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Ecologies of Transdisciplinary Research

Invited commentary by Paul Shrivastava, Laszlo Zsolnai, David Wasieleski, and Philippe Mairesse

We are scholars of economics, business , and sustainability. For the past two decades we have been doing transdisciplinary work individually and jointly. Our individual and sometimes joint journeys come together in the TransGeneratives 2030 event that serves to launch the UNESCO Chair on Integrating the Arts and Science for Implementing Sustainable Development Goals at the ICN Business School, in Nancy, France. In this essay we share some key lessons that we have learned about the ecologies of transdisciplinary work.

We consider transdisciplinarity to be qualitatively different from interdisciplinarity or multidisciplinarity in several crucial ways. Transdisciplinary work takes its problems from the real world and not disciplinary gaps in knowledge or combining disciplines for innovative new understandings. Transdisciplinarity involves co-creation of integrated knowledge across disciplines with stakeholders to solve problems on the ground. It represents knowledge in action (Morin, 1990, 1992; Nicolescu, 2002). There is a need to bridge the arts with the sciences to fully address the social and environmental crises facing the planet. Transdisciplinarity can meet this need if certain barriers are overcome: namely, delimited thinking and dysfunctional institutional structures.

Transdisciplinarity for the Anthropocene

All through our adult lives we have witnessed with trepidation and occasionally with horror the mounting problems of the Anthropocene. The Anthropocene refers to the period since the mid-1950s characterized by the explosion of world population from 2 billion to the current 7.7 billion, multifold expansion of the global economy and technologies, and their cumulative impacts on earth systems (Steffen et. al., 2015). In our lifetime the world population tripled, world economic production quadrupled, Earth Systems (forests, oceans, land) were polluted and decimated, some to the point of extinction, and planetary boundaries are being breached (Rockstrom et al., 2009). Now the planet faces an existential threat in the form of climate change and declining biodiversity. In the Anthropocene era, the fundamental problem is an imbalance between human activities and nature’s ability to maintain its cycles. As a result, the planetary carbon cycle, nitrogen cycle, phosphorus cycle, and hydrological cycle are all disturbed.

The Anthropocene presents highly complex, interrelated systems of wicked problems. Wicked problems are difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements related to them. These kinds of problems cannot be fixed and there is no single solution to them. The term "wicked" denotes resistance to resolution because of complex interdependencies. Solving one aspect of a wicked problem may reveal or create other problems.

Mitroff (1998) suggested four basic, irreducible dimensions of wicked problems: the scientific-technical, the interpersonal-social, the systemic-ecological, and the existential-spiritual. Researchers and practitioners could use all these dimensions as an integrated framework for problem identification to solve the right problems. When problem solvers focus on one dimension of the problem at hand and develop one-sided, partial solutions, it is likely that they destroy the healthy functioning of the whole system or seriously damage it. Defining and solving a real-world, complex problem requires using a complete, holistic, multi-dimensional model of the whole system. (Ackoff, 1999; Zsolnai, 2020).

The technical-scientific dimension is the dominant perspective in today’s business, economic, and political thinking. It favors technical solutions to the problems, even when other solutions are more appropriate. This techno-centric bias is partly explained by the status and prestige that technologists and economists enjoy in our cultures. This dimension also dominates academic research by focusing on scientific rigor without corresponding attention to relevance, usefulness, and aesthetic and ethical dimensions.

The interpersonal-social dimension concerns the way the problem is perceived from a social, a group, and a family point of view. Today, social relationships and social issues get a lot less attention than production efficiency and performance outcomes in mainstream research agendas (Walsh et al., 2003).

The systemic-ecological dimension takes into consideration the long-term consequences of how the problem is solved. It assumes that all things are interconnected. This dimension involves the perspective of future generations and nature and goes beyond geographic borders and narrow time limits. Social scientific research explores some of these issues in siloed disciplines such as business ethics and management fields. These efforts are largely framed normatively through stakeholder initiatives and corporate governance mechanisms, but by and large such research lacks the discussion of the vital connections between economic functioning and the processes of Earth’s systems. It lacks integration across sciences, arts, and traditional knowledge systems. It does not pay due attention to the negative effects of current economic and political practices on nature and future generations (Shrivastava et al., 2019).

The existential-spiritual dimension emphasizes the importance of lives and fates of individual human beings and their life-worlds. Important existential questions include: Who am I? Who do I want to be? How do my actions influence my life project? What gives meaning and purpose to my life? It is important to emphasize the existential-spiritual dimension because it is usually ignored or even denied in mainstream science. (Zsolnai & Flanagan, 2019). Yet we cannot ignore that organizations are social systems with people who have deeply held feelings and beliefs (Ims & Zsolnai, 2009).

