Like Krakauer, wife Jessica Flack is big on data-crunching.
You know the standard model for a university administrator: polite, unflappable, professionally groomed, able to recite policy in long or short form, kind of boring, skilled at disguising true feelings and, of course, intent on keeping a lid on things.
And then there is David Krakauer, director of the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery, UW-Madison's groundbreaking effort to reshape the university in the 21st century. Wired UK named him last year as one of the 50 people who will change the world.
Krakauer's appearance at the February 2012 luncheon of the Wisconsin Innovation Network at the Sheraton Hotel was close to a seismic event. Walls shook, the ground trembled. The 83 attendees might have choked momentarily on their baked ziti for what he had to say about the topsy-turvy university world.
This Oxford-trained evolutionary theorist offered a sweeping take on the great trends rattling the UW. In particular: that the UW's platform for undergraduate education was breaking apart. That the departmental model for intellectual inquiry was outmoded. That funding for research was in flux. And that rapid change was very much the order of the day. But as threatening as all this was, the opportunities - in teaching, in research, in bringing research to market to benefit the Wisconsin economy - were even greater.
This message, which I heard Krakauer give repeatedly with different emphases over the next 11 months, is a brash call for UW-Madison to reimagine its place in the world. Above all, it is to climb out of the silos of intellectual pursuit and embrace a more creative mash-up of disciplines - hard scientists working with poets working with social scientists working with entrepreneurs.
"David's task of bringing people together across disciplines is an assignment in cultural change," affirms Francois Ortalo-Magné, dean of the Wisconsin School of Business.
But given that great universities are almost medieval in their reverence for tradition, Krakauer, 45, faces a hellaciously complicated task. It's "a bit of the immovable object against the unstoppable external forces," admits Mike Knetter, president of the UW Foundation.
The fact that Krakauer is such an unbuttoned figure in the buttoned-down world of university administration may prove exactly the jolt that UW-Madison needs. Anyway, that's the high-stakes bet UW execs made in selecting him to run a showcase experimental lab as part of the $210 million Discovery complex, which brings together researchers and entrepreneurs.
They got a guy who's going to mess with people's minds.
'A true polymath'
At the Wisconsin Innovation Network luncheon, Krakauer was dressed as if fashion had been the 39th most important thing on his mind that morning. He had a scraggly beard and longish hair diffidently kept, and looked like he might have been plucked out of a time capsule from the old 602 Club, where grad and post-doc students once drank beer and passionately argued Marxism and postmodernism.
Krakauer's journey had its own unusual path. Born in Hawaii to an Air Force colonel and lawyer mom, he was reared in Portugal and England. He attended the University of London, earned a master's degree in computer science and mathematics, moved on to Oxford for his doctorate and then across the pond to the Institute for Advanced Study, the Princeton think tank made famous by Albert Einstein. Next stop: New Mexico.
Before arriving in Madison in 2011, Krakauer worked at the decidedly unconventional and somewhat countercultural Santa Fe Institute. The institute got its start in the early 1980s mixing physics from scientists from Los Alamos National Laboratory with cultural speculations from the great futurist Stewart Brand, creator of the Whole Earth Catalog.
Geoffrey West, a theoretical physicist and Krakauer's former Santa Fe boss, told Wired UK that he was "a true polymath, full of ideas and creativity." Indeed, Krakauer has a remarkable ability to slowly spin complicated issues in the air as he breaks down their meaning in terms a lay audience can understand. For example, he's thoroughly convinced that the modern world is gripped by dizzying, unprecedented change because so much new information is being unlocked due to the massive increase in computer power.
He told his luncheon audience to consider the exponential growth of computer computations from maybe $1,000 for a single calculation in 1950 to literally trillions of calculations per $1,000 today. "Computing and computing storage are essentially free. That comes out of the exponential process. You have to understand what that means....
"You can't charge for search," he said. "It also means the future of education is free. Undergraduate education as we know it is no longer a source of revenue."
That massive increase in computational power enabled the Internet, and if Internet-enabled students can watch a tape of the legendary Richard Feynman lecturing on physics on their laptop, why should they sit in a lecture hall listening to a professor who has nowhere near Feynman's stature?
"That's madness," he said, adding that there is no reason a student should sit through lecture hall talks on thermodynamics or calculus.
"Here's a case where we have to completely rethink the way we do our business [of undergraduate teaching]," he said. Ditto for basic research, which happens to be one of the pillars that UW-Madison's greatness rests upon.
He points out that on the industry side, the great research labs of yesteryear - Bell, Xerox, IBM - are long in decline while the newer biotech companies come and go and can't be relied upon for sustained research. The Madison campus, meanwhile, attracts a flood of federal research dollars every year, but he warns that spigot is tightening.
Not just a Cassandra of doom and gloom, Krakauer sees a path to reinvention: "The only real way forward is a new kind of collaboration between academia and industry," he argued. "That's something I think WID can do."
Krakauer goes on in this vein for close to 45 minutes. He toys with fire by arguing that UW-Madison should "significantly reduce" the number of undergraduates and step up the number of graduate and post-doc students, who he says are the real workhorses of basic research. (In subsequent interviews, Krakauer stepped back from his call for a diminished undergraduate presence, saying it's the nature of undergraduate education that needs to change.)
