Interdisciplinary competencies and innovation

By Colleen Knechtel

Colleen Knechtel (biography)

What interdisciplinary competencies are required for innovation? How can such interdisciplinary competencies be implemented to foster innovation?

Keys to stimulating innovation are cultivating interdisciplinary mindsets and skillsets. Interdisciplinary mindsets involve recognizing diverse knowledge to enable collaboration to enhance collective creativity, whereas interdisciplinary skillsets embrace relational competencies, work experiences, the sciences, humanities, trades and technologies. Integrating such diverse knowledge and skills is key to innovation.

Strategies for implementing interdisciplinary competencies

1. Recognizing prior knowledge and skills

A ‘growth mindset’ that focuses on strengths and competencies that is grounded in transformative learning strengthens confidence, affirms lifelong learning abilities, and motivates individuals to identify and address learning gaps.

Key to this is recognition of prior learning which can be prompted through interviews, focus group discussions, collaborative problem-solving, journaling, life history narratives, journey mapping, collages, drawing, photo-voice/-documentary, as well as kinaesthetic forms of self-expression such as music and dance.

2. Flipping the innovation pyramid

This approach to innovation invites people with first-hand knowledge and expertise of the situation or problem to drive change, while at the same time creating opportunities for cross-training and lifelong learning.

Flipping the innovation pyramid provides opportunities to take leadership roles, as well as to share insights and work collaboratively with others to improve ideas. Deep listening and dialogue need to be practised to transform diverse ideas into collaborative action.

3. Thinking inclusively and relational responsibility

The principles of interdisciplinarity allow for synergy of ideas from diverse disciplines, address individual differences, expand relational competencies and support on-going development of transferable skills.

In addition, relational responsibility involves respecting different cultures, languages, educational backgrounds, aptitudes, skillsets and worldviews, which in turn leads to opportunities that broaden abilities to create innovative solutions.

4. Transforming ideas into action

Transforming ideas into action requires the capacity to communicate and access collaborative knowledge and skills for effective team efforts. Leveraging solutions includes the need to value and understand diverse worldviews.

This means that our way of solving a problem may not be congruent with how others see the same problem or solution, nor will our values and priorities necessarily align. It is often difficult to negotiate a solution that works for everyone, and dialogue is critically important to this collaborative and consultative process.

This involves acknowledging the process as one of knowledge transformation rather than knowledge transmission. In knowledge transformation, everyone involved is an active teacher and learner to improve continuous learning and professional practice. In a knowledge-technology society, polishing and sharpening both mindsets and skillsets are vital to bridging the theory-practice gap to develop interdisciplinary competencies for innovation.

5. Micro-credentials and mini-qualifications

An important strategy to develop interdisciplinary competencies is online courses and accreditations such as webinars through professional associations and Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). These provide micro-credentials that anyone can access for free.

Mini-qualifications demonstrate knowledge, skills and/or experience in given proficiencies. Compared with traditional diplomas or degrees, micro-credentials tend to be knowledge- or skills- specific ways to sharpen and polish interdisciplinary knowledge and skills to enhance collaboration and innovation.

6. Reflective practices of unlearning and reframing

Developing interdisciplinary competencies through reframing and unlearning using reflection is another key approach to implementing interdisciplinary competencies.

Interdisciplinary competencies involve reframing what we already know and how we think about problems and solutions. Expanding what we know requires unlearning and reconsidering what we think we know by seeing things through different lenses and adjusting our perceptions and interpretations.

Being flexible and agile – that is, thinking in new ways – can be accomplished by critically reflecting on our own narratives and appreciating the distinct narratives of others as valid worldviews and approaches to problem-solving. This idea of unlearning and reframing what we already know calls upon analytical and critical thinking to cultivate curiosity and inspiration for enhanced creativity.


Interdisciplinarity is key for innovation to solve complex problems. In a knowledge-technology society, using interdisciplinarity to stimulate innovation is helpful within a range of settings, including in research, education, and individual career development. We must pay attention to building interdisciplinary competencies for collective creativity.

