Artwork by Sander Brouwer ©

Transdisciplinary Innovation and Design

This month I celebrate my first anniversary working at UTS’ Faculty of Transdisciplinary Innovation. Transdisciplinary Innovation, that’s two buzzwords in a row. Enough has been said about the overuse and abuse of the word innovation, but transdisciplinarity is quickly catching up. We now have transdisciplinary practices, research, degrees, art, events, and labs. But what is transdisciplinarity? Do we really need it? What are its challenges? And what does design have to do with it?

Transdisciplinary Innovation — what is it?

‘Transdisciplinarity’, a word that is becoming popular so quickly that it is not even recognised yet by my word processors’ spelling checker. The term has been around since the early seventies when it was discussed at a seminar on interdisciplinarity in universities in Nice, organised by the OECD (Apostel et al, 1972). More recently, the term has also become popular outside academia. Transdisciplinary research and innovation is about the practises that are required to address complex societal problems. There are many definitions of transdisciplinary research and innovation and how to do it, but a general consensus is that it has the following characteristics:

  • It is action-oriented, focussing on addressing real world complex issues
  • It is participatory, considering not only scientific or academic knowledge, but also forms of practical, local and personal knowledge
  • It is continuously evolving in the “pursuit of a common system purpose.” (Jantsch, 1972)
  • In that process it transforms and transcends individual disciplines
  • It is holistic, building an understanding of whole systems and their complexity
  • It is purposive, building a deeper understanding of a common human and social purpose to direct our efforts, by bringing values and norms into play (Jantsch, 1972)

My work and studies are in design, which is often called a transdisciplinary approach. I think design can indeed be used in transdisciplinary approaches, but it is not transdisciplinary by default. This can be explained by comparing transdisciplinarity to multi-, cross-, and interdisciplinarity.

  • Multi-disciplinarity occurs when the solution to a problem makes it necessary to “obtain information from two or more sciences or sectors of knowledge without the disciplines drawn on thereby being changed or enriched” (Piaget, 1972). An example is when an engineer, designer, marketeer, and UX expert come together to develop a product, using the perspectives and knowledge of each of these practices. The individual practitioners do not change or become enriched by this collaboration.
  • Cross-disciplinarity is what happens when the goals and concepts of one discipline are imposed on another discipline (Jantsch, 1972). Cross-disciplinary design thinking is what happens when design is ‘imposed’ on business. Design methods such as personas, storyboarding and prototyping are used for business purposes, without adjusting these methods to the business context. Business might be enriched through this interaction (or just confused), but design does not change.
  • Inter-disciplinarity is where “cooperation among various disciplines or heterogeneous sectors in the same science lead to actual interactions, to a certain reciprocity of exchanges resulting in mutual enrichment” (Piaget, 1972). For example, methods and concepts from biology, chemistry and psychology are integrated in medicine. Biology and chemistry, and psychology ‘enrich’ each other for the shared purpose of medicine. Similarly, design and computer science have enriched each other in the interdisciplinary field of interaction design.
  • Transdisciplinarity takes this integration of disciplines a step further. It is a holistic approach. It is not just about interactions between specialised fields, but about placing these interactions in a total system with a social purpose.

What transdisciplinarity means for individual practitioners and academics depends on where you are coming from. For scientists, for example, it means that their work is embedded in the real world, and that they respect ‘non-research stakeholders’. This participatory approach is a bit of a no-brainer to design practice, where it has become very common to involve all types of stakeholders in co-design approaches. For many designers however, the focus on systems, complexity and purpose might be new. Interesting transdisciplinary developments of design practice are being explored by for example the systemic design community who integrate systems thinking with design, and by the many designers who are looking for systemic ways to address sustainability issues.

Transdisciplinarity — why do we even need it?

