Interview

Risks and rewards

On disruption

Griffith Review 64: The New Disruptors takes a wide-ranging look at the technological upheavals and innovations that define the way we live today. But what about the people driving these disruptions – how do they see our rapidly changing world? Taking Julianne Schultz’s opening essay ‘Move very fast and break many things’ and Elise Bohan’s ‘On becoming posthuman’ as starting points, Griffith Review asked three individuals from three very different disrupted and disruptive industries about their work and its implications.

In the short interviews collected here, medical professional Dr Dinesh Palipana, NASA astrophysicist Jessie Christiansen and Yunus Social Business Centre co-director Ingrid Burkett explain how they see disruption in their fields and how it might allow us to navigate an uncertain future.


Dr Dinesh Palipana was the first quadriplegic medical intern in Queensland, and the second person with quadriplegia to graduate medical school in Australia. Dinesh earned a Bachelor of Laws (LLB) prior to completing his Doctor of Medicine (MD) at Griffith University. Dinesh is currently a resident medical officer at Gold Coast University Hospital. He is a lecturer at Griffith University and an adjunct research fellow at the Menzies Health Institute of Queensland. He has research interests in spinal cord injury, particularly with novel rehabilitation techniques. Dinesh was the Gold Coast Hospital and Health Service’s Junior Doctor of the Year in 2018. He was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia in 2019.

 

Can you give a brief overview of your current areas of work?

Our work is on novel rehabilitation techniques to restore function in spinal cord injury. Over the last few years there has been an emerging body of evidence that suggests several non-invasive techniques can be used to treat paralysis, at least to some extent. These therapies include electrical stimulation, thought-controlled rehabilitation and pharmacological interventions.

Our work combines some of the most promising avenues of research with the view of restoring function in people with paralysis. We use digital twins to personalise these therapies. This will increase the safety and efficacy of the new rehabilitation paradigm that we are creating.

Is yours a field that people would describe as disruptive or as innovative, and would it impact on or disrupt peoples’ lives?

It is said that spinal cord injury has been described by the ancient Egyptians as ‘a condition not to be treated’. For thousands of years, paralysis has been one of the most dire conditions that humans have experienced. Over the last few decades we have learned to keep people with spinal cord injuries alive. However, it is only recently that we have started to discover how to give those people movement back.

It’s not just movement, though. Every single part of a person’s body below the injury is affected. These include the cardiovascular system, integumentary system and musculoskeletal system, to name a few. The potential to restore all this to some form of normality is a big deal.

After thousands of years, if changing one of humanity’s biggest problems is not disruptive, I don’t know what is.

What does it mean to be ‘disruptive’ within your particular field?

In his book The Creative Destruction of Medicine, Dr Eric Topol writes, ‘Medicine is remarkably conservative to the point of being properly characterised as sclerotic, even ossified.’ To be disruptive is to challenge dogma.

When inventing the cochlear implant, Professor Graeme Clark says he was called ‘that clown, Clark’. He took a risk. He challenged the norm. Because of that, thousands of people can hear today.

We need to start thinking laterally. We need to foster new ideas. We need to believe in making the impossible possible.

In ‘Move very fast and break many things’, the opening essay for The New Disruptors, Julianne Schultz writes that as a result of the disruption caused by the age of FAANG, ‘our lives have become richer, our work more efficient, our access to information unprecedented’. However, she says, we also know there is a dark side: ‘a trail of broken industries, regulations and conventions, and a rapidly growing number of legal actions.’ How have you experienced disruption, positive or negative, in your field?

‘Negative’ is a matter of perspective.

Broken industries mean that new ones are created. Changing regulations means realigning the boundaries of society. Legal actions mean defining what these changes mean. All of these things define progress. Broken things are remade to be stronger.

None of this is new. We have gone through this historically, albeit at a slower pace.

We need to embrace failure. Failure allows us to learn.

There is wisdom and understanding that the way we’ve always done things may not be the right way.

