A Field Guide to Transdisciplinary Innovation
By Samuel Wines
As the twenty-first century unfolds, it is becoming more and more evident that the major problems of our time – energy, the environment, climate change, food security, financial security – cannot be understood in isolation. They are systemic problems, which means that they are all interconnected and interdependent. Ultimately, these problems must be seen as just different facets of one single crisis, which is largely a crisis of perception. It derives from the fact that most people in our modern society, and especially our large social institutions, subscribe to the concepts of an outdated worldview, a perception of reality inadequate for dealing with our overpopulated, globally interconnected world1. – Fritjof Capra & Pier Luigi Luisi
Welcome to this (somewhat) comprehensive field guide for transdisciplinary innovation! This guide aims to be your essential companion on a journey towards radical change-making, bridging the gaps between disciplines, sectors and people. As you delve deeper, you’ll encounter an array of strategies, insights, and real-world case studies that reveal how to foster innovation. By blending disciplines and fostering co-creation, this guide will hopefully equip you with valuable tools to help you catalyse transformative innovation that addresses the complex challenges of our dynamic and emergent social, technological and ecological systems.
What is a Transdisciplinary Thinking?
Transdisciplinary thinking refers to a mindset or cognitive approach that goes beyond the confines of a single discipline and embraces a broader, integrated perspective. Its consilience-based approach involves recognising and understanding the interconnectedness of different disciplines and their relevance to complex real-world problems. Transdisciplinary thinking encourages individuals to think critically, creatively, and collaboratively, drawing on knowledge and methodologies from diverse fields to gain comprehensive insights and develop innovative solutions. It involves breaking down disciplinary boundaries, embracing complexity, and considering multiple perspectives to address challenges that require a holistic and multidimensional understanding. Transdisciplinary thinking is essential for tackling complex and interconnected issues that cannot be effectively addressed through a single disciplinary lens. In other words, most of the current problems in the world are fuelling the metacrisis.
An essential element of a transdisciplinary approach is the application of living systems thinking, which, according to Fritjof Capra and Pier Luigi Luisi1, involves eight key generalised characteristics. See this article for a deep dive.
- From parts to wholes
- Inherently transdisciplinary
- From objects to relationships
- From measuring to mapping
- From quantities to qualities
- From structures to processes
- From objective to intersubjective validation (epistemic science)
- From Cartesian Certainty to approximate knowledge
How Does Transdisciplinarity Relate to Innovation and Collaboration?
Transdisciplinary innovation is a collaborative approach combining diverse fields of knowledge to solve complex problems. It goes beyond the silos of traditional disciplinary boundaries and encourages experts from various domains to collaborate, coordinate, cooperate, and share their insights. The consilience-based approach integrates knowledge, methods, and insights from different disciplines to address complex problems and generate comprehensive solutions.
Transdisciplinary collaboration encourages experts from various fields to work together, leveraging their diverse expertise and perspectives to understand multifaceted issues better. This holistic approach bridges disciplinary gaps and promotes a more interconnected and collaborative problem-solving and knowledge-production approach. By combining different perspectives, skills, and methodologies, transdisciplinary innovation fosters creative thinking and generates unique solutions that can address real-world challenges.
Critical Benefits of Transdisciplinary Innovation
- Holistic Problem Solving: Transdisciplinary innovation considers the multifaceted nature of problems, leading to comprehensive and holistic solutions.
- Enhanced Creativity: By integrating diverse perspectives, transdisciplinary innovation sparks creative thinking and generates fresh ideas.
- Greater Collaboration: Experts from different fields collaborate, promoting knowledge sharing, cooperation, and synergy.
- Real-World Impact: Transdisciplinary innovation focuses on practical applications, ensuring solutions effectively address real-world challenges.
How to Foster Transdisciplinary Innovation
- Embrace Diversity: Encourage collaboration among experts from various disciplines and backgrounds to foster diverse perspectives.
