Silo-Skipping

(Reprinted from jaginsburg.com)

I am a silo-skipper. It is something I have always known, but took years to admit and even longer to realize was a rare, good and useful thing to be. It seemed embarrassingly undisciplined to flit about with such broad interests and I admired those who seemed to know exactly what they wanted to do with their lives. While they pursued advanced degrees, climbed corporate ladders, developed inventions and started companies, I sought out — and occasionally concocted — projects that allowed me to explore, secretly hoping that a properly serious career would emerge from the adventurous rubble of…

  • curating massive exhibits on everything from the evolution of the modern newspaper to a celebration of religious architecture
  • traveling around the world chasing wild horses, exploring a sculpture-filled Polish salt mine and strolling the streets of Old Havana for television documentaries
  • writing about everything from microbiology, energy policy and lichens to robotics, agroforestry and manufacturing

I have crawled through a giant tunnel-boring machine hundreds of feet beneath the surface of my home city, Chicago, and “gone fishing” in Lake Michigan with one of the world’s top competitive bass fisherman. I have ridden with a team of “railroaders” taking ultrasounds to check for cracks in the rail and chased after virus-hunting wildlife biologists chasing birds up the Mississippi flyway during a spring migration. I even convinced an engineer friend-of-a-friend to take me up to the top of Board of Trade building on LaSalle Street where we peeked beneath the metal art deco skirt of Ceres, the goddess of wheat, because why not?

RULES

There are four basic rules for successful silo-skipping:

First, if a door—real or metaphorical — looks interesting and isn’t locked, go through it. If it is locked, find someone with a key.

Second, unless there is a really good reason to say no, say yes. That’s how I ended up handling promotion for an artist-built indoor miniature golf course exhibit at the School of the Art Institute one long, hot summer. It was such a success, it toured and then briefly became a business (an adventure that doubled as a mini-MBA on the fly). “Par Excellence!” was featured in People magazine, the Wall Street Journal and was also a thing to consider on NPR’s All Things Considered.

It is also how I came to work with author and visual learning strategist Stuart J. Murphy on two children’s book series and a musical about math. Stuart dedicated Safari Park (solving for unknowns), one of his marvelous MathStart books, to me: “To Janet Ginsburg — whose mind is like a safari of wild ideas.” Who could say no to that?

Third, do your homework and take advantage of the generosity of the experts. Everything I know about microbiology — which at this point is not inconsiderable — has come from scientists who cared enough to take the time to explain to me just how things work in the realm of the itty bitty. They were also kind enough to recommend articles and books. Researching a special report on invasive zoonotic diseases (diseases that affect multiple species, including humans) for BusinessWeek magazine became a kind of masterclass in veterinary pathology. In fact, I became so deeply interested in the field that had I to do college over again, I might have become a researcher.

Likewise, I was lucky enough to get a crash course in All Things Energy from Amory Lovins, co-founder and chief scientist at Rocky Mountain Institute. For a story on distributed power generation, I learned about the several Lego-style metrics that make a distributed model intrinsically resilient and economically smart: small, modular, flexible, scalable, adaptable and inexpensive-at-the-unit cost.

(Slight Digression)

These attributes are also routinely found in nature. From microbiologist Lynn Margulis (who provided the scientific heft for James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis), I learned not only that every level of life functions as a collaborative community — from genes to cells to ecosystems — but also that communities either link to or become integral parts of larger communities; and that the smaller and more readily adaptable the unit — genes, virus, cell — the greater its potential collective impact. For example, from Jack Gilbert, director of the Microbiome Center at the University of Chicago, I learned that while each of us has as many as 25,000 human genes, we are also home to roughly nine million microbial genes, with enormous implications for our health and well-being. Nature is as much about collaboration as it is about competition.

Zooming out from biology, the Lovins metrics — as I have come to think of them — can be applied to almost any sector (silo) from agriculture to public health to urban planning to government. They have proved to be a good filter to determine the odds for whether a startup company or new business model will, or won’t, succeed.

The fourth and final rule: Be generous with what you have learned. Do enough silo-skipping and eventually you develop a reputation as the one who knows this and that. If you see connections that ought to be made and are in a position to make them, then make them. It may be linking ideas or connecting people or identifying synergies between academic departments and companies. There is often brilliance in the mix and the match. Almost inevitably more doors are opened with the promise of more silo-skipping on the other side.