In ‘On becoming posthuman’, also featured in The New Disruptors, Elise Bohan advocates for the wide perspective offered by ‘big history’ as a way of understanding the pace, scale and possibilities of how our world is changing. How does your work grapple with the idea of approaching an ‘evolutionary tipping point’ – a point at which evolution is driven predominantly by technology, not biology?

Technology and biology are not mutually exclusive. Technology augments biological evolution. That is what we are discovering. Technology allows our bodies to function better, whether it be in healing or movement. Technology allows nature to be more effective.

Our work embodies this concept. We hypothesise that the central nervous system rewires itself; it just needs the right stimulus.

Moving forward, I think that we will see this type of approach in many different areas of medicine.

 


Dr Jessie Christiansen is an astrophysicist with the NASA Exoplanet Science Institute at Caltech, where she searches for, characterises and catalogues planets orbiting other stars. In 2018 she was awarded the NASA Exceptional Engineering Achievement Medal for her role with the successful NASA Kepler Mission, which discovered thousands of exoplanets and revealed that rocky planets are common throughout the galaxy. She now works on the NASA Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) to find the nearest planetary systems to Earth – systems that will be ripe for further study with the next generation of ground- and space-based telescopes.

 

Can you give a brief overview of your current areas of work?

My team and I are trying to map out the planets in our galaxy: what kinds of stars they orbit, what kinds of systems they reside in and how many of them might be habitable. Using NASA space observatories and cutting-edge ground-based facilities, we are producing the most accurate picture of our surrounding planet population – and where we might find Earth 2.0.

Is yours a field that people would describe as disruptive or as innovative, and would it impact on or disrupt peoples’ lives?

We have already discovered that rocky planets with a similar composition to Earth are common throughout the galaxy, and we are homing in on a similar result for truly Earth-like planets, which also orbit their star at the right distance to support liquid water. In the meantime, astrobiologists are working feverishly towards pinpointing a unique, identifiable fingerprint of life – a biosignature – that we could detect in observations of these planets. If – when! – we discover signs of life on other planets, that will truly upend people’s world views, religious beliefs and, possibly, lives.

What does it mean to be ‘disruptive’ within your particular field?

Until recently, exoplanet discovery was a very tight-lipped field. No one wanted to be scooped, and everyone kept their data very close to their chests. The last ten years have seen a huge cultural shift brought about in part by NASA’s Kepler Mission, specifically its second life as the K2 Mission. The K2 Mission data all became public immediately for anyone and everyone to use, with significant focus and funding on developing open-source tools for that use, and the science return has been simply astounding. This example has encouraged other projects to follow suit, and now it’s considered bad form to not make your data public in some way, as expediently as possible.

How have you experienced disruption, positive or negative, in your field?

Coming up with the younger generation of exoplaneteers, I have seen that this ‘opening’ of the field – both in terms of data access and of expanding collaborations – has led to a kind of tension between the old guard and the new. It used to be that planning, implementing and operating a large project was rewarded with proprietary access to the resulting data and no concern about being scooped or missing out on the plum science, but now you’re expected to make everything available to everyone immediately. I can see why people are resistant – expectations are hard to reset – but I can also see why it is so much more valuable to the field that these data, typically publicly funded, are rapidly disseminated.

How does your work grapple with the idea of approaching an ‘evolutionary tipping point’ – a point at which evolution is driven predominantly by technology, not biology?

When we are trying to divine what Earth 2.0 might look like, we are hindered by our anthropomorphism. There have been many attempts, largely in the realm of speculative fiction, to predict what far-advanced alien civilisations or technologies might look like – the Kardashev scale is a well-known example. As a result, there is a small, burgeoning section of the field searching for technosignatures, as compared with biosignatures – the former referring to signs of technology from which intelligent life might be inferred, and the latter referring simply to signs of biological activity. 

 


Associate Professor Ingrid Burkett is the co-director of the Yunus Social Business Centre on the Logan campus of Griffith University. She is a social designer, involved in the design of everything from processes and products to knowledge itself. She has contributed to the design of policy and processes in fields including community development, local economic development, disability, procurement and social investment. She is also a practising artist and graphic designer and is a firm believer in the idea that the design of social innovation requires a capacity to think in creative cross-disciplinary and systemic ways.

