The dramatic events of last week on the financial markets are one example how, I believe, specialisation can cause major problems. The ever increasing (so called) ‘sophistication’ of financial instruments have become so complicated that they can’t be understood by enough people, certainly not the financial regulators, and therefore the products that end up having no bearing on genuine economic reality, leading to the recent bubble and subsequent credit crunch.
Similarly, I have long felt frustrated at specialists in academia or industry who are so narrowly focused on their narrow niches that it is practically impossible to understand what they say and what they are working on, and only a handful of other people can even question them let alone understand them.
Don’t get me wrong. Without question we desperately need well trained and educated specialists who understand complex issues in great detail, be it financial or philosophical. The world is a complicated place, and I’m not for one moment advocating a retreat to creating renaissance men and women, however appealing a romantic notion that may be. It’s simply not possible for individuals to be sufficiently knowledge about a breadth of issues or disciplines as it once was.
However I think when swathes of business and academia get so specialised and riddled with jargon that they become practically incomprehensible, then I think we’ve gone too far and need to take a step back. I think businesses, academia and governments need to create more space for specialists to interact with larger groups of people across traditional boundaries. This is what we try to do with our NESTA Connect programme. As I’ve said previously this space might be provided by talented people who span multiple disciplines themselves, or organisations that act as intermediaries.
This excessive specialisation is a global phenomenon, and yet the UK is interesting in that a) it has one of the most specialised education systems in the world, and yet b) the opportunities open to graduates of a particular discipline tend to be wider here compared with Germany, and possibly the rest of Europe, for example.
So in conclusion, I believe we should no longer tolerate the uber-specialist who talks to no-one but their immediate micro peer groups. Else we run the risk of losing the ability to discuss, debate and question other people, leading to the ludicrous situation that precipitated the recent crash in financial markets.