What is needed to institutionalise transdisciplinarity?

By Gabriele Bammer

Author - Gabriele Bammer
Gabriele Bammer (biography)

What are the indicators that transdisciplinarity has been institutionalised? How close is it? What still needs to be done to achieve institutionalisation?

Transdisciplinary teaching and research are becoming more common in universities and a range of research organisations. So how will we know that transdisciplinarity is an integral and accepted part of the research and higher education scene, nationally and internationally?

I suggest that there are two primary criteria:

  1. The expertise required to undertake transdisciplinary research is recognized and codified
  2. Acknowledged transdisciplinary experts are given an equal voice with established disciplines when research and higher education policy are made and when funding is allocated.

On these criteria, it is fair to say that transdisciplinarity is not even close to being institutionalised. As colleagues and I have suggested in How can expertise in research integration and implementation help tackle complex problems? we are only beginning to define the expertise that transdisciplinarians have. In addition, when transdisciplinarity is discussed at the research policy and higher education tables, it is rare for those involved to be acknowledged transdisciplinary experts. Similarly, acknowledged transdisciplinary experts are not yet routinely involved either in setting the policies of funding organisations or in reviewing relevant grants.

Nevertheless, there is growing acknowledgement of the importance of transdisciplinarity, along with funding for projects that tackle complex problems. Those interested in leveraging these advances to achieve institutionalization must:

  1. Unite!
  2. Organise!
  3. Respond!
  4. Fight!

Why are these actions necessary and how can they best be achieved?

Unite!

Transdisciplinarians are not alone in seeking to tackle problems, especially complex societal and environmental problems, by:

  • integrating knowledge from multiple disciplines and stakeholders
  • using that integrated knowledge to improve the problem under investigation.

Such work is undertaken by many research teams only some of which identify with the transdisciplinary community. Others identify with systems thinking, action research, post-normal science, implementation science, integrated assessment, team science and similar communities among the 24 or so identified in Finding expertise in research integration and implementation to tackle complex problems.

This fragmentation has important consequences in the scholarly and political domains:

  • from the scholarly perspective, the fragmentation makes it hard to find previous work, for example on methods and processes for stakeholder engagement or integration. This leads to reinvention of the wheel, rather than building on, refining, contextualizing or otherwise improving existing methods and processes.
  • politically, the lack of critical mass leads to on-going marginalization of this kind of work, with accompanying powerlessness.

Innovative thinking is needed about how the different communities (transdisciplinary, systems thinking, action research, etc.) can unite in common cause while maintaining the benefits of their individual histories and emphases.

In Do we need to discipline interdisciplinarity? I have suggested a common underpinning discipline – Integration and Implementation Sciences (i2S) – that would provide a common identity, as well as a mechanism for sharing concepts, methods and processes.

Organise!

Such a unified body of researchers and educators needs structures and processes to define who they are and what they do, along with sanctions for who can and cannot speak for them.

Traditional ways of organizing, especially through professional associations and networks, can be powerful. However, one consequence of the fragmentation discussed above is that there are more than 60 relevant professional associations and networks already in existence (https://i2s.anu.edu.au/resources/associations_networks/). Many are quite small and again a mechanism is needed to unite them.

Perhaps more important is to formalize a structure bringing together leaders, especially leaders of centres and other organisations that foster transdisciplinary, systems thinking, action research and other related ways of dealing with complex societal and environmental problems. Such leaders’ organisations can press for seats at the policy and funding tables and can select suitable representatives, with legitimacy in the eyes of their peers, to take up those seats.

Efforts are underway to establish a global leaders group (https://nitro-oceania.net/global-network/), along with regional groups, with an active group already existing in the Oceania region (https://nitro-oceania.net/).

Respond!

When research, education, funding and related policies are formulated, the established bodies of transdisciplinary and related researchers and organizational leaders need to get involved, for example by making submissions and participating in national and international enquiries.

Local, national and international crises can also provide opportunities for such bodies to contribute in unique ways. The COVID-19 pandemic, for example, has provided opportunities for epidemiologists, immunologists and economists to shine. Do transdisciplinarians and others interested in complex societal and environmental problems also have something to offer, for example on planning for post-pandemic life?

Such responses – to policy formulation and crises – provide an opportunity to demonstrate the strengths of transdisciplinarians, systems thinkers, action researcher and others. Developing responses can also help to build the community and give it a profile among policy and funding decision makers.

Fight!

Carving out adequate space for transdisciplinary and related endeavours in the research, higher education and funding spheres requires established disciplines to cede ground, because there will always be limitations in the number of researchers and graduate students, space in curricula and amount of available funding. Institutionalization will therefore probably need to be fought for.

