A group of around a dozen Congressmen had started telling the stories of their children’s births. The stories focused on frantic drives to the hospital and rushed orders that the men had received from labor-and-delivery nurses in the hospital. Pelosi turned to the only two other Congresswomen in the room—the three had borne 10 children among them—and asked, “How long do you think it will take before any of them think to ask us about our experiences of childbirth?” The disappointing answer was that each of the men in the room took a turn in telling his (or his wife’s) story before any of them thought to ask the three people with first-hand experience in the room. This struck me as a perfect illustration of how someone’s lack of awareness on their limited perspective results in a failure to learn from those around them.
Framing the Problem(s)
Every professional discipline travels with its own baggage - specific terminology, ways of looking at the world, and preferred tools for solving a given problem. Advanced degrees, professional associations, and conferences all serve to further socialize members of that profession into its codes of jargon and collective ways of approaching the world. The advantage, then, of gathering experts from different disciplines around a table is the necessity for each individual to examine his or her own biases and redefine terminology to be meaningful and relevant for those unfamiliar with their profession’s jargon.Every professional discipline travels with its own baggage - specific terminology, ways of looking at the world, and preferred tools for solving a given problem. Advanced degrees, professional associations, and conferences all serve to further socialize members of that profession into its codes of jargon and collective ways of approaching the world. The advantage, then, of gathering experts from different disciplines around a table is the necessity for each individual to examine his or her own biases and redefine terminology to be meaningful and relevant for those unfamiliar with their profession’s jargon.
What follows are examples of why this thinking is critical.
Defining the Terms
The terms multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary are increasingly used to describe thinking across diverse fields of work, but the terms are ambiguously defined and used interchangeably. The Swedish environmental researcher Malin Mobjörk offers a useful description of the continuum of the three terms:
Multidisciplinarity refers to a number of disciplines investigating a specific problem from their respective perspectives. Investigations are made using each discipline’s ordinary tools. This approach has been described as ‘a side by side of disciplines.’
Interdisciplinarity implies a shared problem formulation and, at least to some extent, a common methodological framework for the investigation of the different themes. Cooperation exists between researchers from various disciplines involved in the process who develop a shared problem formulation.
Transdisciplinarity describes a practice that transgresses and transcends disciplinary boundaries, including the development of common language and novel or unique methodologies that integrate the fields and disciplines. The cross-fertilization of ideas yields both an expanded vision of the problem at hand and more imaginative solutions.
Why Aim to Transcend Disciplines?
When the very nature of a problem is under dispute, transdisciplinarity can help determine the most relevant present and anticipated problems. In the case of community design, this calls for a deep knowledge of the systems at play in development. Since the systems that perpetuate environmental injustices are complex, the solutions for them will be too. Successful solutions require knowledge from anthropology, architecture, economics, history, geography, real estate, sociology, and psychology. More inventive solutions will come from different conceptual, organizational, and geographic vantage points than any one discipline could create.
Transdisciplinarity arises when participating experts interact in an open discussion and dialogue, giving equal weight to each other’s perspectives and constantly relating them to each other. This is difficult because of the overwhelming amount of information involved paired with incompatibility of specialized terminology in each field of expertise. To excel under these conditions, practitioners need not only in-depth knowledge and know-how of the disciplines involved, but skills in moderation, mediation, adult learning, and transfer of knowledge.
Stakeholders among Disciplines
Starting from a position of recognizing that one’s own expertise may be insufficient for solving or even identifying a problem means that the transdisciplinary practitioner begins the day with three traits that are essential to good and equitable community engaged design practice:
- A commitment to practicing modesty and humility
- A sincere belief in the value of listening to others early and often in the process
- Faith that the effort to incorporate another perspective has merit for its own sake
Megan Sandel and Affordable Housing as a “Vaccine”
A prime example of the advocacy and organizing power that transdisciplinary thinking can have is the work of Megan Sandel, Associate Professor of Pediatrics at Boston University School of Medicine. “Housing can act like a vaccine to provide multiple long-lasting benefits,” Sandel states. The use of terminology normally reserved for medical discussions in the conversation about affordable housing is a powerful turn of play for Sandel.
