A local public health official has been tasked with increasing vaccine use in an underserved community. She has extensive training in the science of infectious diseases, but to reach large numbers of unvaccinated people, she will need help from church leaders, the local school board, and the organizers of a large outdoor concert. She has no experience with these types of organizations, yet their trust and cooperation are prerequisites for success.

A microbiologist discovers a bacteria that produces a chemical with anticancer properties. Making the most of this discovery will require lab techniques and clinical trials that are well beyond his training and resources. Bringing the discovery to market through a startup company is an exhilarating but intimidating prospect, as the scientist has no private sector experience.

The leaders of a nonprofit community garden want to help residents move up the value chain by selling food products from their homes, but state law restricts food production to commercial kitchens or farms. Changing the law will require lobbying strategies, connections to policy makers, and legal expertise. These are far outside the skill set of their staff, but progress will be painfully slow without a supportive policy environment.

In each of these scenarios, promoting public well-being requires reaching out across social boundaries. Sometimes these social boundaries are academic disciplines. In other cases, they are organizations, industries, professions, or cultures. Crucially, this “boundary spanning” activity (to use the term coined by organizational theorist Michael Tushman in 1977) is not just for innovators who have the resources and inclination to approach things differently. To make progress on our most pressing public problems actually requires reaching out across social boundaries.

Simply put, social change requires social collaboration.

What, then, can be done to encourage boundary spanning? The task at hand goes beyond the academic concept of interdisciplinarity, which is often used as a semantic shortcut to signify broader collaborations across professional and social boundaries. This linguistic imprecision obscures some of the distinctive advantages, and unique challenges, that arise in collaborations outside of academia. It is one thing for a middle-class PhD in physics to walk 100 yards across the campus green to sit down with a middle-class PhD in economics so they can scribble equations together. It is quite another to enter the type of collaboration that our colleague Ziyad Duron undertook, as an academic engineer collaborating with firefighters on the development of an early warning sensor system to detect structural instability when battling fires.

Read the full article about collaboration for social change by Karl Haushalter and Paul Steinberg at Stanford Social Innovation Review.