Useful tactics include:

  • using charm, humour and strategic thinking rather than aggression
  • forming strategic alliances with cross-disciplinary research teams tackling a wide range of complex societal and environmental problems in sustainability, migration, health care and so on
  • showing up when there are opportunities or important debates
  • insisting that those speaking for transdisciplinary and related endeavours are suitably qualified (although allies from other areas should also be made welcome)
  • avoiding inaction and doing the best possible in the circumstances, in other words not letting “the perfect be the enemy of the good”
  • finding the low-hanging fruit, ie., opportunities for early and easy wins.

Conclusion

Institutionalising transdisciplinarity requires its practitioners to co-construct a big picture vision. This blog post aims to provide some starting ideas.

In addition, it is important to honour and respect the steps transdisciplinarians are already taking, for example to establish and maintain courses, to support funders, and to develop professional associations, as such initiatives provide the bedrock on which institutionalization is built. Those who have pioneered transdisciplinarity have often fought draining battles for even the smallest gains.

Finally, it is important that transdisciplinarians look after each other, especially when we disagree, and that we strive to find meaningful accommodations of our diversity.

What do you think? Do any of these ideas resonate with you? Where do you disagree? Do you have additional suggestions or experiences to share?

This blog post is based on a keynote address presented at the online symposium “Transdisciplinarity as an institutional challenge for universities” June 15-16, 2021. For more information see: https://www.transdis.tu-berlin.de/menue/aktuelles/fachtagung_transdisziplinaritaet_als_institutionelle_herausforderung_fuer_universitaeten/

Biography: Gabriele Bammer PhD is a professor at The Australian National University in Canberra in the Research School of Population Health’s National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health. She is developing the new discipline of Integration and Implementation Sciences (i2S) to improve research strengths for tackling complex real-world problems through synthesis of disciplinary and stakeholder knowledge, understanding and managing diverse unknowns, and providing integrated research support for policy and practice change.

28 thoughts on “What is needed to institutionalise transdisciplinarity?”

  1. Dear colleagues, dialogue between Gabriele Bammer and Catherine Hobbs gave me some thoughts that I want to share with you.
    Gerard M Mullally (University College Cork) sent me a book “Metaphor, Sustainability, Transformation. Transdisciplinary Perspectives”. Edited by Ian Hughes, Edmond Byrne, Gerard Mullally, and Colin Sage (2021). This book describes the influence of metaphors on the management of the practical activities of scientists, specialists and ordinary people. I will quote from this book:
    “Larson (2011) points to two prominent metaphors that environmentalists have adopted to illustrate how metaphors can suggest particular courses of action. Gaia, derived from the name of the Greek Earth goddess, is used to envision the earth as a living organism, with self-regulatory capacity and stability over enormous periods of time. The other, Spaceship Earth, conjures up a quite different image of our planet as a finite system hurtling through endless space, encouraging us to better manage its resources. Gaia suggests we need do nothing (or at least minimize unnecessary intervention) as mother earth can look after herself. Spaceship Earth, on the other hand, suggests that it might be better to leave environmental decisions to expert technocrats.
    Metaphors can enhance or inhibit effective communication. Metaphors can play a number of roles in communication, namely in transferring knowledge, enhancing open dialogue, and prompting action”.

    Under the influence of this quote, I tried to apply these metaphors to the terms “transdisciplinarity” and “institutionalization”.

    If transdisciplinarity is a spaceship, then it should be based on a targeted contextual worldview of scientists and specialists that does not belong to any one discipline. Such a worldview presupposes the achievement of a certain harmonization of the studied disciplinary parameters of the problem. Therefore, every transdisciplinary research needs to create a new method. Such a worldview requires the presence of consensus and compromises of disciplinary participants who develop an intersubjective (accepted by the majority) result of solving the problem.

    If transdisciplinarity is a living organism, then it should have an original (transdisciplinary) worldview that does not destroy, but expands the horizon of each disciplinary specialist. Such a worldview presupposes the presence of a certain philosophical justification, concept, theory, methodology and technologies that form an independent meta-discipline systems transdisciplinarity (https://i2insights.org/2020/10/27/systems-transdisciplinarity-metadiscipline/ ). This meta-discipline makes it possible to form an international standard of transdisciplinary education and transdisciplinary competence in any country, regardless of the level of its socio-economic development.

    These metaphors allow us to talk about the homeostasis of transdisciplinary solution of complex problems.