But politic he's not.
"I think we need to restructure the campus," he told the predominantly techie audience. "I think departments as we know them are over. I think disciplines as we know them are over. These are very strong things I'm saying."
The most important work, he argues, is being done across disciplines, and that's exactly what the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery is engaged in. "I think of it as a skunkworks," he tells me a few weeks later.
New Madison power couple
Krakauer came to Madison as a "twofer" with his wife and research collaborator Jessica Flack. They are a new Madison power couple - extremely bright, ambitious and sure to make an impact. Flack holds a Ph.D. in evolution, cognition and animal behavior from Emory University. She and Krakauer met, fittingly, at a scholarly conference on game theory outside of Vienna.
Like Krakauer, Flack is big on data crunching and a trans-science approach to figuring out if biological and cultural evolution have a similar architecture. It's telling that they chose to buy a house in the boho Marquette neighborhood, instead of Vilas or University Heights, where new-to-town professors normally settle. Chris Berge, the restaurateur, is their neighbor, and Krakauer and Flack can sometimes be found hanging out at Berge's Weary Traveler listening to Catfish Stephenson play country blues. This is not behavior normally associated with UW executives.
Krakauer says he likes Madison's tolerance and bookishness, and notes that the city reflects the liberal commitment to good education and good public service. "On the negative side, it's complacent. There's a feeling we've already gotten to where we want to be," he says.
That explains the town's somewhat "reduced awareness of what's going on elsewhere, even in places as extraordinarily close as Milwaukee and Chicago," he says. "That has to be addressed."
And yes, Krakauer sees the countercultural similarities of Santa Fe and Madison. "It's that intersection of slightly naive social utopianism with technology and culture, and dare I say a libertarian streak. That's very familiar to me, and that's what I like to do. In fact, if you could imagine a modern variant - a scientific institute - that wouldn't be far off from what [the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery] should be, to be honest."
Skunkworks occupy a fascinating niche in the business management canon.
The name comes from a 1940s effort by the old Lockheed Aircraft Corp. to develop a fighter plane. Fearful of the stultifying hand of its corporate bureaucracy, Lockheed established a secret research facility to devise the prototype free of its normal constraints. As The Economist magazine has reported, IBM adopted the same strategy when it broke out of its mainframe computer mentality to develop its first PC in 1981. And Steve Jobs, in one of his down periods at Apple, defiantly hoisted a pirate flag over his skunkworks lab when his development team devised the Macintosh to compete with the company's favored Lisa line of computers.
"It's better to be a pirate than join the Navy," Jobs famously told his rebel Apple team. His colleague Andy Herztfeld later recalled, "We had started out as a rebellious skunkworks, much like Apple itself, and Steve wanted us to preserve our original spirit even as we were growing more like the Navy every day."
The Jolly Roger doesn't fly over the Discovery building on Orchard Street, but it might as well. Krakauer is convinced that WID has to operate on its own terms, as an insurgent skunkworks, if it's to develop enough mass to begin influencing the broader university culture.
"What I told John Wiley [the retired chancellor and WID's first acting director] and David Ward [the interim chancellor] when I first came out here is that WID cannot be like UW-Madison. It can reflect the culture, but it cannot replicate it, because if it does it will be a failure."
He adds: "There are forces that say, 'No, conform to our norms.' That's a fight I take to work every morning."
Apparently Krakauer is prevailing. When he talked to the tech industry types last February, he said, "My goal is to create an extraordinarily restraint-free environment for smart people. I really don't have much more of an agenda than that."
Eleven months later, that blank agenda was filled up. He offered a long checklist of accomplishments, including meeting regularly to brainstorm with the CEOs of American Family Insurance, Promega biomedical and Findorff construction and creating a professionally supported workspace (called Hybrid Zone X) for student entrepreneurs like the young software writers featured in a recent Isthmus story.
It was revealing that the first time we talked, the interview went off the tracks, or so I thought. Krakauer had been explaining how the architects of the Discovery building had designed it to encourage chance encounters of its researchers and scholars by the purposeful placement of restaurants, bathrooms and even printing stations in the kitchens on each floor. And that thread wove into a discussion of the great iconoclastic thinkers of urbanity - Jane Jacobs, Christopher Alexander and (him again) Stewart Brand - who described the dynamics of a thriving city life better than any of the mainstream experts.
I was chagrined at how the interview had lost focus. But Krakauer wouldn't have it. "It's not wandering off. That's the spirit in Jacobs, Alexander and Brand, and it's certainly the spirit of the Whole Earth Catalog and its sequels. That's the space I'm in."
Sometimes those chance conversations don't yield anything, Krakauer told me. But you can't be afraid to fail or to look bad at them, because it's those freewheeling talks - often in the mash-up of artists, scientists and entrepreneurs - where the big breakthroughs are occurring today.