EDUCATION

My interests have always strayed in wildly different directions. In college, I was lucky enough to enter with more than a semester’s worth of credit, which gave me the elbow room to try few courses just for the fun of it. Even better, Indiana University in all of its “Big Red” too-bigness managed to muddle up my records in a most ingenious and, as it turned out, prescient way: According to my registration card, I was a “General Ag” major at Purdue, although living 175 miles south in Bloomington. How could the powers-that-be at IU have known that years later I would become so interested in livestock and poultry health? I certainly had no clue.

Somehow I had managed to shed my academic advisor between freshman and sophomore year. My course card was now sent instead to the Fine Arts department where the person in charge of such things routinely signed them without the pesky formality of actually meeting students to discuss their futures.

Kismet.

For seven semesters, I played college like an academic version of the gameshow Jeopardy: First, a topic was chosen and, then if I liked the professor, I took whatever courses he or she offered — which is how I ended up in several graduate-level classes as a senior. It is also how I ended up with a degree in East European History, a Russian East European Certificate and a minor in Fine Art Photography. A little glitch at the end meant I had to scramble for a rare, two-credit class to reach the required tally. It was in anthropology. To get my degree, I literally had to weave a basket.

Brilliantly unprepared for life beyond school, I took a job as a waitress for which I was spectacularly unsuited. I made a game out of how quickly I could get customers talking about anything interesting that wasn’t about food. It turned out I was pretty good at it, a talent that would resurface again and again throughout my life.

In the meantime, I pounded the pavement looking for work as a commercial photographer’s assistant, another job for which sadly I was more of a “miss” than a match. Still, I learned a lot, though much of it outside the studio. Chicago’s photo district at the time was in an edgy part of the city just beginning to transition to trendy. The morning “L” train was packed with everyone from butchers to gallery directors, old and young, black, white, Hispanic. There were still plenty of people, to quote my good friendphotographer Mickey Pallas, with their “real faces.”

​Mickey gave me my first important break: I curated a massive retrospective of his work from the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s. Mickey, an orphan-made-good from the city’s “Great Vest Side,” always emphasized that he got paid for his work. Yet his bread-and-butter clients, which ranged from labor unions,Ebony magazine and the Harlem Globetrotters, to local television networks, ad agencies and even a big oil company, allowed him to, in effect, document an era, covering daily life in a way both remarkably unvarnished and revealing. For background, I interviewed everyone from pastors at black churches to Studs Terkel and from ad agency art directors to Roger Ebert. Tell me something interesting…

Again, much of what I learned was at the edges, from the logistics of producing and touring a large show and publishing a catalog to a deeper understanding of media: An exhibit is really a kind of book-on-walls.

This insight deepened while working on my next show, The Art of the Message. Based on a rare, rag-edition run of Chicago Tribunes from the 1870s through WWII, it looked at the evolution of the modern newspaper as a graphic medium. The archive — giant, heavy volumes — had been tossed by the Tribune company during a corporate cleaning binge. A friend, interested in vintage sports pages, had salvaged and stashed them in a frontage road storage locker. Slicing out sports sections, he compromised the archive, making it possible for me to dig in and produce a show. (btw, If you find yourself at Harry Caray’s restaurant in downtown Chicago, those are my friend’s sports pages decorating the walls. I put together the core memorabilia collection, which at one time included an actual base “stolen” from Wrigley Field and signed by the legendary Ernie “Let’s Play Two” Banks.)

For months I sat in a basement room in the journalism building at Northwestern University sorting through old newspapers stacked floor to ceiling. If my undergrad years had been marked by a fortuitous lack of guidance, my “graduate” school was notably and gloriously Do It Yourself. Guided by texts such as the magnificently titled, Encyclopedia of the World’s Greatest Newspaper (a Tribune-published ode to all things Tribune, circa 1920s), along with interviews and, of course, the newspapers themselves, I learned how newspapers became the world’s first truly mass medium. Born of relentless deadlines, fierce competition, deeply-felt mission, stunning technological innovation, and spurred on by not one, but two world wars, the newspaper emerged as a must-read daily compendium of modern life in all its manifold, messy detail.

From our perch in the future, we know how things turned out, but the details — both the clarity and the ambiguity of the moment — inevitably fade. These old newspapers are a portal back in time: The physical experience of reading a newspaper and seeing news set within a matrix of vintage ads (classifieds as well as those for long gone staples such as Rinso detergent and Sinclair gas) provides in-the-moment perspective and a kind of “carbon dating” context. Ironically, the clever algorithmic filters that summon up different suites of ads online based on individual reader profiles mean that our successors will not have the same insight into our lives. Just as digital filter bubbles have magnified political and social divisions in the present, so, too, will they distort our understanding of the past.

