Circularity demands interdisciplinarity 

We have entered the age of the Circular Economy. The new economic model focuses on achieving a regenerative economy and sustainable industry to benefit the environment, businesses, and society at large. Accordingly, innovation for the Circular Economy is shifting towards creating renewable materials, restructuring industrial processes, and redesigning business operations to decouple economic growth from endless resource. Innovation needs to integrate sustainability efforts at heart, which success is evaluated based on the impacts on social and ecological values.  

What does this mean for innovators? The way we build innovation changes from a linear, closed, and monolithic to a circular, open, adaptable enterprise. The intractable challenges of today’s world cross far beyond disciplinary boundaries. And are too convoluted to be solved by one expertise. We need a collective strategy to coalesce public, private, and third sectors, such as non-government organizations, with a mutual awareness of breaking knowledge barriers between expertise, disciplines, and intellectual communities. We need an interdisciplinary approach to bring innovation to the Circular economy. 

As the age of information presents new social complexities and new types of “wicked problems” we require a new solution: The significance of innovation in the information age calls for the new structure of knowledge production and the changes in social and technological environment set a new path for the way design is practiced. 

Krippendorff, 2005

A new framework for innovation 

Interdisciplinarity is one of the key strategic components and a central condition in achieving “innovation,” especially along with Design thinking, a mainstream framework for innovation. The emergence of systematic practice and interdisciplinarity in business and social innovation contexts are interlinked. In that both are regarded as a remedy for coping with the complexities of the 21st century. Big and small corporations, for profit or government organizations who seek innovation increasingly utilize the design thinking method. Which integrates interdisciplinary as the new way of resolving complex human challenges – economic, social, cultural, and ecological issues we face today.

The meaning of innovation has gone beyond the production of objects or interfaces. The new purpose of innovation addresses revolves around the value of the everyday experience of humans without compromising planetary wellbeing. As a result, eco-centricity and inclusivity are becoming frequent themes of contemporary design discourse. There is a profusion of new platforms in academic and professional fields that use interdisciplinary thinking and combine concepts, methods, and processes from various fields.  

Source: The Guardian

For example, Nike’s advanced R&D lab called “The Nike Innovation Kitchen“. It brings together an interdisciplinary team of designers, mechanical engineers, material scientists, and data specialists for envisioning Nike’s future products. Also, The Innovation Kitchen integrates athletes as key stakeholders and experts in their design process to extend technological limitations and market constraints. The Transdisciplinary Design (MFA) at The New School Parsons and Transition Design (PhD) at Carnegie Mellon University are examples of academic design programs that promote interdisciplinary approaches for interconnecting knowledge from science, philosophy, psychology, anthropology, etc. 

Understanding interdisciplinary collaborations 

“Interdisciplinary integrates separate disciplinary data, methods, tools, concepts, and theories in order to create a holistic view or common understanding of a complex issue, question, or problem.” 

Wenger, 1999

There is a parallel between Design and Interdisciplinarity. (Consider “Design” as a discipline and an industry.) Both are the defining characteristics of contemporary innovation practice. Interdisciplinary is broadly defined as “the integration of knowledge across disciplines, narrow and wide, and the intercourse between disciplines and society.” (Frodeman, 2016) In parallel, Design intersects multiple knowledge fields and industries. Design traverses the complex realm of physical and digital products and converges the boundaries of human interactions and experiences. Today’s design practice necessitates the systems thinking and collaboration of different expertise to solve complex human challenges holistically.  

Diverse interdisciplinary formats and terms (i.e., multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary, transdisciplinary, etc.) exist. However, they are used interchangeably without unifying definitions or purpose – which causes challenges. In real life, anything opposite of the mono-disciplinary can refer to “interdisciplinary”. And can represent various formats where two or more disciplines work together on a shared topic, method, or goal.  

The perceived value of interdisciplinary is the augmentation of knowledge (Jonas, 2014) through the cross-pollination of disciplines. It is an enticing premise that interdisciplinarity can integrate new languages, methods, and processes shared among different knowledge communities. However, it is too naive to think that productive collaboration will naturally happen if people come together. Interdisciplinarity is not synonymous with collaboration.  

A labor-intense process 

Contrary to popular belief, the reality of interdisciplinary practice is a labor-intensive process that requires meticulous planning, ongoing management, and interpersonal skills between individual participants. Also, not all interdisciplinary practice requires constant teamwork and cooperation. One of the common barriers to interdisciplinary activities is miscommunication. Incomprehension and misinterpretation are age-old barriers to intellectual exchange and collaboration between disciplinary cultures (Snow, 1990). Both in literature and in practice, establishing a common language between different disciplines is one of the fundamental challenges of collaboration. A significant amount of time is required to overcome communication problems and “cross ‘intellectual turf’ due to different languages (jargon), methodologies, and practices.” (Technopolis, 2016). It is often related to finding appropriate partners within the team and establishing mutual goals through sharing languages. 

Interdisciplinary teams in an organization are typically held together by a project. The project itself, individual compatibility, and department context are interdependent facets of team dynamics and beneficial collaboration. What is often overlooked at the onset of interdisciplinary collaboration is that each department has its own distinctive culture and idiosyncratic way of demonstrating data and communicating issues. Additionally, lacking common ground, be it verbal or non-verbal, can hinder teams’ abilities to timely circulate information, develop a consensus, and make collective decisions. The higher the department walls of different languages, priorities, and values, the more clash within the interdisciplinary teams. 

Source: spectrum

The disciplinary gap is not new. Gaps between departments and stakeholders, between clients and customers, between marketers and designers, are prevalent across the industry. And can simply happen because of not fully understanding each other’s agenda and priorities. Failing to narrow the disciplinary gap leads to an undue burden to the process. And eventually leads to a failure in achieving the objectives and intended outcomes of the project. Without understanding the mutual goals and the chasm between participants, it is a risk to implement an interdisciplinary process into an existing structure. 

Essentials for interdisciplinary practice 

In terms of what constitutes a successful interdisciplinary exchange, information sharing is not enough; Innovation practitioners need to understand the everyday implications of the interdisciplinary method. That is, the nuances of what it means to work together as a team. Understanding the differences in intellectual and practice cultures should be considered as a starter. Participants need to discuss the very intent of the collective enterprise. And to what degree they are willing to share, convert, and reconstruct each knowledge, language, method as they operate as a team. Above all, the team needs to be aligned in the end goal and required action. Which is the most critical topic in interdisciplinary exchange and a prerequisite to the long-term success of innovation.  

Alignment does not mean complete synchrony of minds, perspectives, and ideas, which defeats the purpose of the interdisciplinary approach. Alignment means appreciating the nuances and diversities of different disciplines, agreeing to accept others’ contexts and knowledge boundaries, and as a result, expanding our languages and learning the new by bringing contrasts and dissonances forward.  

Innovation in the age of circular economy needs an integrative practice and interdisciplinary process that bring together systemic views of various specialties – in defining opportunities, designing sustainable solutions for long-term impact, and scaling innovation. Circular innovation is about creating new values that balance the benefits of all stakeholders of the planet instead of focusing on the need of a single customer. By becoming more interdisciplinary, we create business ecosystems and the environment to be more circular and resilient. 

Sources:

  • Krippendorff, K. The Semantic Turn: A New Foundation for Design. Taylor & Francis, 2005.
  • Wenger, E. Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity. Learning in Doing: Social, Cognitive and Computational Perspectives. Cambridge University Press, 1999.  
  • Frodeman, R., and R.C.S. Pacheco. The Oxford Handbook of Interdisciplinarity. Oxford Handbooks. Oxford University Press, 2016.
  • Jonas, Wolfgang. “A Cybernetic Model of Design Research.” In The Routledge Companion to Design Research. Routledge, 2014.
  • Snow, C. P. “The Two Cultures.” Leonardo 23, no. 2/3 (1990): 169-73.
  • Technopolis, Science Policy Research Unit (SPRU), and University of Sussex. “Landscape Review of Interdisciplinary Research in the UK.” (September 2016).
  • Header pic: https://studiotomassaraceno.org/
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Eunji Park

Strategic Design

Eunji is a strategic mind and design lead, who implements interdisciplinary research and systems thinking approach to design and innovation processes.

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