Bell labs brought many disciplines together under the same roof and broke down barriers between them

Solid state physics at Bell Labs absolutely had the flavor of Antedisciplinary Science - it would be hard to know a-priori what could come out of mixing theoreticians and experimentalists, physicists, chemists and metallurgists. It’s important to note though, that everybody still was a specialist. The interaction mode has the flavor of each party learning enough about the others’ discipline to communicate, but still a strong division of labor.

  • Bell Labs physically broke down the barriers between disciplines through the design of its spaces. You get strong Pixar vibes with how the architecture encouraged interaction - connected buildings and a central cafeteria. Architecture matters for creativity. The “no closed doors” culture augmented the physical barrier reduction.

    The physical barrier reduction stands in contrast to Universities, where departments often occupy different buildings. You don’t cross the street to another building unless you have a clear purpose, but when exploring ideas you don’t often have a clear purpose until you’ve had a chance encounter and chatted with someone.

  • Arguably, most of the ideas and technology that came out of Bell Labs could not have happened without disciplinary mixing.

In addition to subject-based and experimental/theoretical mixing, there was also what I would call “stage mixing.” That is, a theoretical physicist could go talk to not only other researchers but someone who worked on manufacturing products at scale. This sort of disciplinary mixing is underrated. It is, I suspect, what enables fillerFundamentalManufacturingProcess2020 and enables the The linear innovation pipeline to have feedback loops. Manufacturing is important and often ignored. Prototyping needs manufacturing in the room.

The disciplinary mixing happened both from the bottom up and the top down. The open door policy encouraged people with questions and ideas to go and seek out the relevant people to talk to and Bell Labs management was extremely light so they didn’t need to ask permission. At the same time Mervin Kelly strongly endorsed culturally and physically bringing different disciplines together. My hunch is that both of these pieces were necessary.


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