I’ve been thinking lately about skyscrapers and elevators.
Low buildings need few elevators: with only two or three stories the occupants have a limited number of possible combinations, so you can make them share a car.
But as you add stories you add possible combinations, in a square function. Some floors may be more popular or likely at certain times of day, but in general the taller the building, the more elevators you need, and not just in the linear relationship you’d expect because more floors means more people. This has a natural limit: above a threshold number of floors you have to stop, or your whole building becomes elevator shafts.
Why that concerns us: if invention thrives on juxtaposition – if human progress means uncovering and exploiting unpredictable combinations of ideas, then the exponential growth of knowledge may confront a natural limit. Do we reach a point where the sheer number of possible combinations chokes the system? Where the collective mind is so overrun with synapses that we can’t add a single neuron?
Probably not, but I can see the utility of designated “idea clearinghouses,” to accelerate cross-disciplinary discovery, and I think that’s emerging as a main use of our colleges and universities.
The private sector recognizes innovation as the high-value add, more lucrative than finding efficient ways to do the same thing. And so its R&D departments are hubs of disciplinary learning, often in partnership with higher ed.
What those companies don’t do is mingle artists, social scientists, engineers, athletes, and humanists the way you see on our campuses. And remember that the comprehensive, GE-friendly university is mostly an American phenomenon: this mingling isn’t just our edge over the private sector, but also over the rest of the world.
To the extent that’s true, our research intensive institutions will thrive by encouraging cross-disciplinary collaboration – and not just in dyads, but in multilateral permutations that only a campus can support.
High-rise designers beat the problem of the square function of elevators with what they call a “sky lobby.” In the World Trade Center, if you wanted to go above the 44th floor, then you stopped first on the 44th to change elevators. This didn’t keep anyone from ascending, but it capped the unweildy growth of possible pairings by putting a clearinghouse in the middle, like the hub-and-spoke system of airline routing.
Fully developed, sky lobbies are also a social space: they host bookstores, cafés, spaces that foster serendipity. And you get a nice place to work.