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Projects of Transdisciplinary Master-Insert students Cohort 2020

In this fast changing world it is more important than ever, to work together, and to combine different perspectives. But what does it mean to work in a transdisciplinary way? Are there best practices to learn from? And how do people experience this way of working? We have asked a couple of UT students, who have just finished DesignLab's Transdisciplinary Master-Insert 'Shaping Responsible Futures'.

Mats van Dalen

I am currently in my third year of the Technology & Liberal Arts and Sciences (ATLAS) Bachelor. To finalise my academic profile, I enrolled for the Transdisciplinary Master-Insert. The freedom to shape your own projects, an inspiring community, and a focus on connecting science and society is what attracted me. The curriculum allowed me to go beyond my academic profile and helped me in becoming a responsible transdisciplinary leader.

What transdisciplinary leadership means to me

To me, transdisciplinary leadership means that one can intellectually connect, synergise the efforts and energy, and create a simultaneously professional and personal working environment for all stakeholders that are involved in a project. In other words, a transdisciplinary leader is able to communicate across any (disciplinary) boundary and facilitates those who are involved to do the same. The latter is especially important. In my experience, disciplinary boundaries are also bridged in multi- and interdisciplinary research projects, however, merely for the exchange of information. Transdisciplinary research requires all stakeholders that are involved to create a new unified intellectual framework, one that goes beyond the disciplinary boundaries. Learning about, experiencing, and actively working on developing transdisciplinary leadership skills and competencies opened a lot of doors for me. I have the feeling that I have only seen the tip of the iceberg and I cannot wait to keep on exploring, experimenting, and learning more about transdisciplinarity.

  • Societal Leadership project

    We worked on shaping a responsible and sustainable future for historical buildings. Through monumental buildings, (younger) generations can get a tangible grasp of what their history is and how it is connected to their future. Monuments are dynamic: they move through time and new chapters are constantly added to their already rich history. Today's challenge is making monuments more sustainable while preserving their monumental values. At first sight, these objectives seemed contradictory to us. However, we soon realised that only by bridging the gap between them could we develop novel ideas and insights.

    In collaboration with Monumentenwacht and Monumentenadvies Oost and a variety of other stakeholders, we developed a proposal for an innovative solution: an online collaborative working platform. I learned to analyse and critically assess societal challenges, delineate transdisciplinary innovations, and co-design ways in which different stakeholders can be involved responsibly.

Niklas Bexten

I am an European Studies/Comparative Public Governance student at UT and WWU. My studies are already quite encompassing and when I read the mail about the insert my interest was sparked immediately. To me, science lives from combining thoughts and theories and by molding them into practical applications that can help to improve the world by a bit. Therefore, transdisciplinarity is an inevitable necessity to tackle societal challenges of today´s globalised world.

How to face challenges in our current state?

Due to my study programme European Studies and Comparative Public Governance, I was already quite familiar with different fields of research working together to explore the same issues. We were already trained to combine politics, law, and economics. However, even when combined, we as political and administrative scientists tend to evaluate disciplines and their findings separately. This was always an issue for me. For example, in international relations we rarely analyse personal history of individual politicians and their psychological states. However, we expect nations and states to behave like they are individuals. 

Max Weber once alluded to Nietzsche´s expression of god is dead, by stating that the universal scholar was a dying breed. The world of the early 20th century and now more so than ever, is marked by an increasing need for specialisation. Today´s study programmes are mostly designed to be as specific and contingent as possible. Yet, every field acknowledges its own limitations and tries to circumvent them by becoming even more specific. This stands in stark contrast to the problems we are facing today. Climate change, political participation, gender equality, and pandemics are stress testing sciences and societies from uncountable angles. Unidimensional answers will only suffice for univariate causalities, which are pretty much non-existent. The literature is clear on that throughout all fields. 

