Transdisciplinary Innovation may sound simple: bring together people from different disciplines, in a project, into a room, around a table. It is, however, very challenging in practice. People from different disciplines use different assumptions about the world and different languages to think about and discuss matters. Our overall aim with the current research, is to better understand how we can organize TI effectively, in practice.
The purpose of this blog is to share knowledge and experiences about organizing and promoting Transdisciplinary Innovation (TI).
This is a definition of TI that I find very useful: ‘A transdisciplinary approach to innovation differs from multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary approaches in that it is not just about working towards a shared goal or having disciplines interact with and enrich each other. Instead, transdisciplinary innovation is about placing these interactions in an integrated system with a social purpose, resulting in a continuously evolving and adapting practice’ (McPhee, Bliemel, and Van der Bijl-Brouwer, 2018); see Figure 1. To me, the engagement with a social purpose and the focus on learning-by-doing are critical.
Figure 1: Transdisciplinary Innovation (from McPhee, Bliemel, and Van der Bijl-Brouwer, 2018)
An iterative and participatory approach
Critically, we need TI if we want to address wicked problems; such problems need multiple disciplines to understand the problem, and multiple disciplines to explore and develop solutions. Ideally, we organize an iterative process, to move back and forth between problem-setting and solution finding (Steen, 2013).
Moreover, TI entails a participatory approach: to bring together people with different disciplinary backgrounds and different roles. This is not always easy. People with different experiences or perspectives typically find it hard to communicate and collaborate. Participation, inclusion, and diversity can be organized in various ways: by integrating Ethical, Legal, and Societal Aspects in the development and deployment of AI systems, e.g., in ELSA Lab Defence; by involving diverse partners, from academia, government, industry, and society (quadruple helix), e.g., in AI-MAPS; or by involving citizens/civilians or Civil Society Organizations in the design and application of security technologies, e.g., in TRANSCEND.
A systems view
In order to better understand and more effectively organize TI, we can use a systems view (Meadows, 2008). When we try to better understand TI and to organize TI more effectively, we need to be concerned not only with the meso-level of the project, e.g., what people do; the project’s outcomes; but also with the macro-level of society and organization, e.g., involvement of societal stakeholders, with their diverse interests; and with the micro-level of dynamics within the project team, e.g., how the people involved communicate and collaborate with each other (Steen et al., 2021); see Figure 2.
Figure 2. A systems view on Transdisciplinary Innovation (from Steen et al., 2021)
Based on prior research (Steen et al., 2020), we propose that themes like goal orientation, openness, differences, and context are critical to understanding and organizing TI. Moreover, we can point at several virtues that are related to these themes, like curiosity, creativity, collaboration, and reflexivity (Steen, Sand, Van de Poel, 2021; Steen, 2021), which people involved in TI would need to cultivate. We created a series of podcasts about these themes and virtues (Marc Steen, Mark Bouman, Josephine Sassen, 2021):
We, a diverse group of researchers, in multiple research projects, started a participatory, longitudinal, action-oriented research (McPhee et al., 2019) into transdisciplinary innovation, in several multi-partner, multi-year research and innovation projects. Key elements of our methodology are the following:
Philosophical pragmatism (Dewey 1938; Steen 2013), in that we start from people’s practices, then turn to theory and concepts, and then return to people’s practices, with interventions that can be tried-out and evaluated in practice, in an iterative process;
A systems view (see above; Steen et al., 2021), to look at the macro-level of society, the meso-level of the project, and the micro-level of the team–and the relationships and interactions between these levels;
Attention for the role of boundary objects, i.e. things that people jointly work on, which can promote collaboration across disciplines–they can help people to cross boundaries, e.g., use cases that they jointly develop–here’s a 2023 paper on boundary objects;
Attention for the role of virtues (Steen, Sand, Van de Poel, 2021), to better understand the sorts of dispositions or practices that people need to cultivate in order to to engage in TI effectively–notably, virtues like curiosity, creativity, collaboration, empowerment (Steen, 2013), and reflexivity (Steen, 2021).
Here are some resources to further explore TI:
Special issue on Transdisciplinary Innovation (2018) of Technology Innovation Management Review
Marc Steen, senior research scientist at TNO (marcsteen.nl)
If you have similar interests and/or want to join our research and learning process, please contact: marc.steen-at-tno.nl