How to understand and solve complex problems

An Israeli scientist in Barcelona is spearheading a multidisciplinary approach to giving scientists the tools to succeed.

April 21, 2019 11:44
4 minute read.
ICFO – The Institute of Photonic Sciences. Headquarters at Parc Mediterrani de la Tecnologia in Barc

ICFO – The Institute of Photonic Sciences. Headquarters at Parc Mediterrani de la Tecnologia in Barcelona. (photo credit: JORDI FERRER)


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BARCELONA – Multidisciplinarity has become a popular buzzword, maybe nowhere more so than in the scientific world. But combining knowledge from different disciplines might sound nice and full of potential, yet it is a rather difficult endeavor. How are scientific achievements best transformed into innovative or socioeconomic value and how can overqualified scientists turn their knowledge into careers?

The multidisciplinary approach has potential answers for these significant issues which developed in our new age because it breaches the rules of a zero-sum game when applied correctly.

“When we aggregate fields of knowledge, you get some effects that go beyond the combination of the numbers,” Gabriel Silberman, the Israeli director-general of the Barcelona Institute of Science and Technology (BIST) claims. “Once you bring together several disciplines, you can evaluate many more aspects of a particular problem.”

The main contribution of incorporating a multidisciplinary approach is not only to tackle problems that have proven to be unsolvable by conventional means, but to expand the frontiers of science.

Expanding the frontiers of science is not only a cliché of sci-fi movies or a clever catch-phrase to get access to research funding, but key to preparing society for an unpredictable, challenging future.

The only way to solve the complexity of problems we encounter today and prepare us for those of the future is to do exactly that: invest in groundbreaking technology and hard sciences, and then expand the scientific horizon and knowledge by combining them.

“Our mission is to give scientists the tools to succeed in whatever course they take,” Silberman maintains. “The amount of knowledge they hold and their potential is immeasurable. We are talking about fantastic talent that at times find themselves stuck, without becoming productive to their ecosystem.”

Gabriel (Gabby) Silberman, director-general of the Barcelona Institute of Science and Technology (BIST)

SILBERMAN’S OWN trajectory is a model of this vision. Born in Chile, he immigrated to Israel in 1970. He began his studies at Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Chemical engineering, but upon taking a programming class, he redirected his studies to computer science, later to pursue a PhD in the United States.

In the 1990s, he joined IBM and landed in a sister-group of the Deep Blue Project, the first chess-playing computer developed by the company, which defeated the Russian chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov in one of the games of a six-game match (Kasparov eventually defeated Deep Blue by a 4-2 score). A year later, Deep Blue won the six-game rematch, becoming the first computer to defeat a chess world champion.

“Chess falls into the category of a very complex problem, the possibilities are numerous,” Silberman told The Jerusalem Post. “On the one hand, the rules are clear. On the other hand, it’s extremely hard to anticipate what each move can lead to. It’s a classical computer problem.”

Today, Silberman heads the institute, which brings together seven of Catalonia’s research centers to build new scientific collaborations and foster multidisciplinary projects. Genomic regulation, nanotechnology and high energy physics are some of the fields that are combined under the institute’s umbrella.

The development of a retinal prostheses from graphene – a single-layer carbon sheet, developed as a result of a collaboration among BIST institutes – is an example of such vision. The device can stimulate the neurons in the retina that take impulses to the brain through electrodes to prevent ocular degeneration. It is a result of medical technology, material science, photonics and computer engineering – among other fields – that together produced a solution to solve a problem from which more than 200 million people worldwide suffer.

The standards for measuring productivity in science, however, are different than market-based ones. Scientific observations, development and eventual discoveries take not only expertise and investment, but a considerable amount of time. Results, which may not seem practical at first, are potential stepping stones to understanding natural phenomena and comprehending the world.

Albert Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity, for example, seemed to offer little potential for experimental tests in the beginning due to its difficult mathematical concepts, which only a handful of people understood at the time. The theory provided a description of gravity as a geometric property of space-time based on theoretical results and empirical findings, which fifty years later became – with the help of new mathematical techniques – central to physics. Without that first ignition, instruments such as electron microscopes and satellite-based technology would be foreign to our reality.

Tackling complex problems requires different approaches, and multidisciplinarity offers a solution. But bringing together people who have been trained to approach problems from different angles also expose another common problem: the lack of a common language. Given the level of specialization of the highly defined fields of knowledge within the scientific world, finding a “common language” to set the work in motion, to discuss ideas and to provide and receive meaningful feedback, is challenge on its own.

The encounter, however, has not only been encouraged, but must be done. The complexity of our environments and the challenges expected in the future does not afford single-minded, mono-discipline approaches.

“When smart people are brought together and think together, everything can happen,” Silberman says. “Scientific institutes must encourage this encounter to happen, for the benefit of society.”

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