What’s required for universities to address complex societal challenges?

By David D. Hart and Linda Silka

authors_david-hart_linda-silka
1. David D. Hart (biography)
2. Linda Silka (biography)

How can universities use their broad array of expertise to help in understanding and addressing complex challenges, including pandemics, environmental degradation, poverty and climate change?

For more than a decade, we have been engaged in an innovative collaboration with more than 200 faculty from nearly 30 academic disciplines to align university research with societal needs. We conceived of this initiative as an “institutional experiment,” in which our public university in the US state of Maine served as the “laboratory.”

Given Maine’s priorities and our collective expertise, we focused these problem-solving efforts on the challenge of sustainable development, which requires a dual focus on improving human well-being and protecting the environment.

Read more

Enabling divergent and convergent thinking in cross-disciplinary graduate students

By Gemma Jiang

author_gemma-jiang
Gemma Jiang (biography)

How can we enable graduate students to think in ways that open new possibilities, as well as to make good decisions based on diverse cross-disciplinary insights?

Here I describe how we have embedded 14 graduate students in a research team with nine faculty from four academic institutes, representing six disciplines (for simplicity only three disciplines – engineering, economics, and anthropology – are considered here). Our research addresses the circular economy. I have developed a three-step model (summarised in the figure below) to operationalize the “divergence-convergence diamond,” which is key to our teaching method.

The “divergence – convergence diamond” is widely used in design thinking. The divergent mode helps open new possibilities while the convergent mode helps evaluate what you have and make decisions.

Read more

Investing in change through research funding

By Petra Lundgren

author_petra-lundgren
Petra Lundgren (biography)

How do funders think about investing in research that is intended to lead to change?

This blog post is written from the perspective of a research funder. More specifically it is based on reflections and lessons learned during five years managing and directing strategic research programs at a not-for-profit foundation, investing in science that would benefit the health and resilience of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.

Our funding mandate was to include research in a larger body of work towards a broader vision of change. This therefore provided the basis of my work and helped me shape the view that the funder has a big and critical role to play.

In the research that my organisation funded, it was important to both define and deliver impact beyond that of classic academic achievement.

Read more

Six ways facilitation skills can improve cross-disciplinary team leadership

By Manal Affara

An Arabic version of this post is available.

author_manal-affara
Manal Affara (biography)

What facilitation skills are useful for leading teams in cross-disciplinary projects?

Facilitation and leadership are usually considered to involve different skills, but in a recent article Carrie Addington (2020) examined how facilitation skills can improve leadership. I take this one step further to examine how facilitation skills can improve leadership of cross-disciplinary projects.

Collaboration is central to cross-disciplinary research, requiring facilitation to engage partners, unlock their potential, organize the project, and encourage continuous learning, as well as applying insights from that learning.

Read more

How systems thinking enhances systems leadership

By Catherine Hobbs and Gerald Midgley

authors_catherine-hobbs_gerald-midgley
1. Catherine Hobbs (biography)
2. Gerald Midgley (biography)

Systems leadership involves organisations, including governments, collaborating to address complex issues and achieve necessary systemic transformations. So, if this is the case, how can systems leadership be helped by systems thinking?

Systems leadership is concerned with facilitating innovation by bringing together a network of organisations. These then collaborate between themselves and with other stakeholders to deliver some kind of service, influence a policy outcome or develop a product that couldn’t have been achieved by any one of the organisations working alone.

Recognising that a network of organisations can achieve something that emerges from their interactions involves a certain amount of implicit systems thinking.

Read more

Three ways research perpetuates injustices

By Barış Bayram

author_barıs-bayram
Barış Bayram (biography)

Why is it hard to recognise the full value of a new idea, research finding or other innovation? Why do people fail to properly appreciate other people or things most of the time? Can this help explain why injustices persist?

There is no “invisible hand” that allocates rewards according to capabilities or performance, including ensuring that academic research or social interactions are recognised in terms of scientific or ethical merits.

There are three main patterns causing what I call “unjust appreciation”:

  1. lack of intellectual development to determine values, merits and deserts (ie., just rewards)
  2. cognitive biases and social biases, especially related to status and groups
  3. tribalism, along with power and conflict considerations that rely on cost-benefit analysis.

Read more

Capitalising on incommensurability

By Darryn Reid

author_darryn-reid
Darryn Reid (biography)

How can we harness incommensurability as a pivotal enabler of cross-disciplinary collaboration?

Effective cross-disciplinary research across multiple traditional disparate fields of study hinges on logical incommensurability, which occurs because, in general, those ideas will have been constructed using incompatible frameworks to solve distinct problem formulations within dissimilar intellectual traditions.