There was much learning at the edges here, too, about everything from selling cars and building roads, to the gamification of presidential politics(literally), to the complexities, craft and utter miracle of producing a daily newspaper.

IN PRAISE OF DIGRESSION

Silo-skippers are adept at analogy, talk in tangents and delight in digression. They savor stray facts, knowing that sooner or later one just might fill in a critical blank and, like a long-lost puzzle piece, complete a picture. They constantly scan for connections across disciplines and sectors. For them, understanding the lack of connection can be just as intriguing as finding a match.

Their stories are never linear, but rather full of curly cue sidebars and meanders that collectively — eventually — make a point. The subtext, though, is always the same: things connect to things, doors open doors, and it really, truly is all of a piece. Digression is networked thinking: a way of exploring the many facets of a whole and of testing out connections both between the facets and beyond the whole. Our brains are wired to combine narrow, straight-ahead fields of view with constant preconscious scans of the periphery. Digression is a kind of peripheral vision that, like its ocular counterpart, is essential to moving forward with balance and grace.

​But I digress…

MORE WORK

Silo-skippers get better with time. Theirs is a cumulative expertise that requires a combination of curiosity, chutzpah, humor, imagination, skepticism, tenacity and an ability to synthesize ideas, but also a deep need to translate ideas from one field to another. At its core, it is about sharing information, not just knowing it.

I continue to write, but now spend much of my time working with consultancies, companies and the occasional conference on projects designed to help identify and leverage information assets. It is an editorial practice rather than a marketing and communications effort. The two often dovetail, but is important to note the fundamental difference: Marketing and communications is ultimately about driving sales and awareness. An editorial practice is an integral part of the business itself, more closely aligned with R & D (research and development), but with an emphasis on information as a networked resource.

My first experiment along these lines was a demo project I developed several years ago for a nonprofit spin-off of Google.org — InSTEDD — which provides mobile solutions for humanitarian work involving public health. I created a news aggregator — TrackerNews — featuring “link suite stories,” each between eight and fifty links. The TrackerNews beat, very broadly defined, covered health (human, livestock, wildlife, environmental), humanitarian response and relevant technologies.

Links to research papers were always included in the mix, not because they would get many hits — they wouldn’t — but rather that for those interested, a list of scientist-authors and their affiliations was itself quite useful. Links became part of a searchable database, while a companion blog provided another way to package and share content (see archive).

TrackerNews was slightly ahead of its time, predating social bookmarking and collaboration platforms such as Pinterest, Pocket, Ryver and Slack. Still, although fairly low-on-the-cyber-radar, it developed a loyal following that included aid workers, medical researchers, military officers, policymakers and tech developers. The mission was to spark new ideas, broaden horizons and perhaps even lead to novel collaborations — all of which, of course, are impossible to track. I did, however, begin to regularly field calls for research advice, (e.g., connecting the dots between extreme weather, crop losses, higher global commodity prices and climate change), which I took as anecdotal validation.

As technologies converge in ever more imaginative ways (flexible electronics and bendable robots being two of my current favorites), we all need to become better silo-skippers. To put it in business terms, knowing both this and that offers a competitive edge.

That is also a driving philosophy behind the massively transdisciplinary KIN Global conference at Northwestern University. For the last couple of years I have worked with Rob Wolcott, a clinical professor of innovation at the Kellogg School of Management and KIN co-founder, to develop a website — the KINpendium — to turn the digital assets of the conference (videos, essays, bios, bibliographies) into a more long-lived, accessible reference.

Although a comparatively small conference, KIN Global has a remarkable track record of bringing together people with backgrounds in business, government, nonprofits, the arts, academia and defense from all over the world. Speakers have included everyone from former President of Mexico Vicente Fox, to the editor of New Philosopher magazine, Zan Boag, and from Dutch agronomist Willie Smits — who is heading up a two-million-acre reforestation project in Indonesia — to Jens Molbak, founder of WinWin, a remarkable startup pioneering an approach to innovation that deftly aligns the interests of business, nonprofits and government.

JOY

It is remarkable to me that what I absolutely love to do most — what defines who I am — has become the serious career I had hoped would emerge from “the adventurous rubble.”

​It is also remarkable to me that you have made it to the end of this long and meandering essay. Chances are that you, too, then are a silo-skipper and a kindred spirit.

Tell me something interesting…

J.A. Ginsburg

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