    In the first metaphor, it is a broad homeostasis that allows for repeated study and correction of solutions to complex problems. In this case, it is advisable to collect low-hanging fruits – problems in the solution of which it is permissible to take into account the opinions of a wide range of respondents – scientists, politicians, managers, ordinary people. Broad homeostasis implies the development of forms of institutionalization of transdisciplinarity, such as professional associations and networks. The more associations and networks, the more leaders, the more effective the development of transdisciplinary methods of collecting low-hanging fruits (opportunities for early and easy victories).

    The second metaphor is a narrow homeostasis, which assumes an unambiguous solution to a complex problem, which should have an unambiguous and comprehensively scientifically based success and risk analysis. In this case, it is advisable to collect high-hanging fruits (opportunities for difficult victories), victories that need to be solved using a meta-disciplinary methodology. Such problems include the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic and other viral diseases, natural disasters, adjustment of the existing global socio-economic order, restoration of territories after environmental disasters, management of sustainable development, etc. Narrow homeostasis involves the development of transdisciplinarity through an international professional coalition. An effective form of institutionalization of such a coalition can be an international transdisciplinary center for solving complex multifactorial problems of modern society. Within the framework of such a center, the adaptation of systems transdisciplinarity to its introduction as a specialized discipline into the disciplinary structure of universities, training and retraining of disciplinary specialists and university teachers, direct solution of complex multifactorial problems of modern society, accumulation and dissemination of experience, the use of systems transdisciplinarity in education and practice, etc can be carried out.

    I am sure that such a division of transdisciplinarity by key metaphors will be more understandable to the heads of funding organizations, politicians and organizers of higher education, specialists and scientists. In this case, it will be possible to avoid competition between the two types of transdisciplinarity and strengthen their common scientific potential.

    These thoughts allow you to add to the four actions that Gabriele is talking about, the fifth action is to choose effective metaphors.

    Additional literature:

    -Mokiy, V. S., & Lukyanova, T. A. (2021). Transdisciplinarity: Marginal Direction or Global Approach of Contemporary Science? Informing Science: The International Journal of an Emerging Transdiscipline, Vol.24, pp. 001-018. https://doi.org/10.28945/4752

    – Mokiy, V.S. (2019). International standard of transdisciplinary education and transdisciplinary competence. Informing Science: the International Journal of an Emerging Transdiscipline, 22, 73-90. https://doi.org/10.28945/4480

    -Mokiy, V.S. (2019). Training generalists in higher education: Its theoretical basis and prospects. Informing Science: the International Journal of an Emerging Transdiscipline, 22, 55-72. https://doi.org/10.28945/4431

    Reply
    • Thanks Vladimir. As well as being able to communicate effectively, your comment raises the issue of being united on what we are communicating about. To put it in a political context: “disunity is death.” A key aspect of uniting then is to reach an understanding of what we are uniting on and lobbying for. Rifts between different schools of transdisciplinarity, systems thinking and other approaches have to be taken into account and addressed.

      Reply
      • Gabriele, as always, you managed to identify the most sensitive points of the discussion!
        The problem of the unity of transdisciplinarity is a fundamental problem of modern science, since the solution of this problem will certainly entail the solution of many problems of modern society.
        In order to answer your question: “what we are uniting on and lobbying for”, I propose to see the entire field of transdisciplinarity. It is becoming clearer that this field begins from transdisciplinarity in disciplinarity, which tries to generalize various directions and knowledge within each modern discipline, and ends with a transdisciplinary discipline (systems transdisciplinarity), which tries to generalize the knowledge of various scientific disciplines. I am sure that this area is already a single methodological functional ensemble. Such an ensemble can be compared with a professional set of knives in the kitchen. Each knife is designed for a specific function: to cut bread, fish, meat or peel vegetables. The choice of a methodological tool is the prerogative of the cook, who was told about the capabilities of each knife. The formation of a methodological functional ensemble of transdisciplinarity for solving problems of science and society is the prerogative of scientific experts united in an appropriate institutional form. Today, The ITD Alliance Working Group on Tools and Methods has approached this form. However, it is important that such alliances not only discuss, but also directly form accurate criteria, indicators and measurements for assessing the appropriateness / robustness / scientific rigor/ effectiveness of (combinations of) tools for solving low-threshold, medium-threshold and high-threshold problems of science and society.
        It is likely that an institutional form of specialists-managers of transdisciplinarity should arise. Such managers should be focused on explaining the practical possibilities of modern transdisciplinary methodologies and technologies to cooks – politicians, economists, public figures, heads of analytical and financing organizations. As a result, these chefs should be well aware of the possibilities of all knives – all methodological tools of transdisciplinary methods of approaches and schools for solving or strengthening the solution of specific low-threshold, medium-threshold and high-threshold problems of science and society in modern political, environmental and social cuisine.