 

Can you give a brief overview of your current areas of work?

I am the co-director of the Yunus Social Business Centre at Griffith University. Like Muhammad Yunus (the Nobel Prize-winning economist the centre is named after), the centre’s work intersects two worlds that have often been at odds: business and social impact. We are focused on growing new businesses that create social outcomes, not just bottom lines. We are growing the field of impact investment where investors get social returns, not just financial returns, and we are looking at the business of social impact: how, for example, we can grow businesses of care – aged care and child care – where the quality of care is as central to the business model as financial viability, not just a nice-to-have sideline. Our aim at the centre is to actively contribute to growing this creative space. So we are not just looking in on it, but actually finding ways to demonstrate its development here at Griffith University and in the communities of Logan.

Is yours a field that people would describe as disruptive or as innovative, and would it impact on or disrupt peoples’ lives?

This is a field steeped in innovation; we are literally reimagining how business works in an era where capital and labour have been significantly disrupted, and business has to not only account for so-called externalities like economic, social and/or environmental impacts but actually positively influence them. Creating social businesses could itself be seen as a disruptive practice. I am concerned that ‘disruption’ or ‘innovation’ are too often being seen as the endgame in the business world. I’d like to think that in the business of social impact we practice ‘mindful innovation’ or being ‘mindfully disruptive’, so that anything new or anything that breaks apart what we know aims to lead to better outcomes for people, places and the planet.

The thing I love about innovation is that it is a brilliant combination of the radical and the pragmatic. To be truly innovative you have to have ideas that break the mould, and most importantly, you can’t just be a dreamer or an idea generator: you need to be able to make the new mould and put the ideas that you have into practice. An idea is not an innovation until it is put into practice. Social innovators and social entrepreneurs have to not only be radical pragmatists but also be able to walk the line between creating business models that work and generating real social outcomes. The field of social business is not for the faint-hearted!

What does it mean to be ‘disruptive’ within your particular field?

In essence, disruption in the field of social business means asking questions. For example, could we create a business that turns electronic waste into sustainable jobs for young people who have disconnected from education? Or, how could we generate greater outcomes from our public procurement processes if we defined value as more than ‘value for money’? How might we build an aged-care system that enables everyone to grow old in a place and manner of their choosing? These are not abstract questions; we have social innovators and entrepreneurs around Australia who are answering these very questions through their practices.

Disruption for me means that we are breaking apart the silos that keep us from seeing relationships between issues like mental health and food production or homelessness and family breakdown. It means that we start to build alliances between hitherto disconnected stakeholders to address grand challenges, such as growing inequality, climate change and entrenched disadvantage.

How have you experienced disruption, positive or negative, in your field?

Disruption in the field of social business is double-edged. On the one hand, in order to really achieve better outcomes for people and places that are missing out in our economic and social systems, we need to disrupt the status quo. On the other hand, there is an underbelly to so-called disruption in business – such as workers being displaced or recontracted into zero-hour contracts, communities having their economic foundations shattered, or industries that have disrupted not only practices but also the social and ecological fabric of the regions in which they operate – and I often get to see this in my work.

The important thing to realise in the field of social business is that disruption does not have neutral impacts. It is inherently risky – there can be extremely positive consequences, but there can also be significantly negative consequences that are often not equally shared across stakeholders. We only need to look at the public-policy implications of the mass casualisation of workforces in so-called disruptive industries to realise that cheaper and more accessible products are not the only consequences arising from the entry of disruptive players such as Amazon. We need to grow social mechanisms to engage with these risks from early on in the innovation process so that we are not continually surprised by the darker side effects of disruption.

We are heading into a future where our finite resources, connections to other beings (human and non-human), relative wealth and wellbeing will be increasingly evident in the way we conduct business. We have not only an opportunity but also an imperative to explore disruptive business practices – not for private profiteering, but for positive economic, social and environmental advancement. This is what the growing movement of radical pragmatists developing social businesses around the world is doing: innovating the future of business and building the most exciting kind of businesses in the process.

Griffith Review