In other words, the internal logical consistency of a discipline’s way of approaching problems is no guarantee of ability to be integrated with another discipline’s way of approaching problems. Incommensurability should come as no surprise to anyone involved in cross-disciplinary activities. What is pivotal here, however, is the view that incommensurability is not an obstacle to be avoided or feared but an enabler.

Read more

Setting an agenda for transdisciplinary research in Africa

By Basirat Oyalowo

author_basirat-oyalowo
Basirat Oyalowo (biography)

Why is transdisciplinary research important for the advancement of African countries? What are the key issues that need to be taken into account in fostering such research?

This blog post presents key lessons from the ‘Transdisciplinary Research Workshop: Rethinking Research in COVID-19 times’, held in August 2020, in which we brought together academia, government, civil society, industry and development agencies to delve into how researchers might navigate the new terrain wrought by COVID-19 in Africa and use it to further the development of transdisciplinary research. Although the focus of the workshop was urbanization and habitable cities and on adjusting to COVID-19, the lessons for enhancing transdisciplinary research are more broadly generalizable.

Read more

Considerations for choosing frameworks to assess research impact

By Elena Louder, Carina Wyborn, Christopher Cvitanovic and Angela T. Bednarek

authors_elena-louder_carina-wyborn_christopher-cvitanovic_angela-t-bednarek
1. Elena Louder (biography)
2. Carina Wyborn (biography)
3. Christopher Cvitanovic (biography)
4. Angela Bednarek (biography)

What should you take into account in selecting among the many frameworks for evaluating research impact?

In our recent paper (Louder et al., 2021) we examined the epistemological foundations and assumptions of several frameworks and drew out their similarities and differences to help improve the evaluation of research impact. In doing so we identified four key principles or ‘rules of thumb’ to help guide the selection of an evaluation framework for application within a specific context.

1. Be clear about underlying assumptions of knowledge production and definitions of impact

Clarifying from the start how research activities are intended to achieve impact is an important pre-cursor to designing an evaluation. Furthermore, defining what you mean by impact is an important first step in selecting indicators to know if you’ve achieved it.

Read more

The art of non-decision-making

By Anthony Judge

author_anthony-judge
Anthony Judge (biography)

Do you get frustrated when decision-makers avoid doing their jobs? Do you wish you could identify the techniques they use to avoid making decisions so that you can better hold them to account?

Here I identify 14 aspects of the art of non-decision-making based on my experience serving in, and observing, a range of international organisations.

1. Definitional games: This is the process of defining categories in one way in one document or organizational unit, and then defining them in another way elsewhere or at some later time. The art is to use this approach to obscure opportunities or to selectively advance particular strategies. At the same time competing definitions may be used to justify apparently incompatible strategies.

Read more

Responding to unacknowledged disciplinary differences with the Toolbox dialogue method

By Graham Hubbs, Michael O’Rourke, Steven Hecht Orzack

authors_graham-hubbs_michael-orourke_steven-hecht-orzack
1. Graham Hubbs (biography)
2. Michael O’Rourke (biography)
3. Steven Hecht Orzack (biography)

Have you collaborated with people on a complex project and wondered why it is so difficult? Perhaps you’ve asked yourself, “Do my collaborators even conceive of the project and its goals in the way I do?” Projects involving collaborators from different disciplines or professions seem almost ready made to generate this kind of bewilderment. Collaborators on cross-disciplinary projects like these often ask different kinds of questions and pursue different kinds of answers.

This confusion can bedevil cross-disciplinary research. The allure of such research is its promise of solving complex problems by bringing together a variety of perspectives that when combined lead to solutions that any one perspective would fail to find. But combining different disciplinary perspectives also requires undertaking the tasks of translating different technical languages, reconciling different methodological preferences, and coordinating different ways of carving up the world. These tasks are difficult and it’s no wonder that cross-disciplinary research often fails to be truly cross-disciplinary.

Read more

Do we need diversity science?

By Katrin Prager

author_katrin-prager_2021
Katrin Prager (biography)

Where do the benefits of diverse teams come from and how can those benefits be unlocked? What are the pitfalls to watch out for in constructing a team that is greater than the sum of its parts?

To boost innovation and creativity in teams I suggest we need to develop diversity science, which has 5 elements:

  1. identifying the right kind of diversity
  2. avoiding homophily
  3. avoiding dominance hierarchies
  4. fostering appropriate leadership
  5. building and protecting trust.

Let’s unpack each of these elements.

Read more