We now face together not only climate change, COVID-19, declining biodiversity, ocean acidification, and other ecological catastrophes, but also the unequal distribution of basic human rights such as access to food, clean water, and education. The UN Agenda 2030 and its seventeen Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) address this diverse collection of wicked problems. Finding appropriate solutions for them requires addressing all dimensions of the problems (the scientific-technical, the interpersonal-social, the systemic-ecological, and the existential-spiritual) and integrating them into holistic solutions that create a new balance among them. To do this, science alone is not appropriate or sufficient. Now is the time for global solutions-oriented, integrated art-science research to avert and ameliorate impending crises. In the Anthropocene, we need more transdisciplinary, stakeholder engaged, solutions-oriented research. Transdisciplinary knowledge is co-designed and co-created with stakeholders’ for problem-solving. The goal is to be impactful in the selected problem areas (Shrivastava et al., 2020).

However, in order for transdisciplinary work to fulfill its promise, it needs not only a large-scale adoption of boundary-free “blue marble thinking” but also an ecology of institutional structures that effectively enable it.

Overcoming Barriers to Transdisciplinary Research Ecologies: A New Way of Thinking

Transdisciplinary research requires certain ways of thinking that are open to disciplined imagination and innovation but not bounded by disciplinary framings. We need ways of enabling transdisciplinary work, especially among young researchers. Systems evaluation expert Michael Quinn Patton (2016, p. 383) argues for “blue marble thinking”: “You can’t see the Earth as a globe unless you get at least twenty thousand miles away from it.” That perspective was born out of the Blue Marble photo shot from the Apollo space mission in 1972. That same year the Club of Rome Report “Limits to Growth” warned us that human economic and social activities were destabilizing earth systems. The Blue Marble photo shows a world without human-generated borders, but as a planet. It invites a trans-boundary imagination. 

The 1972 Apollo “blue marble” photograph of Earth as a borderless, integrated entity.
Blue water, green and brown land masses, and swirls of white clouds inside a circle on a black background.

Blue Marble thinking serves as a way of overcoming barriers to transdisciplinary research ecologies. It calls on four big picture principles, as outlined by Quinn Patton (2019). The Global Thinking Principle requires individuals to think of the earth as a single whole and not in national or cultural silos. The second principle, the Anthropocene as Context Principle, involves understanding that human activity has caused the ecological crises facing the globe. Ironically, it will take large-scale human intervention to solve the problems humanity has caused across geological, biosphere and atmospheric dimensions. The Transformative Engagement Principle invites humanity to commit to engaging in major system transformations in the short-term. This principle implies a deep-rooted urgency to act. Finally, the last overarching principle is the Integration Principle. It suggests that all the operating principles must be in the design and implementation of all transformative initiatives.

These principles enable stakeholders to view the world holistically and systemically, emphasizing the linkages between problems and possible solutions but at the same time, de-emphasizing the constraining boundaries of state, cultural, and national lines. Given the extent of the social and environmental problems facing the world, these artificial barriers are meaningless and limiting for creating global, holistic solutions.

Business and governments continue to address the UN’s SDGs in a fragmented way. In our opinion, what is needed is to view the goals in a more holistic sense, as an integrated whole; a new narrative and a new set of guidelines need to support a comprehensive perspective over ethics, sustainability, and business purpose. Currently, the neoliberal narrative views business interest as separate and removed from the normative goals of society (Pirson, 2018). To understand the planet as a whole and not fragmented, we must zoom out to see the whole planet and then zoom in more closely to discover how the parts interconnect and work in concert. Today’s social and human issues do not operate within national boundaries. The whole means a world where local norms and contexts are critical factors and need to be bridged, overcoming linguistic and cultural boundaries (Jullien, 2020).

We believe that transdisciplinary work is an ambitious means to address the real-world, multidimensional, wicked problems represented by the UN SDGs, as it goes beyond artificial disciplinary boundaries and transcends the science/practitioners/stakeholders divide.

Overcoming Barriers to Transdisciplinary Research Ecologies: Restructured Institutions

Despite its promise of delivering urgently needed solutions, transdisciplinarity faces many barriers within the institutional structures of modern organizations – in business and industry, and in academic institutions. For the sake of brevity, we limit our remarks here to academic institutions. The current systems of knowledge production are not structured to facilitate transdisciplinary research. In academic settings, barriers to transdisciplinary work are embedded in institutional rules, rewards, and authority structures. These institutional arrangements purposefully reinforce siloed thinking and actions that act as barriers to transdisciplinarity.

Academic workplaces design job positions to accomplish specific disciplinary goals in research and teaching. Each position is a clearly delimited workspace disconnected from the overall educational process of the university, and without awareness of its overall purpose. Faculty are sometimes discipline-bound cogs in a big research machine that they don’t fully understand. The way to advance within such a machine ecosystem is keep doing your own work (research, teaching, service) without seeking to optimize or even understand the whole university system. It fosters a culture of individualism, which is not supportive of transdisciplinary collaboration.

Rules on promotion and tenure at universities, especially in the US and increasingly around the world, value research in top journals in the field, and grant dollars brought in by faculty. Top journals are usually traditional disciplinary journals. This disciplinary boundedness makes it very challenging to do transdisciplinary work within academic institutions, discouraging faculty from pursuing it.

