The World’s Most Complex Problems Need Collaborative Genius

In the Nobel Prize’s early years, over 80% of awards celebrated individual achievements. Fast forward to today, and only 35% of prizes honor solo efforts, revealing a profound shift towards collaborative problem-solving in tackling our most pressing global challenges.

In the Nobel Prize’s first decade (1901-1911), over 80% of prizes were awarded to individuals rather than teams, institutes, or organizations. By contrast, a survey of Nobel Prize winners from the past decade reveals that approximately 35% of prizes were awarded to individuals, and unsurprisingly, nearly half of the individual winners were in the literature rather than science or medicine categories.
     It would be easy to conclude that this shift reflects the changing whims of Nobel Prize juries. In fact, there is something far more profound at work here. The problems we’re now facing are increasingly complex and require intersecting expertise to tackle. But how do we consistently bring experts together and ensure the very best ideas receive the funding they need to be developed and implemented at scale? Here, it is worth pointing out that if this year’s Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine winners Katalin Karikó and Drew Weissman hadn’t had a chance encounter at a photocopy machine and then persisted in their research for years, often with limited funding and institutional support, the world might be still waiting for their breakthrough on mRNA and for the Covid-19 vaccines their research informed.
     So, how do we take the “chance” out of research science and design a context where research scientists, alongside investors, business leaders, policymakers, and designers, are able to consistently identify, develop, test, scale, and implement solutions to urgent problems?

From Individual to Collaborative Genius

At the turn of the twentieth century, when the Nobel Prize was inaugurated, it was a prize designed to recognize individual acts of genius. Over a century later, many of the prize’s earliest recipients, including Albert Einstein and Marie Curie, are still household names. That the prize originally sought to celebrate individuals isn’t entirely surprising. In the early twentieth century, many fundamental building blocks of science were yet to be discovered. As a result, it was also still possible for individuals asking the right questions while armed with the right tools to achieve major scientific breakthroughs working in relative isolation.

If the world was once ripe with low-hanging fruit waiting to be discovered, this is no longer the case and arguably hasn’t been for decades. In recent years, this shift has also brought the Nobel Prize and other prizes that focus on celebrating individual genius under increased scrutiny.

In 2017, when physicists Rainer Weiss, Kip Thorne, and Barry Barish took home the Nobel Prize for Physics for their discovery of gravitational waves, many people, including other physicists, wondered why the dozens of other scientists who contributed to the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) project were not honored. As astrophysicist Martin Rees complained at the time, Rees had a point:

“The fact that the Nobel Prize 2017 committee refuses to make group awards is causing increasingly frequent problems and giving a misleading impression of how a lot of science is actually done.”

While we may still cling to the idea that innovations and breakthroughs come about due to acts of individual genius, this is rarely, if ever, true. For decades now, the greatest innovations and scientific breakthroughs have been the result of dozens and often hundreds and even thousands of minds working in tandem. With the arrival of increasingly powerful forms of AI, determining who, if anyone, is responsible for a great innovation or breakthrough is also getting more complicated.

Human-Machine Collaborations

In his 1972 Nobel Prize acceptance speech, biochemist Christian Anfinsen predicted that one day, it would be possible to predict the 3D structure of any protein based on its sequence of amino acid building blocks. For nearly five decades following Anfinsen’s speech, researchers struggled to crack the “protein folding problem.” Attempts to solve the problem were even ranked as part of the annual Critical Assessment of Structure Prediction (CASP) initiative. Then, in 2018, a significant breakthrough finally occurred, but it wasn’t due to the work of a sole researcher or even a team of collaborators.

The 2018 breakthrough was accomplished by AlphaFold 1, an artificial intelligence (AI) program developed by DeepMind, a subsidiary of Google’s parent company, Alphabet. Two years later, AlphaFold2 again achieved a level of accuracy that far outpaced the progress made by any human entrants. In fact, AlphaFold2 performed so well that the competition’s founding computational biologist John Moult declared, “In some sense the problem is solved.”

The AlphaFold story raises a rather obvious question. AphaFold2’s breakthrough is one of the most significant scientific breakthroughs in recent years, but could it ever be recognized by the Nobel Prize jury? If so, who would be honored and split the lucrative award? Would it be the AI or the various teams that helped develop AlphaFold in the 2010s or DeepMind or Alphabet Inc.?

A Lesson In Innovation

As the editors of Science declared when they voted AlphaFold2’s discovery to be 2021’s biggest scientific breakthrough, the “explosion of AI-driven advances offers a view of the dance of life as never seen before, a panorama that will forever change biology and medicine.” I couldn’t agree more.
     Thanks to the ability of humans to collaborate on projects of all kinds wherever they happen to be located and the ability of AI to process vast amounts of data at an exponentially faster rate than humans can, we’re now able to see and explore the world anew.  However, in order to make the most of this newfound potential, many people, including business leaders, will first need to undergo a shift in mindset.
     Business leaders often expect innovation to come from a specific hire or even a small team they’ve assembled to tackle a specific problem. In fact, true innovation and once-in-a-lifetime breakthroughs like AlphaFold’s work on the protein folding problem don’t belong to an individual or even a team but to thousands of individuals working with increasingly powerful forms of AI across functional disciplines.
     Similarly, while Karikó and Weissman may be taking home the Nobel Prize for their research on mRNA, they wouldn’t be accepting the award if their research hadn’t had the support of thousands of other research scientists, policymakers, investors, and business leaders around the world. The irony is that it took a global health crisis for their groundbreaking research to finally attract the support it needed to be developed, tested, and implemented. But what if it didn’t take catastrophic conditions for the world’s most innovative ideas to be developed and implemented at scale? What if we could design a context to support the rapid innovation of the world’s most urgently needed concepts without waiting for a crisis? What solutions might be realized within years rather than decades, and how many lives might be improved and saved as a result?

As a Chief Design Consultant, these are precisely the questions that keep me up at night and get me in the morning. Fortunately, I know that building this better world is within reach. We have the expertise, technology, and, at least in the world’s wealthiest countries, resources needed to engage in this work. It starts by designing the context where cross-disciplinary collaboration and cross-functional thinking can finally thrive.