        Within the framework of these arguments, I did not find any disagreements and disunity between different schools of transdisciplinarity, but I was convinced of the expediency of ordering the institutional forms of transdisciplinarity.

        Reply
        • Vladimir, I have read your thoughts and Gabriele’s reply with great interest.

          Your use of metaphor is very thought-provoking and sets up some powerful comparisons in terms of explanatory techniques for approaches to transdisciplinarity. The 2017 Sage book ‘Exploring Morgan’s Metaphors’ edited by Ortenblad et al. is another relevant book. Use of metaphor has a comforting longevity behind it and is of course a technique in some forms of systems thinking. It could well be that further use of metaphor could itself help speed the institutionalisation of transdisciplinarity in universities?

          I remain curious about the following:
          – Moving away from expressions of seeking ‘solutions to complex problems’ towards immersion in a collaborative process of constant exploration, adaptation and learning as being more appropriate under these circumstances?
          – ‘Expanding horizons’ is crucial, but is this too overwhelming a prospect sometimes? I have suggested that developing a characteristic/habit of what I called ‘synergistic vigilance’ may be more palatable and somewhat less overwhelming for the mainstream. Perhaps this idea could be developed further?
          – I see ‘Unite!’ as being by far the deepest-rooted and fundamental challenge for transdisciplinarity in addressing complexity. My thinking around this has taken me to an invented terminology of ‘strength-in-variety.’ (which doesn’t feature on google – yet) i.e. Forget the disagreements and differences – we need to get on and enhance capability to address real-world problems from multiple perspectives. Thanks to Gabriele and i2S, this is what we are all engaged in!
          – Could transdisciplinarity communicate by (1) peddling the dazzling variety of techniques and approaches (about which a consensus is not actually needed, for they are all drawn from the same well of purpose), and (2) by being united about the expression of why this approach is so badly needed in the first place, and thus why this area is ripe and worthy to be explored within the mainstream of our academic institutions across the world? Is there already an alliance of academic institutions that support transdisciplinarity?

          Reply
              • Thanks Gabriele and Jon for the td-Academy link and the interesting paper. Just to explain a little bit further, I settled on ‘strength-in-variety’ in terms of a variety of thinking/perspectives creating more distinguishable states than disciplinarity alone can offer, in order to link with Ashby’s Law of Requisite Variety – so it is linked with the trans-discipline of cybernetics and in addressing real-world situations of complexity.

                To my mind, that marks a non-acceptance of (only) disciplinary specialisms as a starting point, adopting instead a way of organising through time that can learn and adapt to changing circumstances, and the rest should then follow more appropriately. We are trying to amplify our variety (which is lacking in siloed ways of working, whatever our field), and attenuate the variety of the wider system where possible, in order to be more effective overall.

                Part of one of the conclusions I drew from my PhD (which was about enhancing systemic capability within local governance networks to help address complexity through systems thinking, complexity and operational research approaches) was that “leadership is required to prise and create the space for disciplined inter-disciplinary learning to be embedded within local government routine”. It seems the same should be catalysed across academia?

                I wholeheartedly agree that there is a need to ‘unite in common cause’ from the transdisciplinary, systems thinking and action research communities etc. i2S has already amply indicated the synergy between these fields, and somehow stepping up a notch could come next? Paying attention to what seems in effect to be so much beyond us is a huge challenge, but I do believe that current challenges, opportunities and constraints demand this: ‘what seems to be so much beyond us’ is surely a fertile area for future integrative applied research. As hinted at previously, this is as much about researching a strategy for i2S, as it is about i2S itself.

                I also accept, however, that there is a dilemma between letting all this happen gradually and steadily, and a more overt approach which could perhaps be at higher risk of failure. The jury is out! My localised experience of working over a number of years on inter-agency strategies in local government, policing and health was that we developed combined plans and projects which we would struggle to do as individual agencies but, at the same time, we were always open to being opportunistic.

                Reply
                  • Gabriele, I had nothing specific in mind: your current blog itself represents the stepping up demanded next. However, I’ve reflected on responses and thought about this.

                    My rustic answer to your question lies somewhere within a vague conception of a continuum of response to stepping up a notch. I interpret your written piece as something of a rallying cry born of a degree of frustration, and therefore ideas need to be explored about a range of tactical alternatives and potential receptivity to them, as well as an assessment of their likelihood of effectiveness.