Do these ideas resonate with your experiences in your education, research, scholarship, and work life? Do you have other ideas for using interdisciplinarity to stimulate collective creativity for innovation?

Biography: Colleen Knechtel is an interdisciplinary scholar and educator who has worked in career development, disability management, and community engagement. Intrigued by possibilities for career-integrated-learning in schools, she is currently completing a PhD program in the department of Secondary Education at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada.

15 thoughts on “Interdisciplinary competencies and innovation”

  1. Thank you for your post. The need for student engagement gathered a transformation for success. I agree with your point about the need for teachers and learners to improve continous learning and professional practice (Knechtel, 2020) because it gathered purpose with what matters in the education environment. I would like to keep in touch and collaborate into the interdisciplinary while integrating dance education for student success.

    • Of course, let’s stay in touch. I would be happy to collaborate with you to think more deeply together to consider in what ways dance coalesces with science, math, technology both on the stage and in the school gymnasium. You are welcome to email me directly at

      While I am not a dancer, nor a biochemist, I can appreciate a molecular and atomic world of dance – chemical reactions having their own patterns and movements in their chemical reactions, also beautifully influenced by factors of math and physics alongside principles of energy ….

      The best ideas truly come from thinking afresh, reflecting outside the boundaries of a metaphorical ‘box’ of a discipline, beyond the siloed brick walls. The world of disciplines maintains narrowed thinking that lead to standard status quo understandings, whereas exploring diverse ways of knowing, including embodied knowledge, leads to emergent creativity and innovation: ways that may bring enlightenment and insight to new solutions for complex problems.

  2. Thank you Colleen for excellent post. It did remind me, however, that there’s so much to still learn 🙂 I appreciate the links you posted and I definitely need to look at them. Also, it’s great to see someone from the University of Alberta post something (that’s where I work). Feel free to get in touch. I know there’s a very strong interest in these competencies and types of innovation here on campus, but I also think many of us are stuck in a type of thinking that makes interdisciplinary thinking very difficult–and almost impossible for some people. And I’m not sure why that is, but it’s to our own detriment.

    • Hi Thane,

      Thank you for reaching out through this forum, I will definitely connect with you to discuss ways to connect our campus with interdisciplinarity! I agree — there is so much more to learn! I am happy to know there are others in our learning community who are able to see the forest beyond the trees — and see the whole picture — the strength of the bond between science and humanities, and humanities and science – ecosystems that work together, as they should — whole systems acting together in unison, collaboratively.

      What is science and technology without humans? The humanities make better scientists.

      As a learning interdisciplinary community, we must continue to theorize and find ways to practice weaving together theory-practice and quantitative-qualitative gaps in our diverse knowledge systems. We can do this through multi-method collaborative approaches to problem-solving, and by thinking in novel ways and remaining open-minded.

      We are now situated in the beginning of a new era: a Renaissance of sorts that will celebrate the interconnected relationships between humans, technology, knowledge, and our ecosystems. Education grounded in siloed-singular thinking is no longer adequate to advance and solve complex societal problems in our evolving knowledge-technology economy.

      This forum has invited me to realize that we are not alone in our aspirations for interdisciplinary thinking, and that our struggles in this learning community to bridge the theory-practice/quantitative-qualitative gaps are real.

      I agree that it does seem that disciplinary silos have brick walls built around them, and calls for interdisciplinary mindsets and skillsets are largely misinterpreted as ways to dilute academia and the disciplines. Instead, diversity is to be celebrated! A forest with one kind of trees and one kind of birds, or a society with silo/linear thinking and blind spots are NOT the outcomes we are wanting to pursue; instead we want healthy thriving ecosystems to flourish towards a more unified world where needs are met and problems are solved.
      Our world cannot continue to be siloed and divided; our world instead needs to be interconnected and multi-dimensional.

      How might we begin to learn and teach and lead and think to solve problems in more interconnected and multi-dimensional ways? In what ways might interdisciplinary scholars lead others to share our vision … and see the whole picture — the healthy forest beyond the trees — within an ecologically healthy, thriving and flourishing, and diverse knowledge-technology society?

      • I am so energized after reading your reply. We (university admin, leaders, and staff; funders; and faculty members), use the term interdisciplinary a lot, but I do worry that there’s something in the culture or the systems within the university that stands in its way and makes it just another buzzword that gets bandied about, but is actually meaningless in our day to day practice. I really like your idea of changing the way we learn and teach and celebrating diversity to solve some of these problems.

        • Thanks Thane for your thoughtful comments. I agree, we need to find ways to change mindsets about the great divide between the sciences and humanities. I also believe that for collective creativity there is value in including the trades in these conversations, as these practitioners know practical application better than most: another layer to interdisciplinarity to consider. In recent work I have been doing, I have noticed that there is a lack of teaching and learning and practice of collaborative team skills – the skills needed to work together to conceptualize and solve complex problems. I agree that buzzwords end up losing meaning. This is a worry. In many ways, the restructuring of our university is an opportunity to revisit these questions. The division between the humanities and the sciences does not create a healthy academic and collaborative ecosystem. Another way to think about this is to consider how anthropology opens up opportunities for scientific inquiry into genes and blood types to solve health issues, for instance. How to design architecture and spaces in buildings takes engineering knowledge as well as the sociological and psychological impact for collaborative work teams. Cancer research is important, and significantly impacts people’s lives, and their psychological well-being is as important as their physiological health care for treatment and recovery. Healthcare provides the best example of interdisciplinary teams, which have been used in Canada for over 40 years to support health and wellness of patients in treatment and care. Healthcare is an ecosystem that cannot be siloed. Thank you for this opportunity to share these thoughts. How might we begin to share these understandings within the greater collegial community and beyond?

          • By the way, I’ve asked University of Alberta virologist Michael Houghton being awarded the 2020 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine to speak on his thoughts about interdisciplinarity. He will be talking about his momentous discovery, the hepatitis C virus vaccine he and his team at Li Ka Shing Institute of Virology have developed that is now in the late pre-clinical stage of testing. Houghton is also leading an effort to produce a vaccine for COVID-19.

            Hoping he will address interdisciplinarity on Dec 9th in his talk. I think anyone is able to sign-up to hear him speak:

            [Moderator, June 27, 2023: Outdated link removed:]

          • I also think that teaching, learning, and modeling metacognitive skills are helpful ways to support interdisciplinary understandings.

  3. Thank you for your great post, Colleen.
    Each of these strategies resonated with me, especially growth mindsets, human-centred approaches and lifelong learning – all essential for both interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary work. I see that you and I share a background in career development and career integrated learning. I often wonder whether and how the education systems across the world are integrating all of these skills and mindsets you have mentioned here, and others such as empathy, shared understanding, bridging concepts? I think these would help enable the shift to think about choosing careers and lifestyles not just as ways to earn a good living, but in terms of how people can aim to make a real meaningful difference as social change agents or innovators. The micro-credentialing approach seems an effective way to respond to the rapidly changing needs and specialist skills as new problems emerge in society that need critical attention.

    • Thank you for your insights Faye. Yes, we do share a background in career development and career integrated learning, which likely explains our similar perspectives on interdisciplinarity. I believe that a focus on career integrated learning, through experiential learning in particular, creates opportunities for learners to develop interdisciplinary competencies that align with their aspirations for employment and educational choices to support life satisfaction and well being as well as prepare these young people for their future financial security.

      Like you, I too wonder how global education systems integrate skills and mindsets in their learning communities. I provide some resources including video links below to encourage your curiosity and imagination around this question. Your point is well made that education systems need to support and engage with social change agents and innovators to encourage their agency towards progress to solve complex problems. I am not sure what you mean by “bridging concepts”. Can you please explain?

