For the last few days, I’ve been at the annual meeting of the National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance.  This is mostly university-based faculty from business and engineering with some social scientists and random smattering of physicists and others.  Everyone has an interest in fostering creativity and innovation among students.  Other Fresno State folks here include Shirley Kovacs, chair of Biology, Dave Goorahoo of Plant Science, George Vozikis from business, and Tim Stearns and Mike Summers from the Lyles Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship.

My contribution was a session on using social science to discover innovative products and services.  Typical of the cross-disciplinary ferment at this conference, the panel consisted of myself (an anthropologist), Khanjan Mehta, a Penn State electrical engineer, and Leslie Speer, an industrial designer from San Jose State.  I spoke about my passion, ethnography, the research method that characterizes cultural anthropology and that takes us out into the world to experience and understand the lives of others.  I argued that among research strategies, ethnography offers the best path to inspirational insight into new products and services.  Leslie detailed her engagement with projects on obesity and children’s diets and pesticide exposure among farmworkers.  She talked about how her research took her and her collaborators straight to lunch rooms and fields to interact with people face to face, to understand their views and behaviors, and then develop strategies for promoting better diets and low-cost solutions to pesticide exposure problems.

Khanjan described perhaps the most intriguing cross-disciplinary combination I have encountered so far:  a joint project between himself (an electrical engineer) and his colleagues in Women’s Studies at Penn State.  Among other projects, they are working on cell phone networks for female entrepreneurs and low-cost health delivery systems, both in Tanzania.  Khanjan said that he came to collaborate with his Women’s Studies colleagues after realizing that the biggest factors influencing success in such projects were not technical, but social and cultural.  The social scientists helped him and his engineering colleagues grapple with the social networks and power structures that can either constrain or enable tech projects.

This is my second time going to the NCIIA conference, and like last year, I’ve come away with a renewed appreciation for the expertise and energy of people in other fields, from physics to engineering to design.  I’m also encouraged by the response to our panel and by the steady stream of evidence that multidisciplinary projects can take us and our students further than any one discipline can go alone.

Read the papers from my panel here.