                    Response level 1
                    Current inadequate state of play – yet ‘others are not going to do this for us’ …[Jon, Gabriele] Provides good summary as a starting point.
                    Advantages/disadvantages: ?

                    Response level 2
                    Everybody within the i2S community does what they possibly can in terms of unite, organise, respond and fight, as well as consider use of effective metaphor [Vladimir] and engaging funders as allies [Janet, Diksha].
                    Advantages/disadvantages: ?

                    Response level 3
                    ‘Mainstream or margins? What seems to be beyond us’
                    Devise a research project to explore strategy to institutionalise transdisciplinarity [or help identify what is needed – there are contradictions here: myself, Benjamin] and seek funding for it [this sort of thing may already have been done?].
                    Advantages/disadvantages:?

                    Response level 4
                    Devise a brief research manifesto building on Bammer et al. (focusing upon the common cause of why this is needed, rather than expecting everyone to agree at this point about the way forward) and seek signatories, to help accelerate institutionalisation or an alternative appropriate home/global identity for integrative applied research. Appeal to ‘interdisciplinary workers of the world’ [Benjamin].
                    Advantages/disadvantages:?

                    Others may wish to comment, or add to this in terms of populating the ideas about what could be done to step up a notch, considering the advantages and disadvantages, and expressing personal preferences for the response level etc., i.e. taking soundings from the i2S community about receptivity and effectiveness. The resulting approach could of course be any or all of these, or somewhere in-between.

                    Reply
                    • Thanks Cathy.

                      I have two immediate responses. One is that we might take some lessons from this week’s blog post on theory of change by Heléne Clark https://i2insights.org/2021/08/24/theory-of-change-in-brief/. That would be a useful way to flesh out the points you make and reflect further on potential actions.

                      The other is how to make comments more prominent in the blog. I suspect at this stage there aren’t too many people reading your important comments, so that the discussion is not likely to go far.

          • Dear colleagues, let me return to the discussion with a new metaphor.
            At one time, the poet said that it is difficult to harness a horse and a trembling doe to a cart. Figuratively speaking, these animals have a different type of worldview. The horse has this object worldview. Therefore, the horse perceives the world with its problems as a set of obvious objects that determine specific actions. For example, it is necessary to mow the grass in a specific meadow, plow the land in a specific field. In turn, the doe has a systems worldview. Within the framework of this worldview, the fallow deer perceives the meadow and the field as natural fragments of a single environment of its habitat. Therefore, for a horse and a doe, the expansion of the horizon of the worldview will take place in different ways.
            At a new level of the object worldview, the horse will see new opportunities for its application, for example, to ride the owner, transfer cargo, take part in horse races. Therefore, a new level of object worldview will contribute to the unification of horses by functional groups. Such groups are sports, racing, walking, light-drawn, heavy-drawn and pack horses.
            In turn, a new level of systems worldview in the fallow deer will allow it to identify new patterns of its habitat. For example, a fallow deer will feel the interaction of seasonal rains with the volumes of grass in meadows and fields. Therefore, a new level of systems worldview allows the fallow deer not to be divided into groups, but to unite with other fallow deer in a herd and follow the seasonal rains.
            Perhaps this metaphor will clarify the meaning of the term “strength in diversity”. This term can be considered in at least four contexts:
            – in the context of the diversity of thinking (object and system);
            – in the context of the diversity of object thinking;
            – in the context of the diversity of systems thinking;
            – in the context of constructing a Gaussian that allows us to identify the most effective type and subtype of thinking.
            In turn, these contexts can be considered in two integrating contexts: in the context of academic science and in the context of local government.
            In the context of academic science, diversity, the achievement of unity, the institutionalization of interdisciplinarity and transdisciplinarity is a long way of the evolutionary development of science itself. The success of this path depends on the money of sponsors, the opinions of reviewers, who also evolve along with science.
            In the context of local government, this is a revolutionary way to solve complex multifactorial regional problems. Therefore, as Catherine Hobbs says “leadership is required to prize and create the space for disciplined inter-disciplinary learning to be embedded within the local government routine”. As I wrote earlier, the success of this path depends on the assessment of the real possibility of the proposed method of solving a complex problem by the local government themselves. To do this, they can announce contests, as well as organize public hearings.
            I think that in each context, the questions that Catherine Hobbs discusses will have different answers, different interpretations and ways of combining.

