Transdisciplinary Innovation is not simple; three things you may need to consider

Transdisciplinary Innovation diagram

By Marc Steen

There is a growing interest in Transdisciplinary Innovation. We face multiple complex, and indeed ‘wicked’ problems—which require collaboration between people with diverse backgrounds. Together, they can look at the problems from multiple angles and better understand the problem. Together, they can bring diverse expertise to the table and work towards effective solutions.

Transdisciplinary Innovation may sound simple. You bring together people from different disciplines, in a project, into a room, around a table. Then they magically understand each other and collaborate.

This is, however, very challenging in practice. People from different disciplines have different assumptions about the world and use different vocabularies to think about and discuss matters.

In the AI-MAPS project, we promote and support the development and deployment of AI systems in the domain of public safety, in ways that take into account ethical, legal, and societal aspects.

So, you already guessed it, we have experts from these different fields, and they collaborate in the project. Moreover, we meet each week (‘jour fixe’), in a room in Rotterdam, around a table.

Transdisciplinary Innovation diagram

We have people with expertise on technology, applied ethics, legal aspects, and societal aspects. We are currently in the process of trying-out and finding-out methods that can help to promote and organize Transdisciplinary Innovation. Maybe these can be useful to you.

First, you may need to create a safe space. Respect for other people’s assumptions, outlooks, and vocabularies. E.g., when we discuss an algorithm that is meant to detect fraud by citizens with social benefits, what do we mean with ‘fraud’? A data science expert can mean ‘anything that the algorithm flags as anomalous’. A person with a background in administrative law, however, will look at the process through which a specific citizen applied for this social benefit. Maybe the process was complex and the ‘fraud’ was really an unintended mistake? Similarly, people with backgrounds in ethics, in organization studies, in political science, etc. will have different outlooks and vocabularies.

Second, you may want to collaborate and work on ‘things’. If the people around the table talk abstractly, theoretically, nothing much happens. But the purpose of Transdisciplinary Innovation is, of course, to do stuff. To find out how complex matters work in the real world. And to bring things into existence, to have a positive impact in the world. One way to make your project more practical is to collaborate on creating ‘things’, or ‘boundary objects’. In AI-MAPS, we focus, for the moment, on events and crowd management, and more specifically, on climate activism. This shared focus means that the people around the table have lots in common to talk about. Working together on organizing a practical event or on creating a prototype are other ways to collaborate on ‘things’.

Third, the people in a Transdisciplinary Innovation may need to cultivate specific virtues. You can think of classical virtues, like courage, justice, self-control or wisdom. Or of contemporary virtues, like curiosity, creativity, collaboration, and reflexivity. Now, you may think: Virtues, really? Those are old-fashioned, outdated, right? On the contrary, I would say. Now more than ever, do we need virtues. Technology is increasingly important in all kinds of domains of society and in people’s daily lives. Virtue ethics then offers a framework to think together, critically and constructively, about what we find important, how we might work together, how we might find ways to live well together.

Let me stress that we are in the process of trying-out and learning. That is how we organize and conduct the AI-MAPS project. So, we will remain busy with the three recommendations ourselves!

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