Transdisciplinarity to break boundaries

Transdisciplinarity is an approach to conducting research that collaborates across the boundaries of disciplines but also across academia and real-world contexts. Like the emerging design field of Transition Design, these projects tackle complex, layered issues and work together with experts who live the problem every day and people who have expertise in relevant fields.

It’s useful to compare Transdisciplinary to other forms of cross-disciplinary work, to explain why it is a more active and tactical way of conducting research projects. Multidisciplinary research tends to mean that multiple disciplines have been referenced, but they are not interacting with or informing each other. Victoria Martin (2017) provides an example of a multidisciplinary work that might analyze a piece of literature from multiple disciplines. The insights would sit next to each other, separately in chapters, one after another– not interconnected and influencing each other. Feminist theorist Sally Kitch writes that “multidisciplinarity involves a relationship of proximity rather than of integration, even if it is accomplished by an individual scholar” (p. 125). The output of this type of research is typically something that looks like a collection of articles written from multiple points of view, on a single topic.

Next, interdisciplinarity is a more collaborative effort where multiple researchers from different disciplines work together in a way that influences the methodology, so it is more integrative than multidisciplinary projects. Martin (2017) describes a project where researchers from several disciplines might create one research tool that incorporates knowledge from each of their areas of expertise to be applied in the project. It “may result in a mixed-methods multilevel analysis and interpretation of this societal problem and lead to a coauthored article or a series of coauthored articles” (P. 42). In this way, the researchers are learning from each other and sharing the information in a way that has synthesized their cross-disciplinary interpretations. So the output is one cohesive perspective on an issue, rather than a collection of different views.

Interdisciplinary approaches can address complex problems by examining them from multiple areas of expertise, and like transdisciplinarity, it “thrives in a dynamic environment where disciplines evolve, new disciplines emerge, and questions, issues, and problems shift over time” (Martin, 2017, p. 38). However, a crucial distinction for me is that the final output remains in the domain of academia. The objective of such projects is most often to create new perspectives and knowledge, not to create change or solve problems actively. This real-world integration is where transdisciplinarity shines.

Transdisciplinary work rebels against the boundaries of disciplines, and the boundary between academia and experiential knowledge, to work toward practical, implementable solutions and new ways of building knowledge.

Martin (2017) quotes Manderson to describe the ambitious goals of transdisciplinarity, “not to transcend that knowledge base but rather to transform it” (p. 39). Montuori (2012) helps to clarify what is helpful about breaking down these barriers is to “step outside the confines of disciplinary knowledge” (p. 2). When we study and appreciate research paradigms from multiple disciplines in our own processes, we can look at forming questions that have “an awareness of the many different ways a particular question can be framed” (p. 2). We can discover the in-between space that we could miss when looking from only one discipline — uncovering a new way of looking at issues and strengthening the other disciplines in the process.

Two key attributes that distinguish a Transdisciplinary approach are (1) academic experts working together from different disciplines, and (2) people with experience on the ground, who are directly impacted by the problem they are trying to solve, working alongside academic researchers– not as objects of the research, but as team members. This parity results in outputs that examine and synthesize the contributions from these academic and non-academic participants to provide “a useful roadmap for responding more effectively to [the societal challenge]” (Martin, 2017, p. 42). The product might be a series of practical changes at the community level or a plan to influence national policies. Because the work has involved non-academics, the output is active change rather than journal articles and theory.

That is not to say that transdisciplinary work does not seek to contribute to academic knowledge, but it is not the only goal of the work. Perhaps, too often, aiming to be published in academia restricts the way work is conducted. If the researchers focus most on being publishable within the boundaries of their discipline, then it shapes who and how collaborations can happen. By turning away from disciplinary rules as a guideline, the transdisciplinary researcher is freed up to work with all of the people involved in a challenge. And to shape research strategies in a way that responds to the needs of the problem, as long as they have integrity as research methods.