            Reply
            • Thanks, Vladimir. I find your metaphors intriguing! I particularly like the idea of the identification of new patterns of habitat [via a systems worldview]. I would only add to what you have said, that my long-term aspiration is that academic science and local government should not be perceived as two different contexts: I see two areas of human endeavour which should be conjoined and mutually self-supporting to help address complexity ‘at the sharp end’ – research and practice in the context of local governance (this is also a more effective use of human and financial resources).

              Also, I still believe that we cannot expect complex problems to be ‘solved’, but we can strive to enhance our capabilities in addressing them more effectively on a continuous basis. I see this as an exciting challenge to the current generation of researchers and practitioners: one for which the i2S community is more than adequately well-qualified! Which brings us back to the first crucial question posed by Gabriele – What is needed to Institutionalise transdisciplinarity? Thanks to Gabriele for posing such a challenging question in the first place.

              Reply
  2. It’s so good to see a ‘big picture’ communicated with such clarity. Unite, organise, respond, fight is spot on. As ever, this resonates with my experience both in local government practice and in academic research.

    When I was doing my doctoral research, I envisaged a Venn diagram of 3 circles:
    – Systems thinking, complexity and operational research approaches (their value being as a combined skillset, not a toolkit)
    – Action research and action learning (as a methodology for cultivating constant curiosity and learning in conditions of uncertainty)
    – Emergent public policy with a purpose (i.e. expanding from an aspiration of fixed control, to take on adaptive design).

    Then – in my head – I drew a frame around it all: there had to be some form of leadership in order to attend to and arrive at this approach. I would tend to refer to that as a form of systemic leadership. To be clear, that is not about an aspiration to see ‘a whole’ picture (impossible); it’s just about thinking and working differently together, questioning assumptions, thinking about wider contexts, about people (often overlooked) and systemic effectiveness (because siloed efficiency is not sufficient).

    I see the relevance of this to your questions about advancing the field and becoming part of the mainstream as follows:
    – De-institutionalisation: Whose responsibility is it to attend to the study of connectivity in practice? i2S is doing that, par excellence. This endeavour is of fundamental importance. It brings to mind the observations of Smuts in 1927: “Nineteenth-century science went wrong mostly because of the hard and narrow concept of causation which dominated it. It was a fixed dogma that there could be no more in the effect than there was in the cause; hence creativeness and real progress became impossible. The narrow concept of causation again arose from a wider intellectual error of narrowing down all concepts into hard definite contours and wiping out their indefinite surrounding “fields.” The concept of “fields” is absolutely necessary in order to get back to the fluid plastic facts of nature. The elimination of their “fields” in which things and concepts alike meet and inter-mingle creatively made all understanding of real connections and interactions impossible.” Smuts, J. C. (1927), “Holism and Evolution,” London, MacMillan and Company, pg. 2.
    This is where I would see an element of de-institutionalisation as a necessity in order to make progress, as the continuation of institutions’ usual processes and procedures (whether research or practice) is simply not allowing time for anything else to happen. That creates a form of repression. The ‘infodemic’ and “the deterioration of the possibility of rational discussion and debate” is a current concern of Noam Chomsky (21/4/21: A Moment of Peril and Challenge seminar, Faculty of Business, Law and Politics, University of Hull).
    – Design positioning: a seat at the table is great, but in many cases could that be too late – in a context of complexity, a transdisciplinary approach needs to be understood to come first? I see i2S as being an inherent part of an initial design process that should be universally understood in terms of its ‘first positioning.’ Transdisciplinarity has to be ‘designed in’ with forethought, rather than added as an afterthought. Which leads me to my last point:
    – Communication: a universal explanation of the relevance of this to current opportunities and constraints, in every-day language, would go a long way and be very timely. It seems there’s a lot of joining up and coalitions happening, but of course no single hub for this important, messy transformation. Yet a ‘coalition of coalitions’ for transdisciplinarity would have a powerful voice? It’s good to hear about the Oceania group and the aspiration towards a global leaders group. A succinct set of clear messages, around one name/phrase for identification purposes could come in handy just now, as many people continue to be overwhelmed by a gathering of multiple categorisations?

    All this is (rightly) highly ambitious in terms of positioning, naming and timing, and there is a smorgasbord of great activity happening to support it. Alas, fragmentation occurs naturally and synergy is invariably an uphill struggle. My conclusion (at last!) has a single focus – one way to advance the field and enter (or meet half-way with) the mainstream would perhaps be to find funding for a research project that itself explores the opportunities and constraints for an i2S Strategy, which could incorporate (inter alia) the institutionalisation/de-institutionalisation dilemma, design positioning, how best to name the existing global banquet of approaches, and distill a great deal of excellent work into a succinct set of clear messages in a timely manner.