Many people say their work is transdisciplinary, while in reality it is often more likely to be multi- or inter-disciplinary. But does that even matter? Is interdisciplinarity not good enough? I guess that depends on what you want to achieve, although I’m not sure if we have a choice. In this rapidly changing, hyper-connected world, we are facing increasingly complex and dynamic problems. To name just a few, we are facing mass-migration, youth radicalisation, mental health problems caused by social media pressure and increasing work pressure, and climate change is getting so out of hand that we have started to enter the anthropocene. A more optimistic view is that new technology offers many opportunities to contribute to society such as the application of robotics in aged care, the potential of blockchain technology to protect and secure sensitive information such as ID papers, and the accessibility of education in remote places through online learning. Regardless your viewpoint, we live in changing times that will keep impacting us one way or another. As John Seeley Brown explains in this fantastic lecture, things are changing so fast that it is almost becoming impossible to become an expert in anything and ‘everyone will always be a newbie’. According to him, the best way to deal with this is through adaptation and creating ‘knowledge flows’ by learning from each other. We cannot afford to stay within the comfort zones of our individual disciplines and practices, but need to keep learning, come together, and look for new ways to address these complex issues. We need transdisciplinarity.

The challenges of transdisciplinarity

In my work at UTS I have started to experience what transdisciplinarity means through learning about systems thinking, complexity, and more generally about how we can get the most out of a group of diverse people. I have also come to realise that there are many challenges to transdisciplinarity, some external, some more internal and personal.

A major external challenge is that we live in a society that likes to put things in boxes. So many of us work in siloed organisations that make it very difficult to adapt or collaborate. In a university context this for example means that:

  • Most academic funders don’t like it (yet) > the Australian Research Council puts academics in boxes called ‘Field of Research’ codes, which defines which mono-disciplinary panel assesses your research proposal
  • A system based on competition does not promote it, and incentivises academics to publish in mono-disciplinary boxes called top journals.
  • A system based on accountability does not promote to adapt to external changes by putting our tasks in boxes called work plans and key performance indicators.

Another challenge of transdisciplinarity is that we still don’t really know how to do it. Particularly transdisciplinary collaboration is really hard. So often do we put a group of diverse people in the room around a complex problem, add a bit of design thinking and other creative tools, and then we go back to what we were doing before. Multi- and cross-disciplinary practices are far more straightforward than transdisciplinary work.

Finally, there are also many personal challenges when trying to do transdisciplinary work, including:

  • Most people don’t like complexity and uncertainty. Not knowing where you are going and dealing with constant change can be exhausting.
  • It requires humbleness and an open mindset. Working in a transdisciplinary faculty I have come to realise how many things we claim to be unique to our design expertise, but in reality, are skills that colleagues of other disciplines also obtain or are even better at. Design with empathy? My anthropologist and sociologist colleagues understand empathy much better than I do. Human-centeredness? Most of my colleagues engage in a human-centred practice in one way or another. Storytelling? Well, that’s of course not a design expertise at all (ask my journalism and creative writing colleagues).

Transdisciplinarity is transformative, uncomfortable and at times embarrassing: we need to put effort into understanding each other’s approaches and value systems. We need to step towards each other and be courageous enough to leave the ‘safety net’ of our own disciplines. Despite these challenges, working in a transdisciplinary context has so far been an amazing experience. Working in a diverse group of curious and open-minded people, facing complex challenges, the learning curve is very steep. Transdisciplinarity tends not to attract people who are only focused on their own career which means we don’t have many egos in our (still) small faculty. This generates a supportive culture that is required to deal with the challenges and an openness to share knowledge and ideas.

So what do you think? Do we need transdisciplinarity? How can it move beyond being a buzzword, to commonly applied practices to successfully address complex problems? How can we foster such a transdisciplinary culture and practice? Please get in touch or leave a comment if you are interested in these questions and topics. I would like to connect with people who would like to share their experiences and expertise in working in transdisciplinary ways.

References

Apostel, L., Berger, G., Briggs, A., & Michaud, G. (1972). Interdisciplinarity, problems of teaching and research in universities. Paris: OECD publications.

Jantsch, E. (1972). Towards interdisciplinarity and transdisciplinarity in education and innovation. In L. Apostel, G. Berger, A. Briggs, & G. Michaud (Eds.), Interdisciplinarity, problems of teaching and research in universities (pp. 97–121). Paris: OECD Publications.

Piaget, J. (1972). The epistemology of interdisciplinary relationships. In L. Apostel, G. Berger, A. Briggs, & G. Michaud (Eds.), Interdisciplinarity, problems of teaching and research in universities. Paris: OECD publications.