On how interdisciplinary research changes directions
At the beginning of 2020 it once again became very clear what kind of interconnected world we live in. What started on the other side of the world effortlessly came our way with lightning speed. For many, this time felt and still feels like an alienating experience, ‘as if we were living in a film’. During the period the Covid-19 situation worsened in the Netherlands, we of Fillip Studios and Future Based had just begun the second period of an interdisciplinary residency programme. In this residency programme, we explored precisely the interconnectedness of globalization and its possibilities, as well as the problems that come with it. After all, it is because all parts of the world are interconnected that a cross- and interdisciplinary view of the problems we encounter is needed.
Before Covid-19 shook the foundations of our world, it was already clear that 21st-century problems such as climate change and plastic soup cannot be easily and unilaterally solved. Even more banal and domestic problems show to resist one-sided solutions. Think of growing loneliness among the elderly, or preventing face mask pollution. Finding solutions to these complex issues demands a multi-perspectival approach, that is, innovative ways of thinking and doing. We think that the world of the future is interdisciplinary. For this reason, Fillip Studios and Future Based bundled their forces in 2019, and have put together a programme where interdisciplinary teams of scientists and artists collaboratively worked on case studies commissioned by actual clients.
For two years we programmed three residency periods of twelve weeks each, in which we curated teams of artists, designers and scientists. Aside from our interest in the process of interdisciplinary collaboration, we also consider it important to emphasise the different disciplinary values represented by the teams. Therefore, we combined scientific framing with artistic research, forming a process in which concrete issues commissioned by clients were questioned and researched from an interdisciplinary artistic-scientific perspective.
For example, an interdisciplinary team consisting of an astronomer and a fashion designer researched how to effectively nudge people to reduce face mask waste. Another team, that of a philosopher of technology, visual artist and anthropologist, researched how museums can measure and increase the impact of their art exhibitions. Furthermore, a graphic designer and an ICT controller conceptualized the integration of local economy initiatives into de Spijkerbuurt, a neighbourhood in Arnhem, the Netherlands. Other cases included themes such as challenging loneliness in cities, the future of robotics in health care, and improvement of ecological systems in residential areas. The cases were each presented by clients such as scientific institutions, governmental organizations or commercial companies. Towards the end of the programme, each team presented their concepts to the client.
But how do we ensure that these different disciplines are actually mutually enhancing? During the Fillip Studios and Future Based residency we tried to answer precisely this question. In this short reflection, we will discuss what we focused on during the residencies, what we learned, how things could be improved, and most importantly, how we believe you can achieve successful collaboration with interdisciplinary teams. We have provided a toolkit at the end of this reflection, which contains important tips and tricks for interdisciplinary collaboration. Should you want to know more about the how and why of our residency or the toolkit itself, feel free to contact us via:
Sabine Winters of the interdisciplinary philosophy platform Future Based / firstname.lastname@example.org
Tom Kortbeek, Roos Meerman of design studio for wonder Fillip Studios / email@example.com
Yes, it might be that we are preaching to the choir when we state the importance of interdisciplinary thinking. After all, we are a design studio working on the intersection between art and science, and an interdisciplinary philosophy platform on art and science. But let’s take a step back. As is shown in our introduction, we cannot deny that we are living in a time of wicked problems; complex questions that not only involve social and cultural dilemmas, but also issues that are interconnected on the basis of their complexity, which makes them difficult or (seemingly) impossible to solve. The term “wicked problem” was first coined by Horst Rittel, design theorist and professor of design methodology at the Ulm School of Design, Germany. Examples of wicked problems are climate change, loneliness in elderly communities, or privacy versus safety matters in technological societies. Wicked problems cannot be answered with a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’. Even more so, a characteristic of wicked problems is that there is always more than one explanation for them, because possible explanations vary greatly depending on individual perspective.
We all have unique knowledge frameworks that are formed by experience, education and culture, and which colour our views on the world. And here, we think, things become interesting. How can one guarantee a fruitful interaction between different disciplinary perspectives on the same issue? On the one hand, our individual knowledge frameworks are a constraint in the sense that they limit how we view the world to things we value. On the other, within this individual knowledge framework, we carry our unique individual perspectives and can be of valuable contribution when trained in becoming better at interdisciplinary exchange, which makes us more flexible in changing perspectives.