    This would be a great research project for budding i2S supporters to take on, if it isn’t happening already?…

    Reply
    • Thanks Cathy, for sharing those ideas. What your comment illustrates, par excellence, is the diversity of thinking people concerned about these issues bring to the table. Each of us has different influences and experiences, which lead us to considering different ways forward. For me your comment highlights key questions such as:

      Should we try to change institutions from inside or outside? Or should we set up alternatives? Do we want to start over to design afresh or do we make the most of what we have? How do we form a coalition of coalitions? And how will the necessary systemic leadership come about? Will a research project such as the one you have suggested move us forward? Or will the constraints of the project get in the way? Are we better off having workshops and individual meetings to figure out where we can align our efforts? Or should we just be active in our own spheres of influence and see if anything “catches fire”?

      And for all of these options: How do we decide?

      You’ve given me lots to think about – thanks!

      Reply
  3. Thanks, Gabriele, for the 4 imperatives: Unite! Organize! Respond! Fight! in advancing institutionalization of transdisciplinarity and to encourage us to co-construct a big picture vision! That’s so powerful and it encourages to step out of the box – the busy, hectic, competitive, often hostile academic environment to think of the urgent need to envision research and higher education entirely differently.

    Re: Fight!

    This is provocative. I have heard you saying to the audience when talking about the need to fight: ‚what comes next is something that you won’t like…‘. It somehow stuck me. Because it is true. It creates discomfort. And I asked myself why on earth is this the case? Is it silent resignation, faithlessness, shame? Is it an ability that is trained away while being ‚educated‘? I’m very encouraged to get back to Saul Alinsky’s 1971 published book: ‚Rules for Radicals. A practical Primer for realistic Radicals‘. After having left academia in the 1930th in Chicago, he became a very successful community organizer and civil rights campaigner.

    Reply
    • Thanks Ulli. Indeed Fight! makes me uncomfortable too – but the idea is not to be aggressive and hostile, but rather to press our case for fair access and resources in a way that is assertive and compelling, as well as being smart about building alliances. We also need to fight to ensure that transdisciplinary work is done well, using the best available methods and that the expertise is recognised.

      Reply
  4. Thanks Gabriele, interesting to see the Nitro-Oceania initiative as I was going to say my biggest challenge most recently has been getting support (and clear shared understandings) from senior decision-makers within our own university (despite numerous pushes/pleas) who are incredibly busy and responsible for institutionalised metrics and processes, so a leaders’ initiative sounds like it may start to permeate that senior level. E.g. our funding body, the UK Prevention Research Programme, stated up front the need for developing/testing “new ways of undertaking public health research”, but there’s no real clarity as to what that means…

    Reply
    • Thanks Daniel. Interesting and useful to hear about your experience, which supports the argument for leadership initiatives. As you also point out we live in an exciting time, with real possibilities to advance transdisciplinary and related research.

      Reply
  5. Perhaps this is part of “unite” and/or “organize” but we should also be aware of our allies, especially in funding agencies. For example, the Belmont Forum recently announced 13 awards focusing on “Transdisciplinary Research for Pathways to Sustainability” and (https://www.belmontforum.org/archives/news/transdisciplinary-research-for-pathways-to-sustainability-awards). Australia is a member of the Belmont Forum (represented by CSIRO). In April 2021, the International Science Council convened the second Global Forum of Funders (https://stories.council.science/science-missions/3/), also addressing transdisciplinarity.

    Reply
      • I was wondering about this as well. Funders often influence who gets a seat at the table. Apart from establishing separate networks and avenues that acknowledge and support transdisciplinary initiatives, can multilaterals and philanthropic organisations stress on integrating transdisciplinary perspectives and expertise in grant calls? What could be the guiding principles for engaging funders as allies?

        Reply
        • Some funders are keen to support transdisicplinary research and already doing so. Because there is no well-organised transdisicplinary community it can be hard for funders to a) get good advice on whether grant processes need to be modified for such research or if business as usual is OK (there is some evidence that a two-stage process may be necessary and that more space needs to be provided in applications to properly describe integration) and b) find well-qualified reviewers. Until the transdisciplinary community is organised, it’s hard to maximise the benefits of having funders as allies. A key guiding principle is recognising the need to work together, learning from experience as we go. Am keen to hear other ideas for guiding principles.

          Reply
  6. There is something really delicious about the language and tactics of unionism – collectivism and opposition – being applied to transdiciplinary research (as I shall now call it).