Kitch, S. L. (2011). Feminist interdisciplinary approaches to knowledge building.  Handbook of feminist research: Theory and praxis. SAGE publications.

Martin, V. (2017). Transdisciplinarity revealed: What librarians need to know. ABC-CLIO.

Montuori, A. (2012). Five Dimensions of Applied Transdisciplinarity.  Integral Leadership Review12(4).

Exploring multiple futures

Book Review: Design Anthropological Futures

Edited by Smith, R.C., Vangkilde, K.T., Kjaersgaard, M.G., Otto, T., Halse, J., Binder, T.,  2016, Bloomsbury

This is an approachable and inspiring academic book of essays, case studies, and reflections on the emerging field of Design Anthropology. It pushes further beyond the techniques and methods of the first, seminal book to introduce the practice in 2013, “Design Anthropology: Theory and Practice.” Here many of the same contributors dive deeper into the concept of “future”– or “multiple futures,” a concept which they propose to be more accurate. This collection shows us that Anthropologists can integrate the collaborative making aspects of Design to move beyond observation of the current state of a society or system and begin to understand what may be possible, plausible and preferable in the future. The editors write, “The approaches presented in this volume are acutely attuned to political issues, socio-economic differences and their effects on future-making practices in situated contexts.” Illustrating how the sensitivities of Anthropological ways of knowing can strengthen our perspectives on how co-designed futures are received by those who interact with them in context.

As a practicing design researcher/design thinker in industry, I find this book to be more provocative and philosophical than “Design Anthropology.” The older book was a thoughtful take on how to bring more Anthropological practice into any Design Research practice to level-up your skills. “Design Anthropological Futures” is a handbook for those who are already working on exploring and shaping the future. In Chapter 6, Halse and Boffi describe their methods in this way, “Interventionist speculation blends the techniques of invention with techniques of description; it carries an attitude that oscillates between ‘what is’ and ‘what could be’ (p. 89).” For me, this book is exciting in its thoughtful examination of how to explore future experiences that are more daring and complex than what applied Anthropology is typically working with, and more situated and politically-aware than what Design methods typically extend to. This, to me, is the next generation of tools for exploring big questions in holistic contexts.

Emergent Strategy + Transition Design in a poem by Wheatley


Turning to One Another

There is no power greater than a community discovering what it cares about.
Ask: “What’s possible?” not “What’s wrong?” Keep asking.
Notice what you care about.
Assume that many others share your dreams.
Be brave enough to start a conversation that matters.
Talk to people you know.
Talk to people you don’t know.
Talk to people you never talk to.
Be intrigued by the differences you hear. Expect to be surprised.
Treasure curiosity more than certainty.
Invite in everybody who cares to work on what’s possible.
Acknowledge that everyone is an expert about something.
Know that creative solutions come from new connections.
Remember, you don’t fear people whose story you know.
Real listening always brings people closer together.
Trust that meaningful conversations can change your world.
Rely on human goodness.

Stay together.

Margaret Wheatley

Design Interventions: study, make, observe, adapt, remake

Transition Design challenges are not the “Tame Problems” of capitalism that impose artificial boundaries and do not consider social and environmental concerns. Every challenge we take on as designers is likely to exist within a changing system.

Our proposed solutions may be quickly outdated, or inconsiderate, if we deliver them as confident, final solutions rather than the tweaks to a living, human system that they are. Learning the mindset of “intervene, observe, adapt” or “seed and catalyze” may be a useful addition to all of our design toolkits.


From a Transition Design short course lead by Irwin, Kossoff and Tonkinwise

Transition Design: studying what came before and what is to come

“The Anthropocene is the outcome of multitudes of uncoordinated design decisions, almost none of which take account of the scale, in terms of space and time, of designs’ collective consequences.We are not adequately seeing all these sociotechnical systems. We are missing the designed relations between these systems and our various habits and values that are proving so resistant to change toward more sustainable futures.”

— Cameron Tonkinwise, Professor

Read his snarky call to action here: