Bulletin of Dental Education

Speaker at ADEA Opening Ceremony and Plenary Session to Discuss Higher Education, Technology Use, and Creative Combinations

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Frans Johansson, M.B.A. Frans Johansson, M.B.A., is the founder of both a medical device company and a software company, as well as the author of The Medici Effect: Breakthrough Insights at the Intersection of Ideas, Concepts and Cultures. When he addresses the ADEA Opening Ceremony with Awards and Plenary Session on Sunday, March 13 at 8:00 a.m., he will explore how innovation happens when people look past expertise and traditional models, pooling resources together in new combinations for success.

Mr. Johansson gave the Bulletin of Dental Education a few moments of his time to share a little about himself and The Medici Effect.

What types of combinations have you seen develop as people pool their individual resources? What results have these collaborations brought forth?

When I wrote The Medici Effect, I came across hundreds of examples of amazing ideas that came from people meeting at the Intersection. One of my favorite ones is of Mick Pearce, an architect. He took on a tough challenge to design an attractive building in Harare, Zimbabwe, but without any need for air conditioning, which seems ridiculous at first thought. After all, it can get pretty hot in Harare! But Pearce solved the problem by basing his architectural designs on how termites cool their tower-like mounds of mud and dirt. Pearce's passion for understanding natural ecosystems allowed him to combine the fields of architecture and termite ecology, which brought this combination of concepts to fruition. The office complex, Eastgate, opened in 1996 and is the largest commercial/retail complex in Zimbabwe. It maintains a steady temperature of 73 to 77 degrees and uses less than 10 percent of the energy consumed by other buildings its size. And it saved $3.5 million immediately, because they did not have to install an air-conditioning plant.

Since the book came out I have only seen these types of combinations increase in number and frequency, as people connect outside of their fields of expertise. What happens when you combine candy and computers, ice and sleeping beds, burqas and bikinis? What about the fields of health care and technology? I'll tell you about it in San Diego!

You talk in the book about breaking down the silos that people and organizations build up, and how their removal creates better opportunities for growth and development. Can you give us a couple of examples of how someone goes about dismantling a long-standing silo?

Silos often exist due to the organization wanting to become excellent at what it does. It makes sense to specialize and drive performance in ever more structured groups. This, however, becomes a problem when you are trying to develop new ideas, because now you need to introduce new thoughts. All of a sudden it becomes incredibly difficult to break down these silos.

I will talk about a couple of different approaches in San Diego, but I'll mention a very practical example here: Tobias Dahl, the lead designer at the video game company DICE, read The Medici Effect a few years back. One thing that struck him was that the concept of mixed teams had the potential of improving innovation at his own company. In the original organization, the animators, designers, and programmers were sitting apart and handed each other specifications and requests via email or sheets of paper, which worked just fine.

But what would happen, he thought, if they were forced to work closely together? His team had just started working on a game called Mirror's Edge when he put the programmers and the animators in the same room, right next to each other. For a couple of weeks he thought they were going to kill each other...but soon the advantages of this working arrangement became too obvious to ignore. They were sharing and building on each other's ideas, circumventing the silos that had otherwise been in place. The game won industry awards because of its completely innovative approach. Considering the advantages that were gained, it is interesting to note that there were no additional costs involved in creating this environment or process.

I believe this is a hugely fruitful approach in any area - especially at intersections of research, academia, and the open market.

What types of innovations do you see developing through the cross-combinations of health care, academia, research, and cultural progression? What kind of impact could these have on traditional education models and health care?

Specific innovations or changes in models are hard to predict, but there are clear catalysts. For instance, the way people connect through technology can greatly impact any of the areas you mentioned: health care, academia, or research. And the innovation rate explodes when you combine these with different fields.

For starters, it becomes easier for people from outside a field to change it. People can reshape whole industries without having spent much time in them. The people behind Skype had essentially no telephony background and yet it did not matter - they have greatly influenced the industry. You will see the same in the fields of health care. People have less reverence for established "truths" in any given field. It is pretty much open season on introducing new ideas.

I'm expecting far more interdisciplinary approaches in education, for instance. I am also expecting great, novel uses of technology for students to find and keep abreast of new treatment strategies and approaches. The traditional education system is, right now, completely in the dark about technology use. Additionally, I am expecting innovative programs to make use of insights from around the world, involving practitioners, teachers, and students from other countries that have different approaches to similar issues.

Having lived your life "at the Intersection," what kind of advice can you give to those who feel they've lived most of their life "in the rut" and wish to break out into these new concepts and paradigms?

For most of us, the best chance to make a major difference lies at the Intersection. Not only do we have a greater chance of finding remarkable ideas there, we will also find many more of them. But everyone must seek their own path to this place.

For me, it has been a matter of staying curious and following up on ideas that have genuinely intrigued me. Sometimes those ideas have held enough promise that I decided to follow up. By some measures it may seem to have been risky; for instance, it could mean a break from the past or shunning a more "stable" job. But to me, the risks always appeared larger if I didn't take them. It seemed possible that I would not be pursuing something truly exciting. I had lots of people pointing out that maybe I would be better off working on my book The Medici Effect while also carrying a job because it is "safer." But many of those people lost their jobs a few years later. The notion of what is safe and stable has never been more fluid. So for me, the safer bet is to do something that drives you, something you love, and something that will make a difference.

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