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What is needed to mainstream transdisciplinarity?

by Giorgia Galvini

I grew up in an interdisciplinary education environment for as long as I can remember. Even in a scientific high school, the humanistic disciplines had considerable weight in the curriculum. The Italian education system is strongly grounded in its classical roots. My academic path was also interdisciplinary, since I graduated with an interdepartmental degree in statistics, economics and law. Although maintaining a macro-economic approach, my specialisation in environmental sustainability requires the mastery of a wide range of disciplines, from the natural sciences to psychological and social subjects. Currently, I’m working in a think-thank that develops innovative projects in the sustainability field, and integrating different concepts and perspectives is undoubtedly a crucial step to achieve long-lasting and inspiring results. This ability has become an essential mindset for envisioning and implementing innovative solutions to address societal challenges.

When I started working on the SHAPE-ID project, I realised that the transdisciplinarity that characterised my career was far from the norm. Most universities are structured by disciplinary divisions, and then funds are distributed according to the number of students enrolled in each faculty. The competition between disciplines and colleagues strengthens divisions, and a common space for inter- and transdisciplinarity is not guaranteed. Moreover, an academic structure based on disciplines, besides defining the criteria for assessing and recruiting researchers and teachers, determines programme contents that increase silo thinking among all actors involved.

To change academic structures and open them more to the outside world, a profound engagement is needed. The work undertaken by SHAPE-ID has highlighted that Arts and Humanities (AH) disciplines can boost this process because they operate on a meta-theoretical level. These disciplines are able to recontextualise technological, social and cultural changes within broader and long-term perspectives. Many AH topics of research have proved once again to be central in the societal transformation process, especially when triggering behavioural change is a goal. For example, the concept of emotion turns out to be key in analysing global value chains, circular economy and responsible consumption and production. On the other hand, AH experts have to work out their own perspective and discuss practical problems with non-AH colleagues and other knowledgeable people outside academic circles. Experts acquire “elitist” understanding from their disciplinary training, but they also need other sources to be informed, like experiential learning. AH contributions should be analysed from a historical perspective and be combined with non-disciplinary forms of collaborative knowledge, e.g. involving societal stakeholders and citizens that can provide innovative and unexplored perspectives to address societal challenges. In this co-creative process, integrating the AH perspective in future thinking can help to identify a starting point for planning the future, defining and describing possible scenarios and mobilising people towards desirable societal goals. The grand challenge for going beyond the siloed structure of universities is to clarify, define and articulate the role of academic disciplines to provide concrete added value to the entire society.

The SHAPE-ID workshops revealed that the transition towards transdisciplinary academic career paths can enable concrete solutions to tackle societal challenges, but it requires specific competencies. The leadership of such a process includes openness and proactivity and not a defensive attitude to preserve disciplinary knowledge. It involves a creative exploration and generation of reflections and emotions. The management of complex change demands system and critical thinking, ingenuity, and the mastering of intricate knowledge in several areas. A training programme that includes these capabilities should introduce functional and transversal skills into technical and specialised subjects, moving beyond the distinction between “hard” and “soft” skills and acknowledging the value of both types of competence for creating a better society. Such educational programmes should understand how to open up past-oriented knowledge to let the future surface, allowing collaborative knowledge processes and a new mutual understanding to emerge. A learning journey based on peer-to-peer exchange principles enables finding new allies to widen participation in a societal transformation process. Differentiating the spectrum of stakeholders implies the mastery of language able to appeal to, engage, inform, and inspire a range of target groups, deeply involving the emotional dimension. This is a crucial step because academic jargon can be tremendously hard to understand and digest for those outside of academia. Besides, the involvement of the emotional dimension, as well as the breadth and complexity of the topics covered, can lead to cognitive overload that is difficult to manage.

Generally, social innovation prefers less regulated environments to enable multiple facets and unpredictable developments to emerge from the process. On the other hand, transdisciplinarity is a complex, sensitive and emotive intellectual approach that requires a defined direction and clear guidelines to be implemented. In my experience, an essential condition to achieving long-lasting results is to equip those involved with a structure and comfortable space to manage a process that is much more difficult, demanding more workload than the traditional one. Paradoxically, such unstructured learning experiences need straightforward and delineated structures for collaboration, especially when young people and extensive networks are involved. The leader of a transdisciplinary process has to master a comprehensive toolbox to orient participants clearly, shape expectations, and maintain levels of interest and engagement through a solid and trustworthy leadership style. Trust is a crucial factor to build and feed a learning process that brings participants out of their comfort zone, changing their priorities and deconstructing their worldview to face the limits of their knowledge. Staging a safe environment is a prerequisite to enable experimentation, self-reflection, transformation, and productive team building. Finally, it is essential to categorise, quantify and measure the value of transdisciplinary contributions, notwithstanding the fact that methods have to be changed and adapted on a case-by-case basis. This assessment would guarantee the sustainability and replicability of the process that requires a long-term effort and wide dissemination.

Such a structural change implies an institutional reform that cannot be achieved without a deep awareness and clear vision of the future to be built and an enduring will to make it happen. This ambitious purpose can only be accomplished by remaining firmly focused on what is needed to build an alternative to the current disciplinary system.

Giorgia Galvini is a researcher at ISINNOVA investigating different fields of research, from interdisciplinary strategies of analysis to statistical assessments of the quality of life. She has developed projects on sustainability in energy, mobility, agricultural and water management sectors. With a degree in Development and International Cooperation from the University of Bologna, she has conducted her research on the economic theory of price and product environmental footprint at the Sustainability Research Institute of Leeds.

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