searching together

Many of the world’s greatest discoveries appear to be matters of luck. Columbus set out for the Orient, only to find a land and peoples previously unknown to Europeans. Percy Spencer developed the idea for the microwave oven after microwaves from a radar set melted a candy bar he was carrying. Physiologist Robert Richet developed the theory for the study of allergies after observing the effects of sea anemone poison on dogs. Newton developed the theory of gravity as he pondered childhood observations of fruit dropping from trees in his mother’s garden.

Science abounds with such stories. But were these events luck? Louis Pasteur said “Chance favors only the prepared mind.” In reality, Columbus had a plan, funding and organizational talent. Spencer was working in a corporation that nurtured new product ideas. Richet had prepared his mind through countless experiments. Newton was studying forces when he developed the theory of gravity.

Most discoveries are not simple tosses of dice. Curiosity and preparation readied the individuals to convert luck to invention. English Novelist Horace Walpole coined the term serendipity some 160 years ago to describe this type of luck which results from the combination of good fortune and wisdom. Mental preparation, funding, organizational environment, the right colleagues—these are all ingredients of serendipity. Serendipitous discoveries are the outcomes of intellectual curiosity and structured investigation.

Giving luck a helping hand

Recognizing that serendipity is no mere accident, the University of Minnesota’s new five year strategic plan for research, Five Years Forward through Collective Inspiration and Discovery, seeks to create a culture of serendipity.

“Our world’s grand challenges and wicked problems cross many disciplines,” explains the U’s Dr. Brian Herman, vice president for research. “To create solutions, we need to bring together people from many different backgrounds who possess synergistic knowledge that together lead to impactful, comprehensive solutions.”

“Our goal is to try to create an environment at the university where creative conversations can occur in somewhat random and unpredictable ways. That’s what we mean by ‘creating a culture of serendipity.’ We bring together groups of people from different backgrounds and competencies to think about large problems. How do we provide food, health care and shelter for the increase of two billion people over the next thirty years? How can we deal with the increasing disparity in health care among populations? How can we be more energy efficient with less impact on the environment?”

The new research strategic plan is just beginning to roll out, but it aims to position the U to make a difference on society’s most pressing problems. To encourage serendipitous discoveries, the university is involved in discussions across campus about which issues it should tackle and how to best apply its talents. “We’ll determine which challenges we are positioned to help with and then determine how we can bring together diverse minds,” says Herman.

Funding the unexpected discovery

Talk is a starting point, but more concrete efforts are in the works. Funding has already been set aside to promote collaborations across disciplines through the U’s MnDRIVE initiative. Investments have been made in neurosciences, water and energy, food and agriculture, and robotics and advanced manufacturing. “We’ve asked for ideas that integrate these areas. So far we’ve had seventy proposals from faculty and partners.”

It’s too soon to show results, says Herman, “But we’ve already got people talking and working.”

History tells us that fortune favors the prepared mind. It is early yet, and happy accidents are unpredictable. The benefits of a culture of serendipity could pop up tomorrow, or may take years. The Office of the Vice President of Research will be tracking and reporting on telltale signs that the culture of serendipity is beginning to pay dividends. And you’ll be able to read about those signs in upcoming posts here on Inquiry.

Learn more about Five Years Forward, the new strategic plan for research.

Dr. Herman recommends the following resources to explain the role of organizations in nurturing a culture of serendipity:

  • Darbellay, Frédéric et al. “Interdisciplinary Research Boosted by Serendipity,” Creativity Research Journal, Volume 26, Issue 1, 2014.
  • Dumaine, Brian. “Brainstorm Green/2013- Dean Kamen’s New Machines,” Fortune April 29, 2013.
  • Hannan, Patrick J. (2006). Serendipity, Luck and Wisdom in Research. iUniverse. ISBN 0-595-36551-5.
  • Kappos, David. “Crossroads of Invention, ” Scientific American October 2013, pg. 57.
  • Kania , John and Mark Kramer. “Collective Impact,” Stanford Social Innovation Review, Winter 2011. (www.sireview.org)
  • Roberts, Royston M. (1989). Serendipity: Accidental Discoveries in Science. Wiley. ISBN 0-471-60203-5.

Post by Vincent Hyman, a freelance writer based in St. Paul, Minn.