  • Learn to tackle problems by working in a transdisciplinary way

    In this master insert we were given the opportunity to experience what it really means to think about a problem as holistic as possible. We were encouraged to include multiple disciplines and even merge them into new approaches. By combining the minds of nine different people into one collective, we have frankensteined our way to the resurrection of the previously pronounced dead universal scholar. Yes, it is not a perfect creation and no it will only suffice for this specific instance. In one of the projects, we were introduced to an organisation that helps monument owners with their restauration and services. In our research we identified that the problems are manifold, and the solution needs to address at least the most important ones. We decided to go for a solution that was designed to address almost all current problems and combine it into one prototype. By combining our different fields and the information given by the stakeholders, we designed an online collaboration platform that includes 3D Models of the monuments and a direct information access point for the owners and the administrative bodies. 

    This seemed to us as the best way to address the previously established findings of our literature and interview research. The goal was to address the core issues of the challenge and I think we managed it quite well, given we only had a couple of weeks for the full process. Overall, every project was challenging and not easy to tackle. No societal challenge is. To me this is the beauty of social sciences, or rather sciences in general. All we as scientists can do is try to think of everything and then select the most promising or important parts. This is a skill we have learned during the last couple of weeks on which we can build upon in the future. The transdisciplinary master insert showed me that the complex challenges of today´s world are only solvable by communitarian efforts.

Michael Bui

My name is Michael Bui and I'm a double degree master's student in Interaction Technology and Electrical Engineering (Neurotechnology and Biomechatronics specialisation). I enrolled for the Transdisciplinary Master-Insert to find more meaning and coherence in the contrasting disciplinary knowledge I've gained throughout my studies.

My view on transdisciplinarity

The experiences from the master-insert taught me the importance of working in a transdisciplinary manner. Some of the projects we worked on were so complex, that our individual expertise was not sufficient to come up with novel and effective solutions; it was the synergy of our disciplines that led to the outcomes that we are proud of. And finally, I realised that transdisciplinary working is more than just effective project management. Although it certainly plays a role, I think it's also about spanning your personal (disciplinary) boundaries.

Rather than building collaborative teams in which disciplinary expertise is merely shared, transdisciplinarity takes it to the next level by searching for and engaging with the discomfort of each other's knowledge domains. I believe that transdisciplinary knowledge spaces emerge by being open towards new methods and taking on responsibilities which may feel unfamiliar at first. In that way, the conventional boundaries of tools and techniques are spanned leading to new opportunities in the solution space.

  • Projects during the Master-Insert

    One of the highlights for me was the Systems Thinking project, in which the municipality of Enschede provided a scooter case to us. We were challenged to think about hypothetical interventions against scooter-induced nuisance, while touching upon aspects such as public acceptance, safety perceptions, sustainability, and traffic flow.

    Contrary to the technical systems which I generally analyse in my studies, this project put a much stronger emphasis on the societal implications and processes. And to understand such a socio-technical system, we combined our knowledge of psychology, public administration, and engineering to acquire a more holistic perspective. Throughout the project, we were equipped with various (conceptual) modelling tools such as gigamaps, A3 architecture overviews (A3AO), system dynamics software, and agent-based modelling environments.

    For the final project, we focused on advising the municipality of Enschede on one of their potential policy implementations, i.e. to move all scooter drivers to the main road, to reduce the nuisance for cyclists. We did this by exploring the socio-technical dependencies, setting system boundaries, and finally using these insights to create an agent-based model (ABM). We then used the ABM to create simulations and statistical estimates of waiting times in traffic to predict the pragmatic impact of this potential policy.

    We looked beyond the numerical results in our final policy recommendation, by addressing the societal dimensions which we explored in previous analyses as well. The latter is important, since the complex systems of modern day society are too multifaceted to be addressed from a single perspective.

More information

At DesignLab, we work on Citizen Science and Responsible Design in a transdisciplinary way. Together with students, researchers, governments and companies, we contribute to solutions for societal challenges. You can do too! If you are a UT student who is looking into interesting studies for the next academic year, you might want to dive into the programme of the Transdisciplinary Master-Insert. More information about projects at DesignLab on our website.