Every sector of the economy 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 or sector into its codes of jargon and collective ways of approaching the world. The advantage, then, of gathering experts from different sectors and backgrounds 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 own jargon.
Defining the Terms
Swedish environmental researcher Malin Mobjörk defines three terms about what happens when actors from different professional disciplines work together: multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary.
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.
In addition to describing work across diverse fields or disciplines, this framework can help us think of the ways we can work across sectors as well. We know that complex goals like sustainability will demand complex approaches that involves the public, private, and the civic sectors. When the very nature of a complex problem is under dispute, trans-sector work can help determine the most relevant present and anticipated problems. In the case of sustainability work, this calls for a deep knowledge of the systems at play in development. Since the systems that perpetuate environmental unsustainability are complex, the solutions for them will be too. Successful solutions require knowledge from anthropology, architecture, business, economics, history, geography, politics, real estate, sociology, and psychology. More inventive solutions will come from different conceptual, organizational, and geographic vantage points than any one discipline could create.
Trans-sector thinking 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.
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 sustainability 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
If she starts with these perspectives, the trans-sector practitioner sees collaboration with community stakeholders, business leaders, other professional expertise as essential. A defining characteristic of a transdisciplinary approach is the inclusion of stakeholders in defining the project’s objectives.
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
She has become an advocate for housing subsidies because they free up resources for other necessities such as food. A recent development showing signs of progress is the investment in low-income rental housing units for families in a dozen states by UnitedHealth Group, one of the nation’s largest medical insurers.
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 and sectors arguing in support of housing.
A new normal
Sustainability practice needs to go beyond the boundaries of any single professional discipline. It demands a legitimate and sustained involvement of varied 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 true sustainability, only transdisciplinary work will get us there.