      In, Integrating Career Development within the Primary School Curriculum (Jan 8, 2020), the author, Greg Souvan, a guidance counsellor and doctoral candidate in Australia, considered what career education might look like in primary school:

      Here is an example of career integrated learning in secondary school for interdisciplinary learning: Teams of teachers (grades 9–12 or 10–12) work across several academic and technical subjects, grouping students in cohorts for these classes and follow a program of study. The advisory board helps to identify a sequential set of experiential components that show students the applications of academic subjects to the career and college field and deliver work-based learning experiences (e.g., shadowing, community service, mentoring, internships, and apprenticeships). The career theme can be any of the 16 in the national Career Clusters® taxonomy or variations on these (e.g., “green,” health sciences, media arts)” (from:

      How might we integrate these ideas into our courses?

      Here are some videos that might provide some insight into the need for interdisciplinary teaching and learning:

      1) Strack, R. (2014). The workforce crisis of 2030 – and how to start solving it now [Video].

      2) Hammond, R. (2011). Building a park in the sky [Video].

      3) Aravena, A. (2014). My architectural philosophy? Bring the community into the process [Video].

      4) Richardson, J. (2014). How to think, not what to think [Video].

      Interdisciplinary skillsets and mindsets with human-centered approaches, yes?

      • I use the term ‘bridging concept’ as a transdisciplinary concept that unifies rather than divides, knowledge and interactions between people, technologies and their environments. I explore unifying bridging concepts in greater depth in my latest book Producing Shared Understanding for Digital and Social Innovation. Perhaps this could be a topic for a new blog post here? 🙂

        • Faye,

          Thank you for clarifying your idea of ‘bridging concept’ that you explore more deeply in your book: a unifying agent in knowledge creation and relational learning within interactions between people, technologies, and ecosystems. Thank you also for sharing your latest book title. It is one that I will look up, and I’m sure readers will want to look up too!

          One of the bridging concepts I like to think about as a unifying agent is related to reflexivity: ‘sojourning’, a term that means ‘a short stay in a place that is not your home’. Rather than using habitus thinking patterns, the idea of sojourning has implications for reflective practice to bridge thinking before actions are taken.

          Besides the powerful idea of paradoxical thinking and sojourning, are there other bridging concepts that can be shared here?

          What other bridging concepts can be applied in transdisciplinary practice?

        • I noticed in your book Faye your use of terms such as intuitive and reflective knowledge and your quadrants of creativity, critical thinking, communication and collaboration through what you refer to as resonant waves. I also like the way you refer to thinking that leads next to actions of dialogue and leadership. It would be great to come up with a metaphor for this active process. Ideas?

    • Thank you Daniela for your kind comment. The interdisciplinary approach to teaching and learning aligns closely with your work on human-centered classrooms and supporting student mental health in schools. An interdisciplinary approach to teaching and learning such as the study of the sciences, humanities, trades, and technologies, for instance, enhances the development of more insightful and wholistic thinkers, as well as global citizens who have the potential to innovate creatively.

      Interdisciplinary mindsets and skillsets create opportunities for learners to integrate diverse knowledge and skills that are key to both innovation and solving complex problems. An interdisciplinary (transdisciplinary or multidisciplinary) approach to inquiry-based education also provides opportunities to enhance equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) within learning communities by encouraging collaborative efforts, with opportunities to create a more compassionate world. Community collaboration is an ecological and socio-educational approach wherein health and well-being are prioritized; and curiosity is nurtured alongside infinite possibilities for creation of opportunities to enhance personal growth of lifelong learners. Such opportunities to explore educational interests among those with similar interests, teachers with diverse mindsets and skillsets, and specialists within a vibrant learning environment is the direction that our education systems need to pursue. I am interested in exploring the idea of diverse intergenerational learning communities related to interdisciplinary teaching and learning.

      I think that these ideas support the six strategies (above) for implementing interdisciplinary competencies for innovation. Thoughts on any of these ideas are welcomed and encouraged. I look forward to further discussion on this topic.


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