In exploring the global impact of COVID-19, Adil Najam, professor of international relations at Boston University, took a novel approach. He did not restrict his analysis to the prism of geopolitics. Instead, he interviewed experts from different academic disciplines, regional areas and political perspectives for their insights into the pandemic’s impact on their field.

Topics as wide-ranging as art, biodiversity, digital marketing, religion and even ‘hope’ were explored. Martin Rees, the Astronomer Royal, was asked to comment on the future of science, Judith Butler, the feminist academic, on the future of literature, Noam Chomsky on the future of politics.

This produced a series of almost a hundred short videos – The World after Coronavirus – which provides a multifaceted picture of this complex phenomenon. Perhaps inadvertently, the series reveals an underlying problem: a growing ‘silo culture’ permeating international affairs, one that prevents the complexity of global crises being adequately understood.

This silo culture has evolved from a long-entrenched system of ‘specialization’, which compels people to confine themselves to one field or profession at the expense of all other lines of inquiry. This idea – or myth if we are to expose it – insists that there is no other way for an individual to secure their identity and livelihood, or for an organization or society to be optimally productive.

The cult of specialization had its origins in industrial capitalism’s division of labour and has since spread internationally via the globalization of western culture and, most recently, in the digital space governed by predictive analytics and algorithms.

Today, specialization has become the modern term for what is basically intellectual and professional apartheid; a system that encourages tribalism, exploitation and bias and discourages collaboration, connection and perspective. Those who specialize in the same field fall into silos, where their view of the world is jealously guarded and promoted.

In international affairs, this tendency manifests itself with members of the same organization remaining so detached from, and suspicious of, each other. Economists, political scientists, diplomats, technocrats and policymakers each envy or condescend to the other but can’t relate to them. They each develop their own jargon, social circle, even their own sense of humour. And it is these people who shout the loudest in defence of the ‘nobility of specialization’.

COVID-19 is our most present example of a complex challenge, but the world is full of them. Many global crises such as migration, climate change and political violence are complex. Each has dimensions that must be understood in the context of the whole.

Few realize the exponential nature of this complexity. If they did, every policy decision, local or ‘foreign’, would be approached very differently.

‘Understanding that a problem is complex is to appreciate that accurate prediction is futile and that seemingly proportionate and direct responses aren’t sufficient,’ states Ebrahim Patel, a mathematician and complexity scientist. ‘This is because there is a nonlinear cause-and-effect process in play’.

The owners of the future

Complex systems can maintain or reinvent themselves regardless of unpredicted shocks if, and only if, they have a robust process of adaptation in-built.

While such processes exist in the natural world, in the social context they need to be designed. And to engineer such systems, the complexity needs to be understood in the first place. For this, analysts must venture beyond familiar terrain and pursue a vision of the whole. The logic is simple: multidimensional problems require multidimensional minds to design multidimensional solutions.

This is why those best able to master complexity will be the great leaders of tomorrow. One might call such leaders polymaths – traditionally considered as those who excel in multiple seemingly unrelated fields. But a true polymath is a synthesizer of diverse knowledge streams, who employs an intellectual versatility to move between different forms of knowing and who ultimately forges novel connections. These connections provide a big picture perspective essential to achieve insightful solutions to challenges that are far from straightforward.

How many leaders in international affairs today are genuine polymaths? Far too many leaders in business, politics and academia are leaders of tribes rather than of systems. They are satisfied to be big fish in small ponds. Because of this, their knowledge is tunnel-visioned rather than visionary. So it ought not to surprise us when their simplistic approach to complex crises such as pandemics, economic recessions or nuclear proliferation prove to be inadequate or, at worst, disastrous.

For all of the talk of leadership in popular business books and executive education, the focus on developing rounded, globally-minded students should start much earlier. Subject specialization at secondary school should be replaced with an emphasis on subject contextualization and cross-disciplinary skills. Undergraduate education should be largely problem-based, rather than subject-based, and therefore interdisciplinary.

Professor Carl Gombrich, of the London Interdisciplinary School, that opens next year, insists that a problem-based approach is the most appropriate way to prepare young minds to deal with real-world challenges. ‘A student immersed in this way of thinking is likely to tackle complex problems better – or at least make fewer egregious errors – than someone whose education has been monodisciplinary,’ he says. Gombrich is convinced that conventional university education is not structured to address challenges specific to the 21st century. ‘The complexity of real-world problems does not map well on to single academic disciplines as defined by university departments.’

Such interdisciplinarity ought then to be further developed as graduates enter the workspace. Here, it is the responsibility of employers to make their organizational culture encouraging of divergent thinking.

A new normal?

Adil Najam’s The World after Coronavirus series started off as his ‘season of learning’ during lockdown. He didn’t realize just how much it would transform his perspective about the international system. Ultimately, it was a lesson in humility. ‘Not knowing that you don’t know is actually a very comfortable place to be,’ he admits. He has always intuited the need for interdisciplinary investigation but accepts that most people simply pay lip service to it. ‘Even those like myself who assume that we are interdisciplinary need to constantly challenge the limits of our own interdisciplinarity.’

His most important insight from the synthesis is that in our new world, such an approach is not just useful, but indispensable. ‘Because of this little pathogen we are now confronted with the necessity to break down those boundaries that we had so painstakingly constructed.’ Of course, those who benefit from the status quo will fight hard to maintain it. For the rest of us, there is an opportunity to be seized.