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Interdisciplinarity and synergy in collaborations

By Loet Leydesdorff

Loet Leydesdorff (biography)

What is the difference between “interdisciplinarity” and “synergy?” Why does it matter? How can indicators of interdisciplinarity and synergy be conceptualized and defined mathematically? Can one measure interdisciplinarity and synergy?

Problem-solving often requires crossing boundaries, such as those between disciplines. However, interdisciplinarity is not an objective in itself, but a means for creating synergy. When policy-makers call for interdisciplinarity, they may mean synergy. Synergy means that the whole offers more possibilities than the sum of its parts. The measurement of synergy, however, requires a methodology very different from interdisciplinarity. In this blog post, I consider each of these measures in turn, the logic underpinning each of them, and I specify the definitions in mathematical terms.

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Recent posts

Integration: The IPO model

By Stephen Crowley and Graham Hubbs

1. Stephen Crowley (biography)
2. Graham Hubbs (biography)

How can we improve our understanding of knowledge integration? What are the elements of integration?

Sometimes what gets integrated are products of science, such as data sets or scientific models. Sometimes it is not the products that are integrated but instead the methods, as can happen on interdisciplinary teams. On these teams, scientists work together, so sometimes it is the people themselves (scientists are people!) or their disciplinary cultures that get integrated.

These are only some of the possible elements of integration. There is just as wide a variety of processes and products of integration as there are elements. The process of integrating data sets might be a sort of analysis, and the result might be a table or graph that displays the results of research in a conspicuous manner. Integrating diverse scientists into an interdisciplinary team, by contrast, is a matter of people working together, and the result of the integration is not a table or a graph but the team itself.

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Six lessons from students about transdisciplinary learning

By Irina Dallo, Jan Freihardt and Juanita von Rothkirch

1. Irina Dallo (biography)
2. Jan Freihardt (biography)
3. Juanita von Rothkirch (biography)

What is an effective way of providing students with practical experience in stakeholder engagement? How can students learn to communicate and engage with community members on a transdisciplinary project, as well as how to create a space for those community members to reflect on their daily lives through interactions and discussions with the student outsiders? What makes it possible for students to broaden their horizons and to acquire new competences and skills?

We present our reflections on how the Winter School 2020 “Science meets Practice” run by ETH Zürich successfully contributed to our transdisciplinary learning process. We suggest there are six key lessons for those who want to design a successful course.

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How can we amplify impact to foster transformative change?

By David P. M. Lam

David P. M. Lam (biography)

How can the impact of sustainability and other initiatives be scaled or amplified to achieve transformative change?

There are hundreds of promising sustainability initiatives emerging around the world. A sustainability initiative is, for example, a local food initiative from citizens and farmers who promote healthy and organic food production and consumption. Another example is the installation of solar panels by a community to support the use of renewable energies. Such initiatives provide potential solutions for urgent sustainability problems, for instance, biodiversity loss, climate change, social injustice, and poverty in rural areas or cities.

This blog post is based on a review of the literature to understand how sustainability transformations research is currently conceptualizing the scaling or amplifying of impact from initiatives. Although our focus was on sustainability, the processes are likely to also be pertinent for other initiatives.

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How librarians contribute to interdisciplinary research teams

By Kelly Miller and Kineret Ben-Knaan

1. Kelly Miller (biography)
2. Kineret Ben-Knaan (biography)

What can librarians contribute to interdisciplinary research teams working on complex problems? We suggest that librarians add value in the following three ways:

  1. finding and accessing information resources across disciplines
  2. connecting teams to experts and resources, and
  3. improving collaboration and communication strategies.

Our experience comes from being part of the University of Miami’s Laboratory for Integrative Knowledge initiative, also known as U-LINK, which aims to address the world’s most compelling problems through interdisciplinary inquiry. From 2018-2020, teams of scholars from multiple disciplines have received funding to pursue solutions to global challenges.

Librarians have been embedded in each of the teams.

Read moreHow librarians contribute to interdisciplinary research teams

Highlighted posts on integration

Skilful conversations for integration

By Rebecca Freeth and Liz Clarke

1. Rebecca Freeth (biography)
2. Liz Clarke (biography)

Interdisciplinary collaboration to tackle complex problems is challenging! In particular, interdisciplinary communication can be very difficult – how do we bridge the gulf of mutual incomprehension when we are working with people who think and talk so very differently from us? What skills are required when mutual incomprehension escalates into conflict, or thwarts decision making on important issues?

It is often at this point that collaborations lose momentum. In the absence of constructive or productive exchange, working relationships stagnate and people retreat to the places where they feel safest: their own disciplines, their offices, or the colleagues who are on their ‘side’. As a consequence, prospects for meaningful collaboration and integration dwindle.

One of the difficulties of interdisciplinary collaboration is being able to express the brilliant ideas swimming around in our own heads so that they can (a) be understood by others and (b) contribute to mutual insights and integration.

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The integrative role of landscape

By David Brunckhorst, Jamie Trammell and Ian Reeve

1. David Brunckhorst (biography)
2. Jamie Trammell (biography)
3. Ian Reeve (biography)

Landscapes are the stage for the theatre of human-nature interactions. What does ‘landscape’ mean and what integrative function does it perform?

What is landscape?

Consider a painting of a landscape or look out a window. We imagine, interpret and construct an image of the ‘landscape’ that we see. It’s not surprising that landscapes (like the paintings of them) are valued through human perceptions, and evolve through closely interdependent human-nature relationships. Landscapes are co-constructed by society and the biophysical environment. Landscape change is, therefore, a continuous reflection of the evolving coupled responses of environment and institutions. Landscapes are especially meaningful to those who live in them.

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Metacognition as a prerequisite for interdisciplinary integration

By Machiel Keestra

Machiel Keestra (biography)

What’s needed to enable the integration of concepts, theories, methods, and results across disciplines? Why is communication among experts important, but not sufficient? Interdisciplinary experts must also meta-cognize: both individually and as a team they must monitor, evaluate and regulate their cognitive processes and mental representations. Without this, expertise will function suboptimally both for individuals and teams. Metacognition is not an easy task, though, and deserves more attention in both training and collaboration processes than it usually gets. Why is metacognition so challenging and how can it be facilitated?

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Ten dimensions of integration: Guidelines for modellers

By Serena Hamilton and Tony Jakeman

1. Serena Hamilton (biography)
2. Tony Jakeman (biography)

Why Integrated Assessment and Integrated Modelling? In our highly connected world environmental problems have social or economic causes and consequences, and decisions to assist one segment of a population can have negative repercussions on other parts of the population. It is broadly accepted that we require integrated, rather than piecemeal approaches to resolve environmental or other complex problems.

Integrated Assessment and its inherent platform, Integrated Modelling, bring together diverse knowledge, data, methods and perspectives into one coherent and comprehensive framework.

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