Academic research ecologies are pre-conditioned to narrow, discipline-bound discourse by the training provided in PhD Programs. Doctoral training is designed to reproduce the model of faculty that is already in existing departments. This is a system of intellectual self-reproduction designed to conserve paradigmatic traditions, methodologies, academic and consulting practices, and other preferred behaviors.

Another critical barrier to transdisciplinarity is lack of funding. Research funding even in well- funded disciplines is highly competitive. There are some funds being made available for interdisciplinary work to make connections between disciplines. But this is not true for transdisciplinary work that originates its research questions in the real world and seeks codesign of knowledge. This type of work typically takes longer to complete, involves community engagement, and uses more financial resources. Transdisciplinary research is considered to be not pure or basic, but rather “applied” or “consulting,” and rarely attracts serious funding.

Traditional academic institutions need to make significant adjustments to their reward systems, funding processes, and research cultures to normalize this type of research. For example, in Nancy, France, ARTEM is a university collaboration formed to bridge knowledge across multiple disciplines, expanding knowledge in business management and sustainability fields to address modern challenges. The Alliance ARTEM is composed of three university-level education institutions: the ICN Business School, the Nancy School of Art and Design (Ecole nationale supérieure d’art et de design de Nancy), and the Nancy School of Engineering (Ecole de Mines Nancy). Within this partnership and facilitated by a new campus built to house the three schools, transdisciplinary research and pedagogy are promoted in order to foster creative approaches without barriers for the purpose of advancing knowledge in each discipline.

Transdisciplinarity in Action

Transdisciplinarity is not just research or knowledge creation; it involves solutions and real impact on life, communities, and institutions.

An illustrative example of solving wicked real-world problems by using multiple knowledge approaches and perspectives is the community-based solar school project in the Zanskar valley in Ladakh, India. Ladakh is one of the most sparsely populated areas on the foothills of the Himalaya Mountains in India. School buildings at this high altitude lack heating and insulation and are not suitable for use during the extremely cold winter season. Students cannot go to school for three months out of the year.

Csoma’s Room Foundation, a non-governmental organization (NGO) registered in Hungary, has been active in the region since 2008. They started out as a Buddhist monument conservation project, later developing into a social enterprise focusing on community development and environmental preservation. The Tanpo Solar School was designed and constructed by the foundation. The school provides a solar room shelter for 25-30 kids during winter days. The simple geometry of the building is in dialogue with the local architectural context, and consistent with the community’s traditional values.

Tanpo Solar School in Ladakh, India.
A rectangular building on rocky ground with mountains and a cloudy sky in the background. Most of the facade of the building is a window, divided into 24 panes.
Photo by Balács Szelecsényi. Reprinted with the permission of the Csoma's Room Foundation.

“The location was chosen together with the village considering the optimal access from the houses and flood safety on the upper embankment of Zanskar river, while attempting to achieve a low ecological impact by using locally collected construction materials, like stone, pebble and mud…The beams and planks came from lower areas of Ladakh, and the glass was the only material that came from an industrial source, having no substitute. The two opening windowpanes help the ventilation necessary on sunny days, while the corridor facing north acts as an extra insulation towards the coldest direction that never gets sunshine. The roof features a hidden water drainage with a pyramidal slope and double spouts to the eastern and western sides. The building gets warm very soon after sunrise as a result of the large windows acting like a greenhouse, and cools down soon after sunset, mainly through thermal radiation through the same windows” (Solar School Ladakh, 2017).

The Tanpo Solar School project is a vivid illustration of how to integrate science, architecture, and local ecological knowledge to identify and solve a pressing problem of a community, considering multiple value perspectives. It does not promote a one-dimensional technological solution to a complex problem but takes the ecological, social, and existential dimensions seriously to find a simple but beautiful solution which satisfies vital human needs at no cost to nature.

Oxymoronically, to effect a successful local project like the Tanpo Solar School, we need to understand and manage issues at planetary scale and not at national and regional scales. We need to use wider trans-national and trans-disciplinary perspectives and integrated holistic knowledge that lead to practical solutions. We cannot continue with siloed thinking typical in disciplinary research that is often dominated by Western paradigms (Shrivastava & Persson, 2018). We believe transdisciplinarity offers a methodological approach that is up to the challenge of addressing the wicked problems of the Anthropocene, as aggregated in the UN’s SDGs. We need this approach urgently, and to promote its success, we need both to reframe our understanding of the integrated, unbounded nature of the SDGs across the globe, and to remake the institutional structures of business and academia that currently work against transdisciplinarity.


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Ecologies of Transdisciplinary Research © 2022 by Paul Shrivastava, Laszlo Zsolnai, David Wasieleski, and Philippe Mairesse is licensed under CC-BY-NC-SA 4.0

Publication Date:
August 4, 2022