The term ‘Interdisciplinary’ is something of a buzz word at the moment – it’s used often and liberally, and makes a huge amount of sense in being a good approach to understanding complex challenges and developing solutions. But if we’re honest, whilst we talk a good talk, interdisciplinary often doesn’t deliver. It’s not uncommon to be working on an ‘interdisciplinary’ project and finding that there is a predominant discipline framing the project with at best some minor contributions on the periphery from other fields.
This isn’t the bringing together into one coherent approach that ‘interdisciplinary’ promises, or that truly complex challenges require, if we are to make progress in innovative solutions.
One challenge we face in achieving that coherent interdisciplinarity is working within existing infrastructures that have antecedents, which are often an evolved product of administrative necessity and/or simplicity. It is rare to find well established pathways that enable resources to be allocated across multiple departments to make a coherent and dynamic interdisciplinary approach feasible. We need to challenge the status quo and create and enable systems and processes that allow for truly interdisciplinary activities to become more mainstream. With better pathways and connectivity within an infrastructure it’s possible to enable shared recognition for efforts and successes, and to make the ‘greater than the sum of its parts’ value of truly interdisciplinary approaches more visible and valuable.
But the other, arguably even greater, challenge, is that to get to a place where coherent interdisciplinary approaches are the norm, we need a change of individual and collective mindset. Interdisciplinary shouldn’t be (but often is) something of a 1+1 = 2 approach to the same problem, that then requires a lot of time to work out how to frame the result (the ‘2’) into something that can be considered to be (broadly) one (interdisciplinary) approach.
This can lead to approaches that bring the ‘same old solutions’ and that means we will keep the ‘same old problems’ - as Einstein is quoted to have said “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them”.
The contrast, and what we should ideally be aiming for, is more along the lines of an
a+b..+n = x where ‘x’ is an interdisciplinary approach that has many common themes, traits and approaches to the contributing disciplines (a,b...n), but is synthesised to such an extent in its development and formation that it is distinct from each of those individual contributing disciplines. And this is the challenge of ‘interdisciplinary’.
Experts in a domain have developed specialist knowledge and approaches over time within that specific domain. This is familiar territory, with well-worn pathways and a strong foundation of baseline knowledge. It is rare in our current approaches for experts to be asked to operate in different environments to their own; where different disciplines and approaches come together around a particular ‘problem’; where all bets are off in terms of the foundational knowledge that may or may not exist; where assumptions can’t be taken for granted without interrogating them; and where gaps in knowledge need to be acknowledged and then articulated so that the challenge can be refined and re-articulated before beginning to seek solutions. The reason this is rare is because for this to happen we not only need infrastructures that can support this approach, but we also need a common language so that expertise from different domains can have dialogue and see the challenge in question through the different lenses that different fields bring.
It is often said that innovation needs a challenge, but perhaps we need to go one step further. Innovation in our ever more complex and interconnected world, needs a truly coherent, dynamic and evolving interdisciplinary approach to address the big multifaceted challenges we’re looking to find solutions for. An approach that is able to deal with the breadth and interconnectivity of the big picture within which a specific challenge sits, to bring hybridised approaches that are greater than the sum of their parts to ask the most insightful questions, and to draw on expertise that is needed in a coherent, broad yet focussed way.
The only way we’re going to get there is by being willing to step out of the comfort zone, challenge the infrastructures that impede this kind of approach, and be curious about how other fields view and tackle challenges in their own disciplines. If we manage it though the rewards are great, we’ll be on the path to finding the innovative creative solutions to the truly complex challenges we face at the global scale.