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How can academia create a transdisciplinary environment for sustainable development and what are the challenges?

In this article Ella Maria Cosmovici Idsøe discusses the challenges that transdiciplinarity can pose to institutions of higher education. What kind of strategical measures should higher institutions adopt in order to implement transdisciplinary research and what are the implications?

By professor Ella Maria Cosmovici Idsøe, Naturfagsenteret, Universitetet i Oslo

In order to produce reliable knowledge for societal strategies about future possible developments, research has to reflect the diversity, complexity and dynamics of the related processes as well as the diversity of concrete  challenges.

The competences of the people involved have to be taken into account, as well as  their needs and interests.  It seems like transdisciplinarity is the best model used for research that addresses the need for knowledge as regards complex societal concerns.

Transdisciplinarity has been described as a practice that transgresses and transcends disciplinary boundaries. It seems to have the best  potential to respond to new demands and societal imperatives.

The present article is a follow up to the article “Will Transdisciplinarity Become the New Mantra for Institutions of Higher Education?” which  describes the concept in more detail.

Transdisciplinary challenges

Some of the challenges associated with transdisciplinary research are (Russel et al., 2008):

  1. Problem focus (research originates from, and is contextualized in, ‘real-world’ problems),
  2. Evolving methodology (the research involves iterative, reflective processes that are responsive to the particular questions, settings, and research groupings)
  3. Collaboration (including collaboration between transdisciplinary researchers, disciplinary researchers and external actors with interests in the research).

The beauty of transdisciplinarity is that it can generate new knowledge to address complex real-world problems while integrating multiple disciplines and stakeholders.

But many tensions can arise in this process when different partners in the team have different concepts of proof – as in  experiential vs experimental data – and when different actors desire different outputs. This is why learning to communicate across boundaries, learning to build trust and collaboration and the skills described in the previous article, are typical ingredients for a successful transdisciplinary researcher.

Four pillars of transdisciplinary education

According to Mustea, Muresan and Herman (2014), there are four pillars of education moving from traditional to transdisciplinary perspectives, as seen in the table below.

Traditional education Transdisciplinary education
Learning to know Knowing Understanding
Learning to do Doing/acting Creating
Learning to live together In society In society and in the universe
Learning to be Existing Being


The table points to the deep changes brought out by transdisciplinary educational approach compared  to the more traditional one.

The authors underline that the goals of the traditional education stop at the knowledge level, which is enough for a proper social insertion of the individual while transdisciplinary education – as an integral one – seeks for more than that: understanding of the meaning of knowledge.

High school and university training

We should introduce the transdisciplinary way of thinking as early as in high school. These students should understand what transdisciplinarity is, why is it necessary and how we can design transdisciplinar projects in order to address a complex problem?

There are calls for a reorientation in higher education to enable transdisciplinarity to become part of the individual’s thinking processes (Max-Neef, 2005).

We should also offer more formalized transdisciplinary training through bachelor, master and Phd programs. Instead of the traditional way ­– asking students to gain in-depth knowledge in one subject area – we should also aim to foster synthesis across disciplines and focus on translating research findings into real world solutions.

Teaching and learning practices

We should really help the new generation develop a professional disciplinary identity that is enhanced by multidisciplinary methods and theories.  Students should have co-advisers from different disciplines, should be frequently exposed to lectures across many disciplines and learn to accept and cooperate with professional practitioners in their projects. Practitioners can help to adapt knowledge to local contexts and to translate scientific terminology to concepts that are understood in a practical context.

We should loosen up  rigid policies and allow students to follow courses from different faculties.

The institutions could also reflect on their own infrastructure and strategies and evaluate existing practices and identify what is needed in order to implement a transdisciplinary perspective. Organizing transdisciplinary seminars, cross-faculty meetings, workshops with both students and teachers from different faculties, brown bags, and debates will all increase the understanding of  transdisciplinarity.

The institutions might also consider having an incentive system for researchers in order to encourage them to embrace transdisciplinarity.

There are higher institutions in Europe that already have in place different TD programs, as in France, Belgium, and Romania..
A transdisciplinary environment should support many types of learners and doers, and universities may need to consider ways of identifying these different types of people and matching them with people and projects that would benefit from their insight.
In a truly transdisciplinary university environment, students and faculty would not feel the pressure to limit themselves to the boundaries of their disciplines, but they would get a certain freedom to explore and seek out people who might not fit their typical background.

Administrative systems

Another challenge could be the administrative and financial systems in institutions of higher education, for instance as regards how to fund stakeholders from different institutions and practical fields. Transdisciplinary research should also be a priority among funding agencies.

Evaluating project proposals having an evolving methodology and where the results are not yet possible to speculate upon, can also be a challenge for funding agencies. The professionals that would review such research proposals should also have expertise in transdisciplinarity.

Last but not least, there should be a wider opening among professional journals in accepting to publish transdisciplinary research.

The new generation

The future of our world depends on the competences of the new generation to think and live sustainably, make sustainable choices and difficult decisions in the context of rising uncertainty, insecurity and ambiguity.

Moreover, the arena of education has always been characterized by  a wide variety  of factors, networks, adaptations, ways of self‐organizing, etc. depending on a large number of stakeholders and their relationships, much of which is often unpredictable in nature. So why not transdisciplinarity for sustainability?

Selected references:

Max-Neef, E., (2005). Foundations of transdisciplinarity. Ecological Economics 53, 5–16.
Mustea, A. Muresan, M.M. and Herman, C. (2014) Integrating E-learning into the transdisciplinary methodology as absolution to the challenges of 21st century society. Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences 128, p. 366 – 372.
Russell, A.W., Wickson, F., Care, A.L., (2008). Transdisciplinarity: context, contradictions and capacity. Futures 40 (5), 460–472.