Three tasks for transdisciplinary bridge builders

Community member post by Roderick J. Lawrence

roderick-lawrence
Roderick J. Lawrence (biography)

Human groups and societies have built many kinds of bridges for centuries. Since the 19th century, engineers have designed complex physical structures that were intended to serve one or more purposes in precise situations. In essence, the construction of a bridge is meant to join two places together. What may appear as a mundane functional structure is built only after numerous decisions have been made about its appearance, cost, functions, location and structure. Will a bridge serve only as a link and passage, or will it serve other functions?

In discussing three things the transdisciplinary research community can do to build bridges, I use “building bridges” as a metaphor. I discuss a bridge as a human-made artefact that is attributed meaningful form. It is created intentionally for one or more purposes. I step along a path I sketched in a recent publication (Lawrence, 2017) in order to explain why bridge building is fundamental for transdisciplinary inquiry, and three tasks that are necessary in order to effectively build bridges across academic, institutional and professional divides.

1. Build cultural bridges

The transdisciplinary research community has given little attention to the culture of transdisciplinary inquiry. I am using the world ’culture’ to denote a multi-dimensional (plural) and evolving (change) concept rather than a monolithic and static one. This interpretation of culture enables us to explain why there has been an increasing division and specialization of disciplinary knowledge and professional know-how since the 19th century.

Today, for example, the word ‘environment’ (which only came into public use from about 1970), has been attributed different meanings by biologists, chemists and geologists, as well as anthropologists, sociologists and psychologists. Beyond these discipline-based groups, there are other trades and professional groups as well as policy decision makers who have specific interpretations too.

This example shows that there are no longer “two cultures” as C.P. Snow (1961) claimed, but multiple cultures, sub-cultures and micro-cultures, in a broad field concerned about the environment. Consequently, a fundamental task for the transdisciplinary research community is to develop capabilities and skills to build cultural bridges, and especially conceptual and linguistic bridges, between key concepts and their meanings used during specific projects. This is not a simple task.

The diversity of coexisting cultures today is only one reason why a trans-anthropo-logic of transdisciplinarity requires a commitment by funders and researchers for more in-depth research. In order to respond effectively to this challenge, a major shift is required from inward looking perspectives common to disciplinary-based education, training and research, to outward looking perspectives with vision beyond disciplinary divides. Today, beyond the walls of universities and professional institutions, there are a growing number of international organizations and foundations that support knowledge networks founded on such outward looking perspectives.

2. Use dialogue and negotiation to build bridges

A second task for the transdisciplinary research community stems from a commitment to the co-definition of the purpose of the bridge. It is worth emphasizing again here that the bridge is not a physical structure, but a cultural artefact with meanings, uses and values. Participants in transdisciplinary projects need to agree on the shared concepts, data, definitions, information, meanings, rules and methods that will be used. Dialogue and negotiation are the means for the construction of a bridge across common divides. These processes can bring together academic and non-academic actors and institutions to tackle real-world concerns and situations that may require change. Building bridges across conceptual divides, institutional borders and social barriers takes time rarely allocated sufficiently in project proposals.

3. Use the bridge to challenge perceptions

The third task is to creatively use the bridge not just as a passage but as an artefact that can challenge the way the transdisciplinary research community and others perceive and interpret real world situations that require some kind of intervention for the common good, especially:

  • to challenge our thinking in terms of dichotomous categories (eg., either disciplinary or interdisciplinary);
  • to replace reductionist and normative interpretations of the challenges we face in the world today by admitting diversity, complexity, uncertainty, and unpredictability; and,
  • to remember that the bridge we have co-created expresses the way we act, perhaps not just during a research project but during our daily lives.

In essence, the way we think will influence our decisions about the purposes of building bridges, or whether we construct a bridge at all! Are you a transdisciplinary bridge builder? If so what do you think the next steps should be to bridge over academic, institutional and professional divides? Do you know of positive bridge building by the transdisciplinary research community?

To find out more:
Lawrence, R. (2017). A trans-anthropo-logic of transdisciplinarity. In: D. Fam, J. Palmer, C. Riedy and C. Mitchell (eds.), Transdisciplinary research and practice for sustainability outcomes, Routledge: London, United Kingdom, pp: 253-259. https://www.routledge.com/Transdisciplinary-Research-and-Practice-for-Sustainability-Outcomes/Fam-Palmer-Mitchell-Riedy/p/book/9781138119703

Reference:
Snow, C. (1961). The two cultures and the scientific revolution: The Rede Lecture, 1959. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, United Kingdom.

Biography: Roderick Lawrence is Honorary Professor at the Geneva School of Social Sciences, in Switzerland, Honorary Adjunct Professor at the School of Architecture and the Built Environment, University of Adelaide, Australia, and Adjunct Professor at the Institute for Environment and Development (LESTARI) at the Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, in Malaysia. He is a member of the Scientific Advisory Board for Interdisciplinary and Transdisciplinary Research at the Swiss Academy of Sciences. His current research is about transdiciplinary planning of the built environment in the context of global, regional and local changes in order to promote and maintain health and well-being of all.

Creating community around the Science of Team Science

Community member post by Stephen M. Fiore

Stephen M. Fiore (biography)

How can we create new academic communities? I provide lessons from building the Science of Team Science (SciTS), a rapidly growing cross-disciplinary field of study. SciTS works to build an evidence-base and to develop translational applications to maximize the efficiency and effectiveness of team-based research.

I particularly draw lessons from the recent 8th annual conference attended by approximately 200 people. The conference aimed to:

  • disseminate the current state of knowledge in the SciTS field along with applications for enhancing team science;
  • provide opportunities to discuss future directions for advancing SciTS to improve the global scientific enterprise; and,
  • provide opportunities for interaction amongst a diverse group of stakeholders, including thought leaders in the SciTS field, scientists engaged in team-based research, institutional leaders who promote collaborative research, policymakers, and federal agency representatives.

Continue reading

What can action research and transdisciplinarity learn from each other?

Community member post by Danilo R. Streck

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Danilo R. Streck (biography)

A man raises his hand and brings up the following issue: “Our community is constantly affected by terrible floods that not only destroy our houses, but are the cause of sicknesses of our children.” This statement—in the midst of a participatory budget meeting in South Brazil—raised issues concerning the deforestation of riverbanks, the deficient sewage system, contested land ownership and occupation, among others.

Our research group is primarily interested in citizenship education and in supporting it through studying what makes learning possible (pedagogical mediation) within discussions about the allocation of resources for the public budget. Stories like this one remind us of the limits of a simplistic approach to understanding citizenship. In this case, citizenship and citizenship education was clearly related to health, to ecology, to urban planning, to farming, among other fields of acting and knowing.

Action research, broadly understood as collective (self) reflection in action within situations that one wants to change, is intrinsically an exercise of disciplinary transgressions. Continue reading

Synthesis centers as critical research infrastructure

Community member post by Andrew Campbell

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Andrew Campbell (biography)

When we think of research infrastructure, it is easy to associate astronomers with telescopes, oceanographers with research vessels and physicists with particle accelerators.

But what sort of research infrastructure (if any) do we need in order to do more effective multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research on big, complex, ‘wicked’ challenges like climate change or food security?

Some eminent colleagues and I argue in a new paper (Baron et al., 2017) that the answers include: Continue reading

Toolkits for transdisciplinary research

Community member post by Gabriele Bammer

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Gabriele Bammer (biography)

If you want to undertake transdisciplinary research, where can you find relevant concepts and methods? Are there compilations or toolkits that are helpful?

I’ve identified eight relevant toolkits, which are described briefly below and in more detail in the journal GAIA’s Toolkits for Transdisciplinarity series.

One toolkit provides concepts and methods relevant to the full range of transdisciplinary research, while the others cover four key aspects: (i) collaboration, (ii) synthesis of knowledge from relevant disciplines and stakeholders, (iii) thinking systemically, and (iv) making change happen. Continue reading

Learning from Google about inter- and transdisciplinary leadership

Community member post by Janet G. Hering

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Janet G. Hering (biography)

Like most engineers, the Google leadership had assumed that the leader of an engineering team must be at least as competent technically as the members of the team. As Laszlo Bock described in his 2015 book Work Rules!, however, a data-driven assessment disproved this assumption. The counter-intuitive result of “Project Oxygen” was that having “important technical skills that help advise the team” only ranked number eight in the list of key attributes differentiating the most from the least effective managers.

This is very good news for leaders of inter- and transdisciplinary synthesis projects since it’s highly unlikely that these leaders could have all the subject expertise relevant to their projects. If subject expertise is not the most important characteristic of leadership, then what kind of expertise should leaders have and what kind of roles do they play? How important are leaders and leadership in such synthesis projects? Continue reading