Ideas from one field leading to innovation in another?
July 24, 2012 2:04 PM   Subscribe

Examples of ideas from one field leading to innovation in another?

In a training I run at work broadly related to strategy and innovation, we used the example of the LZR racer swimsuit to illustrate how ideas from one field can lead to breakthroughs in another. The swimsuit was apparently developed from research on how sharks' skin helps them move through water, but that now seems to be in doubt and I'm looking for new examples.

Essentially what I am looking for is any example of how an idea from one field has lead to innovation or a breakthrough or advancement in another, with no restrictions on the fields involved. Suggestions for places I could find such ideas also welcome if you don't have any directly.
posted by StephenF to Education (23 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
10 NASA Inventions You Might Use Every Day might offer a good opening.
posted by beaucoupkevin at 2:12 PM on July 24, 2012

There is an amazing documentary series about exactly this (from the 80s but still great) called Connections, and it's all on youtube.
This link is to the first episode, which doesn't really get into the topic at all, but just sort of goes back in history to set the scene for the following episodes.
The following episodes are a wild ride of innovations in one area being discovered to be fantastic solutions in completely unrelated fields.
posted by -harlequin- at 2:13 PM on July 24, 2012 [3 favorites]

Basically this is one of the founding tenets of open innovation, which is getting serious take up in the food industry - coatings, nutraceutical delivery, material formation, nanotech are all big areas.

Cadbury, for example, apparently use of innovations from metallurgy and defense in confectionery.
posted by MuffinMan at 2:14 PM on July 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

I was just reading about how research on nuclear weapons inadvertently helped improve our understanding of climatology, which in turn alerted us to the threat of global warming. Is that the kind of thing you're looking for?
posted by Cash4Lead at 2:15 PM on July 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

Pyrex was originally created to help prevent breakage in railroad lantern globes and battery jars.
posted by radiosilents at 2:16 PM on July 24, 2012

This is probably too esoteric, but fluorescence-activacted cell sorting (FACS), an essential tool of modern immunology and many other biomedical fields is based on the electrostatic inkjet printer.
posted by juliapangolin at 2:16 PM on July 24, 2012

Joseph Lister started using carbolic acid to sterilize his operating rooms because the sanitation workers in London sprayed it on the garbage-filled Victorian streets to cut down on the stank. No rotting sewage-->no rotting flesh.

Here's a previous question that may interest you.
posted by phunniemee at 2:17 PM on July 24, 2012

One of Diane Rehm's guests today discussed how research specific to AIDS has led to a greater understanding of the human body, which has led to evidently a ton of advances in non-AIDS medicine. (Late in the hour, toward the end of the show.)
posted by jbickers at 2:17 PM on July 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

I think Microplane's graters were originally sold as wood rasps.
posted by AkzidenzGrotesk at 2:23 PM on July 24, 2012

I think that one great example is that computers and networking have led to revolutions in the data communications industry.

AT&T had rudimentary data connections available and they were used for very esoteric things. For example, there was something called a "hoot and hollar" curcuit which was an open party line for junkyards to squwk at each other about particular parts.

AT&T and the Bell Systems didn't develop data circuits because there weren't enough computers that needed to talk to each other.

When they were developing the Internet (arpanet) the engineers BEGGED AT&T to let them connect to the telecommuncations system and AT&T dug their heels in. They didn't want to do it, didn't think it was worthwhile, couldn't see the good in it.

Check out Where Wizards Stay Up Late, it's a great book and reminds me of how I spent my days as a young data engineer back in the day.

(Anyone need an X.400 packet switching network?)
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 2:28 PM on July 24, 2012 [2 favorites]

The book Mauve has a pretty fascinating chapter on how the invention of artificial coloring dyes led to the discovery of artificial scents and flavors.
posted by Mchelly at 2:28 PM on July 24, 2012

Well, generally speaking, advances in physics and engineering often have knock-on effects into other fields.

As for a specific example: The development of tunable lasers and the ability to mode-lock enabled Ahmed H. Zewail to use ultrashort pulses of light to observe chemical reactions on the timescales they occur on, thereby creating the field of femtochemistry. In my field (biology), mode-locked, tunable (usually Ti:Sapphire) lasers are now used for an entirely different application: ‪Two-photon excitation microscopy‬, which has enabled us to observe the way various cells in the body behave within living, intact animals.
posted by kisch mokusch at 2:31 PM on July 24, 2012

Well, since you mention it specifically, I can think of lots of examples of biomimicry in various fields that are documented: burdock burs/Velcro, spider webs/Kevlar, bird wings/airplanes, termite mounds/passive cooling in architecture, etc.
posted by Specklet at 2:34 PM on July 24, 2012

The Jobs biography is the master class on this. Gripping read, really.
posted by thinkpiece at 2:54 PM on July 24, 2012

If the field of biomimicry could be an example of what you're looking for, I'd be happy to give you very specific and nerdy examples in architecture.
posted by Specklet at 2:54 PM on July 24, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks guys, great answers so far. Speclet, would love to hear the architecture examples. Cash4lead that's just the thing.
posted by StephenF at 3:29 PM on July 24, 2012

Ooh, just remembered a peculiar one: Discovery and development of nuclear weapons during the cold war enabled cardiologists (40 years later) to determine whether human heart muscle cells can be generated later in life (as opposed to being born with a limited number of non-renewing cells). Elegant study, published in Science. Article can be read here.
posted by kisch mokusch at 3:43 PM on July 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

Theory developed to help with transmission of electrical signals in undersea telegraph cables later proved useful in understanding how signals were propagated down the axons of nerve cells.

Venoms from snakes, spiders and even marine snails have been useful in studying all sorts of cellular procesees. I was just reading about a painkiller that resulted from such work.
posted by Good Brain at 4:05 PM on July 24, 2012

Not exactly what you're looking for perhaps, but the economic theories of Karl Marx and his followers have during the past 30 years or so found their way into the humanities as the basis for some influential versions of cultural studies/critical theory.
posted by 5Q7 at 4:13 PM on July 24, 2012

This building is considered biomimetic in two ways: 1) its structural elements look and function like trabeculae, the strands of connective tissue is bone, and 2) the placement of the negative space within the structure (by which I mean the atrium, or light well) has been dictated by the daylight on the site, inspired by the sunlight-capturing action of heliotropism.

Dang, I have to run to catch my train, but I've got another example for you. I'll post again later.
posted by Specklet at 5:14 PM on July 24, 2012

As others have mentioned, biomimicry is a field to investigate.

For a whole bunch of specific examples, though, I suggest reviewing the Biomimicry 3.8 website (a consultancy firm). Their case studies page is a good jumping point, as is the biomimicry primer page.

You've got kingfisher beaks leading to Japanese bullet train enhancements, dolphins and tsunami early warning systems, and many more.
posted by fakelvis at 12:45 AM on July 25, 2012

If your idea of innovation transferring from one field to another is something biological inspiring something engineered, there are plenty of examples. Velcro for example.
posted by philipy at 7:55 AM on July 25, 2012

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