    Delicious because the very nature of transdiciplinary activity and its tendency and potential to innovate, recombine, work across disciplines and levels and framings in novel ways seems designed to militate against the kind of unity of shared experience, interest, and purpose at the heart of trade unionism. (And I recognise both that I’m making a creative leap from your Unite! Organise! Respond! Fight! and that there is much more to syndicalism).

    Those systems conditions implicit in transdisciplinarianism (as I shall now call it) suggest that codification and disciplinarisation also pose significant risks – risks we’ve been very aware of in undertaking the intelligent codification required to provide both a professional competency framework and a post-graduate level apprenticeship for systems thinking practitioners in the UK (I’ll provide links in a separate comment as I know the comment may be delayed otherwise), and risks that are continually discussed in that most post-disciplinary of disciplines, cybernetics. Even the phrase ‘for systems thinking practitioners’ took me three tries to get right – it’s important that it’s for the practitioners doing their work, not for *the practice* or *systems thinking* per se.

    It does remind me of the contradictions inherent in creating congregationalist churches (or Quakerism) as institutions – there might be insight from that direction?

    I have two other points which I nearly posted separately but I think it all links:

    1) we should be willing, I think, to be explicit about the interests and self-interests involved in the project you are proposing, which I don’t think I see set out explicitly here; who benefits from this, and how do you benefit from this? I sense that this is particularly acute in academia, and for those on the inside might be more evident, but for someone like me fairly innocent of the politics of academia (obviously this is a political project, in a sense), it might be helpful?

    2) it would also be helpful to be clear – and I guess this is a big part of your life’s work – on your definition of ‘interdisciplinary’ in this context. For me, it can take on many flavours.

    This is an exciting manifesto. To bring this together – and taking a hint from Marx and Engels – I suggest a good next step would be an explicit appeal to the ‘interdisciplinary workers of the world’. i.e.
    – name who they are, and how they are currently oppressed (even if they do not yet see it)
    – name the benefits of their liberation (and perhaps the costs)
    – show the path to it, and make sure it’s clear it is both a historic inevitability and a glorious struggle 😉

    Reply
      • Thanks for all those thoughts, Benjamin. Lots there to chew on.

        Thanks for the links to the work on competencies the systems community has developed – they are impressive and I was delighted when I first discovered them a little while ago.

        Regarding interests and self-interests for me they really are a) the scholarly task of advancing the field rather than spinning / reinventing wheels and b) wanting to be mainstream rather than on the margins.

        I’m with you on the multiple flavours of interdisciplinarity. Complex problems need many approaches running in parallel and sequentially – some can be wholely disciplinary, some at the intersections, some multidisciplinary (ie integrate at the end), some transdisciplinary. A nice example is by Deb O’Connell in http://press-files.anu.edu.au/downloads/press/p222171/pdf/ch37.pdf.

        The closest to a manifesto is:
        Bammer, G., O’Rourke, M., O’Connell, D., Neuhauser, L., Midgley, G., Klein, J.T., Grigg, N.J., Gadlin, H., Elsum, I.R., Bursztyn, M., Fulton, E.A., Pohl, C., Smithson, M., Vilsmaier, U., Bergmann, M., Jaeger, J., Merkx, F., Vienni Baptista, B., Burgman, M.A., Walker, D.H., Young, J., Bradbury, H., Crawford, L., Haryanto, B., Pachanee, C., Polk, M., Richardson, G.P. 2020 ‘Expertise in research integration and implementation for tackling complex problems: when is it needed, where can it be found and how can it be strengthened?’ Palgrave Communications 6, 5. doi:10.1057/s41599-019-0380-0 https://www.nature.com/articles/s41599-019-0380-0
        There are also a couple of blog posts based on this work referred to in the blog post above.

        Reply
    • Thanks – I’ve posted the abstract to your paper below. To be fair, many universities are aware of these issues and looking for ways around them. My blog post looks at how those of us who think we have something to offer in tackling complex problems in integrated ways can contribute to making this institutional change happen. Others are not going to do it for us!

      Abstract from Awbrey and Awbrey paper:
      Today’s society looks to universities for solutions to broad-based issues that require cross-disciplinary expertise. Yet, the organizational structure of our institutions remains locked in academic and administrative silos that have little genuine ability to communicate or to recognize the interdependence of knowledge. Why does the capacity to communicate between disciplines and units remain limited? How do formalizations of our experience create barriers? What kind of reflection would it take to subject our mental models of knowledge and learning to critical inquiry? This discussion highlights one of the most entrenched ‘group identity myths’ that underlie the structure of modern academic institutions, the ‘triviality of integration’ thesis.

      Reply

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