After all, it was Steve Jobs, founder of the highest-valued corporation on Earth, who said the single most influential college class he ever took was...calligraphy. But then again, that's not such a surprise when you consider how Apple products prize design excellence and were conceived in the creative hothouse of artsy/countercultural San Francisco and nakedly capitalistic Silicon Valley.
David Krakauer, among his ambitions, wants to strike that chord in Madison.
On the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery mission:
"I see WID as a greenhouse. It's going to do things that the campus can't do easily. First of all, experiment with hybrids. I want to create a kind of weird monster in the space of scientific ideas. That's extremely difficult to do in an academic department. The department would say: That isn't physics. That isn't chemistry. I don't care. Is it interesting? That's what concerns me. We essentially will be growing new hybrid forms that we can then disperse back to campus. I view it as a little bit of a revolutionary [effort]."
The decline of traditional academic departments:
"Disciplines are no longer stable, because knowledge is shifting far too quickly. There was a time when you could consolidate a body of knowledge and call it 'physics'.... What you hear now from physics departments is that physics is a style of reasoning. It can be applied to society, it can be applied to biology.... If you say that's what physics is, you could be a physicist of anything."
What the sciences can learn from humanities:
"What I want to take in from the humanities is long-form rigorous thought. That doesn't get done in science. Scientists are taught to write highly episodic, highly fragmented papers with each sentence qualified by a reference. Humanists are taught to write a long-essay narrative form. They're also much more situated in history. There is an understanding of the genealogical structure of ideas in the humanities that is missing in science."
The seriousness of the crisis in higher education:
"No one really knows [what will happen]. There is a prominent professor at Stanford who says that 10 years from now there will only be five universities left in the United States. I don't believe that. The other view is, 'Oh, times are always tough, and it's all about cycles, but it will come round again for us.' I don't believe that either. The moderate version is what we've already seen: That there is less money at the department level for new hires. Fact! That there is a better alternative to the standard lecture. Fact! There is a demand from students for a more expansive notion of education to include, for example, entrepreneurial activity. Fact! There's nothing I've said here that is controversial."
The nature of change:
"There is an assumption that vast changes require vast exertion of force, but I think that's not true. Look at technical innovations [like movable type]. There are things that can fundamentally shift the landscape even though in themselves they don't seem to be anything more than the product of one man in a garage. It didn't require infinite resources. It didn't require mobilizing large social bureaucracies. That's how places like WID can be interesting. I'm not really looking to change much outside the boundaries of WID, because I can't. But if I make it porous, if I make what we create exportable, and if what we create is valuable, then we could have a very significant impact."
The need for studies like psycho-economics:
"The recession was both a psychological and an economic phenomenon. Everyone says so, but how many universities have a department of psycho-economics? Zero! Those are the kind of interfaces we do. They're amazing."
"Successful people in life by and large forge ahead irrespective to the rules they're provided with. This university, at the moment, is quite rule-bound."
Free-market economist Joseph Schumpeter's notion of "creative destruction":
"I'm very fond of Schumpeter. In the world of ideas, creative destruction is always how business has been conducted. Newton, Darwin and Galileo are heroes because their ideas triumphed. Society is the domain where creative destruction is least applicable. Society is the domain of extraordinary continuity."
The Wisconsin Institute for Discovery
Overview: The Wisconsin Institute for Discovery shares the gleaming $210 million Discovery building, 330 N. Orchard St., with two collaborators: the privately operated and biomedical-focused Morgridge Institute for Research and the Town Center, which is run by the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation as a public space for science, gathering and learning. (Your kids will love the interactive displays.)
Collectively, the three entities are called the Wisconsin Institutes (plural) for Discovery, which is confusing given that WID is the Wisconsin Institute (singular) for Discovery. Go figure why they did it that way.
The WID mindset: The institute "comprises an ever-expanding network of researchers and thinkers unified by a fascination with information in nature and society," director David Krakauer writes.
Staffing and budget: WID has about 220 associates, including faculty, staff and students. The faculty comes from departments across campus. The operating budget this year is $1.4 million, but that's exclusive of the research grants WID faculty secure for their work.
Areas of focus: The UW conducted an open solicitation for faculty research proposals before settling on WID's eight concentrations: bionates, which concerns cell growth; core computation, which provides cyber-tools for data research; epigenetics, which deals with gene triggers; games and learning, which focuses on videogames for education; optimization, which is the science of running systems efficiently; systems biology, which studies the interplay of genes and molecules; living environments, which deals with design, virtual reality and homecare technology; and the Center for Complexity and Collective Computation, which is run by Krakauer and his collaborator (and wife) Jessica Flack. C4 studies information processing.
Programming: Impressively eclectic. The intent is to bring humanists, scientists and math/data types together. Visiting scholars this past year included cartoonist Lynda Barry, Wisconsin Public Radio's Anne Strainchamps and Steve Paulson, and CBS travel editor Peter Greenberg. The "Humanities Hackathon" introduced artists and litterateurs to computational techniques. The "Counterfactual Campus" event imagined the university 100 years from now. The "Frontier Fellows" program selected students to work on interdisciplinary research teams. The Von Neumann public lecture series included talks on "The Principles of Collective Behavior" and "A Turing Test for Free Will."