Sandel explains that children’s health is affected by the quality of shelter at many points along the continuum between homelessness and stable housing. For example, frequent moves increases risk of diabetes, insect and rodent pests lead to higher hospitalization rates, and lead and mold in substandard housing has long-term health effects. “Public health professionals no longer debate whether housing matters,” she said. “It’s how much housing matters" that’s the real debate
In medicine, the benefits of vaccines are widely established. Sandel’s advocacy that a product from outside of her field (stable housing) can provide similar benefits to children’s health brings not only the opportunity to access health-focused funding into housing solutions, but a united front of advocates from many professional backgrounds arguing in support of housing.
Who speaks to WhomSandel, who is now sought as a speaker at conferences outside the pediatrics field, represents just one of dozens of bright innovators in other related fields who could turn community engaged design on its head. Last week in this blog post, Christine Gaspar and I wrote about the importance of paying for, or at least covering the travel costs of, conference speakers. By implementing a policy for covering speakers’ expenses, conferences can benefit from having more outside-your-own-discipline perspectives. The alternative is a world where only architects speak at architecture conferences and only planners at planning ones.
In the recent Community Engaged Design Leadership Equity Research Report for the Surdna Foundation, UT-Austin researchers Barbara Brown Wilson and Nicole Joslin, analyzed 34 individual conferences, trainings, and events in the community engaged design world. Through their research, one key insight was the demographics of the 439 individual speakers at these events. Among these speakers, the largest profession represented is architecture at 40%, with planners following behind with 27% representation. Many speakers had a multidisciplinary background in planning, architecture, and public policy. Those professions with very limited representation included practitioners trained in community organizing and development (4%), landscape architecture (3%), social enterprise or nonprofit management (1%), and business administration (1%).
Building Transdisciplinary Capacity
Short-term, project-based training modules can be helpful for alerting team members to the challenges and tensions often associated with transdisciplinary collaborations. They also raise team members’ awareness of their respective--and often divergent--disciplinary and professional perspectives; as well as alert them to the challenges and tensions commonly associated with transdisciplinary collaborations. Parsons now offers a two-year Masters Degree in Transdisciplinary Design, also known as “TransDesign,” that focuses on this kind of practice.
Diversity is at the core of the Loeb Fellowship.
We believe the experience of the year in residence is enhanced by sharing it most intensely with people who bring a wide variety of cultural heritage, lived experience and professional training.
We believe Fellows will best help shape the urban and natural environment by drawing upon the strengths and wisdom of the full range of people who live, work and play in it.
The Loeb Fellowship even supports this transdisciplinary practice after the fellowship year through a series of small grants to convene teams of alumni fellows from different professional backgrounds on particular projects. Recently, 2011 Loeb Fellow Ana María Durán Calisto called on a team of her fellow alumni to offer feedback on the design of a complex project in Ecuador. With travel funding from the Loeb Fellowship, she helped to convene a think tank of leading figures in urban planning, urban design, landscape architecture and architecture from among Loeb alumni. The team reviewed, refined and improved a master plan for the city of Yachay, with a particular focus on off-the-grid and green infrastructure. In a series of workshops, design studios, charrettes and consultancies, they set to work improving the master plan and proposing a plan of action.
A new normal
Community engaged design needs to go beyond the boundaries of any single professional discipline. It demands a legitimate and sustained involvement of various technical expertise, as well as community and political stakeholders who bring expertise just as valuable as that of any professional training to the project. Projects should include opportunities for all parties to learn from and contribute to the process as well as build capacity to address future design and development challenges. The work of constantly reaching out, including, analyzing, translating and re-translating among bodies of experts is resource-intensive. But if we want a more equitable practice, transdisciplinarity must become the norm.
- Jess Zimbabwe
JESS ZIMBABWE, Executive Director, ULI Daniel Rose Center for Public Leadership
executive directorJess Zimbabwe was named founding executive director of the ULI Daniel Rose Center for Public Leadership in 2009. Previously, Zimbabwe was director of the Mayors’ Institute on City Design, working with more than 125 American mayors and cities to help local leaders advocate for better-built environments in their own communities. Zimbabwe was a comparative domestic policy fellow at the German Marshall Fund and a fellow of the Women’s Policy Institute of the Women’s Foundation of California. She is a licensed architect, a certified city planner, and a LEED-accredited professional.
Be sure to check back April 15th for the seventh feature article in this series –“Outcome-Based Design & Evaluation” by Barbara Brown Wilson and Liz Ogbu.
Image sources: Jess Zimbabwe, Urban Land Institute, Yale School of Architecture, Loeb Fellowship