- Foster Open Communication: Create an environment that promotes open dialogue, active listening, and constructive feedback to facilitate knowledge sharing.
- Break Down Silos: Overcome disciplinary boundaries and encourage cross-pollination of ideas and expertise between different fields.
- Provide Resources: Invest in resources, such as workshops, training programs, and collaborative spaces, to support transdisciplinary teams.
- Promote Experimentation: Encourage experimentation, risk-taking, and learning from failures to foster innovation and creative problem-solving.
- Iterative Processes: Embrace an iterative approach that allows for continuous learning, adaptation, and refinement of ideas and solutions. This iterative process should also include regular reflection and evaluation.
- Leadership Support: Gain the backing of decision-makers who can champion the transdisciplinary approach and address any structural or cultural barriers that may hinder collaboration.
- Innovation Labs or Spaces: Establish dedicated spaces (physical or virtual) where individuals from various disciplines can come together to brainstorm, prototype, and test solutions. Or, come and hang out at our innovation hub, where we can provide you with space and support to facilitate transdisciplinary innovation.
How is Transdisciplinary Different from Multidisciplinary and Interdisciplinary Approaches?
Transdisciplinarity, multidisciplinarity, and interdisciplinarity are annoyingly polysyllabic approaches to collaborating, innovating, and solving complex problems. However, they differ in the level of integration, collaboration, and the scope of perspective they entail.
The most straightforward approach among the three. In a multidisciplinary team, individuals from different disciplines work together, bringing their unique perspectives to address a common problem. However, each team member remains within the bounds of their field, utilising their specific methods and theories. The result is a juxtaposition of disciplinary perspectives, providing a more comprehensive understanding of the issue. However, this approach can fall short when the problem at hand requires a more integrated, systemic view.
Takes collaboration a step further by integrating knowledge and methods from different disciplines, using a synthesis of approaches that may go beyond each domain. The goal is to create something new – such as a common framework of understanding, a shared vocabulary, a novel approach – or something like that. Interdisciplinary work requires active collaboration and often leads to the collaborators learning from one another, merging and blurring disciplines or creating hybrid ones. For example, Cognitive Science combines insights from neurology, psychology, anthropology, linguistics, and statistics.
It is the most integrative of the three approaches. Transdisciplinary work transcends disciplinary boundaries to create a holistic approach. It is about applying various disciplines to a problem and integrating them to create a new, comprehensive perspective. This approach acknowledges that complex problems often cannot be solved within the framework of existing discipline, requiring a new, overarching philosophy.
The transdisciplinary approach is inherently collaborative and involves a co-creative process where stakeholders (including those from non-academic or non-professional backgrounds) actively participate in defining the problem, developing solutions, and implementing actions. This approach recognises the value of experiential knowledge and the wisdom embedded in local contexts. Transdisciplinarity seeks to address the interconnectedness of social, economic, and environmental systems, appreciating that the challenges faced in these areas often defy compartmentalised solutions.
A visual explainer of the different disciplinary modalities Source: Technology Innovation Management Review
While all three approaches – multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary, and transdisciplinary – value the role of multiple disciplines in problem-solving, they differ in the depth and manner of integration and collaboration. Multidisciplinarity is about viewing the problem from numerous independent lenses, interdisciplinarity is about merging these lenses to form a new perspective, and transdisciplinarity is about transcending these lenses to address the issue in its most holistic and integrated context. TTransdisciplinarityis about evolving beyond the limitations of individual disciplines, recognising that knowledge is non-linear, interconnected, and dynamic. It encourages us to move beyond academic and professional silos towards a more integrated, systemic understanding of the world and offers an inclusive, innovative, and holistic approach to problem-solving.
- Design for Human and Planetary Health: a transdisciplinary approach to sustainability
- Designing Conditions for Co-existence (ask me for a free copy if you can’t access)
- Halogen Playbook for Systemic Innovation
- Capra, F. & Luisi, P. L. The Systems View of Life: A Unifying Vision. (Cambridge University Press, 2014).