Labs without borders
if scientists hope to receive funding from major programs like the EU’s Horizon 2020, they had better heed one of the European organisation’s principal requirements: collaboration across fields. “At the beginning of the 2000s, we tried
to integrate two or three disciplines into our projects,” recalls Thomas Linner, a senior researcher at the Chair of Building Realisation and Robotics at the Technical University of Munich. “Now that number can reach seven.”
Linner is currently pulling together the “Reach” project with colleagues at five other universities – including the Technical Universities of Denmark and Eindhoven as well as the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne. Using body sensors and real-time data analytics, Reach is developing technologies to prevent health problems for elderly people. With the involvement of industry and healthcare partners as well, the researchers need to harmonise 17 different areas of knowledge. “A particular challenge is that data engineers are learning to work with professionals from the healthcare sector,” he says. Linner expects a yearlong learning phase until collaboration processes run smoothly within the project, which was launched this year.
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab has focused on collaborative projects since 1985. Its Center for Extreme Bionics brings together mechanical engineers, synthetic biologists and neuroscientists to tackle impaired mobility due to trauma or disease. In 2014, Media Lab director Joi Ito wrote: “As we engage in tackling harder and harder problems that require many fields and perspectives, the separation of disciplines appears to be causing more and more damage.” Last year, the laboratory launched the Journal of Design and Science, a publication in which science, art, design and engineering meet in a common “antidisciplinary space”. According to Linner, research in the U.S. is not only a model for interdisciplinary collaboration, but also for more market-oriented work. “In Europe, there is a push to collaborate with industrial partners right from the start,” he says. “Science is becoming more and more application-oriented. With Reach we want to create devices that provide our industry partners with a market-leading position.” Or, as MIT’s Ito puts it: “Deploy or die”.