By Carissa Slotterback
Chance encounters and accidental inspirations have been responsible for many of the world’s greatest discoveries, from penicillin to the Post-it note. Throughout history, our greatest thinkers have advanced scientific understanding and improved our world as a result of being in the right place, at the right time and with the right combination of knowledge and inspiration.
Many researchers, including myself, tell stories of how casual meetings with colleagues have led to some of their most fruitful and long-lasting collaborations. The conversations, learning and opportunity to engage outside of one’s own comfort zone can lead to creativity and innovation.
Of course, there is no magic formula for serendipity, which by definition is unexpected. Yet forward-thinking organizations like Google, Facebook and AT&T are well known for their attempts to create work environments conducive to networking and collaboration in the hopes of generating new ideas and innovation.
As a public institution with a mission to conduct high-quality research that benefits our communities across the state, nation and world, the University of Minnesota recognizes the value of cultivating these kinds of connections too. In fact, the overarching vision for our research strategic plan, Five Years Forward, which represents the collective voice of our university-wide community, is “bringing people together in new ways, fostering discoveries and making our world a better place.” One of the four cornerstones of that plan is to promote a culture of serendipity that advances scientific discovery through collaborative thinking and action.
In my role as director of research engagement with the Office of the Vice President for Research, I am working to strengthen and facilitate alignment among the university’s multiple research initiatives and to promote transdisciplinary collaborations that address critical societal challenges. As part of our larger strategic effort to “engineer serendipity” at the university, we are launching a new series of multi-disciplinary gatherings designed to advance cutting-edge research, develop innovative solutions and build long term partnerships that improve our world.
These “Convergence Colloquia” will serve as action-oriented think tanks focusing on critical issues for our communities, from building smarter cities to exploring alternative energy sources to improving water quality to securing our food supply, that bring together U of M researchers with private, public and nonprofit stakeholders to identify strategic collaboration opportunities that can lead to significant impact at the local, state, national and global scales.
Each Convergence Colloquia workshop will engage approximately 50-100 participants from a variety of disciplines and fields from within the university and in the surrounding community. Through facilitated sessions and focused dialogue, participants will work to identify a set of strategic research priorities and explore opportunities for collaboration.
Following each event, U of M staff help to determine next steps such as follow-up meetings, research proposal development and consultation with additional stakeholders. Event participants who wish to pursue collaborative research efforts will be eligible for “Serendipity” grants for proposal development, stakeholder engagement and other activities.
Embedded in a strategic vision and action plan, the Colloquia are grounded in a results-oriented approach that includes ongoing evaluation and reflection to ensure accountability and results.
The first Convergence Colloquia, on Smart Cities and Infrastructure, is scheduled for late February, and will be held on the U of M campus. Experts, practitioners and community leaders from across the U and the state will be convening to learn from each other and engage in focused dialogue about how we can further connect our knowledge and resources to create communities that are more intelligent, efficient and livable.
Another five colloquia are being planned for 2015 with possible topics including clean water, alternative energy, aging, food security and sustainable mining. As the program is in its early stages, “lessons learned” from the first few events will help to shape and inform the development and implementation of future gatherings.
As author Greg Lindsay pointed out in December at an event celebrating U of M innovators, it’s the “unknown unknowns” that are most difficult to pursue. He was quoting former defense secretary Donald Rumsfield, but used the expression to argue that creating an environment that encourages serendipity is one way to help these discoveries come to light. As a strong believer in community engagement, collaboration and the importance of doing research that is directly relevant and impactful, I am excited to participate in this effort to bring people together to solve some of society’s greatest challenges, even those that we may not have identified or have yet to fully articulate.
Carissa Slotterback, Ph.D., is associate professor in the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, where she teaches courses in environmental planning, public engagement and sustainability planning. She also serves as director of research engagement for the Office of the Vice President for Research. Among other leadership roles across campus, she serves as director of the Resilient Communities Project, a university-community engagement program focused on sustainability. She is actively involved in interdisciplinary partnerships and projects throughout the U and serves as adjunct faculty or fellow in multiple departments, institutes and centers.