When the NSF launched the Convergence Accelerator and made the radical move of bringing together teams from different disciplines, these academics, scientists, and industry partners didn’t have a shared language to move their ideas forward, and needed a structured approach to coming up with new solutions.
No single discipline in academia or research can fix an intractable problem like ocean acidification or upskilling a nation’s workforce. In 2019, the National Science Foundation (NSF) launched the Convergence Accelerator, an effort to catalyze new scientific solutions and bring solutions to the American people, faster. The Convergence Accelerator challenged interdisciplinary teams of academics and industry leaders to apply for grants together. Once the teams had been selected, NSF asked IDEO to help teach the grantees a language that would transcend discipline: design.
Trained research teams
in federal support granted to AI-driven innovation, quantum technology, food security, sustainable materials, opportunities for people with disabilities, and more
Every year, the NSF provides around 30 teams with up to $750,000 and a year’s worth of coaching, training, and collaboration to develop solutions for research areas like sustainable ocean use or combating fake news. Over the course of nine months, the teams learn how to uncover insights about human needs and design durable solutions for end users. But many of the scientists and experts in the program felt stretched by the idea of putting the needs of end users in the mix with their scientific testing—something few of them have been trained to do in their previous work.
To make that process feel more achievable, the teams built out prototypes and received guidance on refining and pitching their ideas along the way. IDEO joined the project as an innovation partner, facilitating hands-on workshops and creating “Science TV” episodes that could help the program reach a broader audience, deepening its impact now and in the future.
To help grantees get vulnerable, and evolve their ways of working, IDEO sent grantees to improv training so that they could learn to build off each other. The team also took them to magic shows and on ghost tours in downtown San Francisco to learn the value of compelling storytelling in their work. The fun was part of the plan—gelling as a team and building relationships meant participants could make mistakes in front of one another. Being wrong doesn’t come naturally to academics, but it’s a key part of the design process, and a crucial part of solving complex problems .
Each year, a select group of teams move onto the next phase of the “coop-etition,” receiving up to $5 million in additional funding. And all of the participants leave with valuable new skills they can use to break out of their own silos and create human-centered, ground-breaking solutions for the rest of their careers.