Therefore, not only the teams’ composition, but also the selection of cases and programme structure were decided upon on an interdisciplinary basis. During these two years, there have been cases from the economic, technological, cultural, and commercial fields. There have been teams in which theatre scholars have worked with architects and fashion designers, musicians with visual arts teachers and psychologists. We have had workshops from the likes of sociologists, dramaturges, molecular biologists and philosophers. Through continuous trial and error, we have been able to decide what the best team and programme compositions are.
“All parts of the world are so interconnected that a cross- and interdisciplinary view of the problems we encounter is needed.”
Our biggest lesson during the first residency period was that getting to know each other (and each other’s views), process evaluation and expectation management are of utmost importance in every collaboration, but most notably in interdisciplinary settings. Because of the wide variety of participants and cases, we wanted to emphasize familiarization with each other’s frames of reference. We found that participants were not just juggling with the different disciplines, but also with the cognition of the problem at stake. During interdisciplinary conversations, the participants co-constructed their colleagues disciplinary frames and included personal approaches from their own disciplines, (political) agendas, cultural backgrounds and beliefs. “What is at stake for me? What would be my role in developing the further concept?” These were questions that guided this stage.
Thus, the reason for our programme’s interdisciplinary approach was to show the participants different sides of the same debate. Carefully and deliberatively weighing the options could then result in innovative solutions. Although the primary focus was on interdisciplinarity, the disciplines involved also served an important independent role, namely to break down the case’s immensely complex and wicked problems into manageable parts that demanded a specific disciplinary solution.
As we have claimed earlier, the broader goal behind these residencies was not merely to respond to the particular cases, but also to nurture the idea that creative thinking, art and culture are essential and equally valuable components of problem solving in an inherently interconnected world. Complementarily, therefore, we would also argue that we should get rid of conceptual and intellectual hierarchies, such as “higher education” and “lower education”. Think, for example, of the difference between an anthropologist who would like to do preliminary literary research, and a visual artist who would much rather think in pictures and make a collage. Why would the former be better than the latter? What purpose can combining forms of research have for overcoming these binaries?
From this perspective, we wanted each way of thinking to have the space to exhibit their added value. In our current society, there is often an emphasis on substantiation from science. Consequently, the stage is largely reserved for science only, and the arts are commonly disregarded as a legitimate source of knowledge. How can that be? Let’s just take a moment to reflect on what it is that we are missing, and why we should value the power of artistic expression and thinking. Think for example about innovation and entrepreneurship. Often without even realizing it, artists and designers, through their unique methods and ways of thinking, gain access to the most fantastic and innovative ideas. Our programme was designed to materialise these fantastic ideas, and to provide the opportunity to make them workable in the context of a concrete case study.
During the students’ supervision, we discovered that a substantial amount of participants were stuck with the question “How to transform idealistic goals into practical solutions?” The residency’s programme created the opportunity to explore this question in an interdisciplinary context. It is precisely by bringing together different ways of thinking, by having makers and doers and thinkers develop a method or concept for a wicked case, that fruitful new ideas emerge. Where one participants thinks visually, others prefer empirical field research. Yet others prefer indexation or literary-critical argumentation. Therefore, we focused on linking different ways of thinking through collaborative workshops, and by connecting different research processes. In this context, philosophy functioned as a tool to think critically about the established frameworks and thought processes that govern different disciplines, and to make way for common ground between these disciplines. Examples would be asking analytical questions about the method the teams had devised to address a particular problem, or the creation of new research frameworks.
Moreover, we kept a sharp focus on the pitch that was to take place at the end of the residency period. Not only is it important to have a tenable i
dea, it is also worthwhile to think about the way in which it is most effectively communicated, to justify the tools necessary for the project’s further development, and to decide what part you want to play in the process. What results do you want to bring to the client? What do you as a participant want the client to do with your idea, and what do you want to happen with your results and findings after this residency?