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Fostering progress through collaboration & innovation

UC Forward is a philosophy, an idea, a re-imagining of what a university experience should be. It is a one-of-a-kind teaching, learning, and research initiative—pairing students and faculty with external experts, all from differing perspectives—to solve today's problems and develop tomorrow’s workforce in unique and relevant ways. Learn more

I am prepared to go anywhere, provided it be forward. David Livingstone

Resources for Transdisciplinarity

Resources for Transdisciplinarity


UC Forward's Use of Terms

Differentiating between inter-, multi-, and trans-disciplinarity can be confusing. The following resources may be helpful as you dive into the distinctions.

Technically, an interdisciplinary inquiry is a partnership between two or more researchers to explore potentialities that exist between their disciplines, noticing overlaps and complementary approaches that could lead to innovations in one or both fields and create new knowledge in those spaces between the disciplines. Novel fields can arise when researchers combine disciplines, for example bioengineering or bioanthropology or ecological economics, to name a few. Breakthroughs and innovation can also occur when the tools, techiques, or theories of one field are applied to another, for example using social network analysis (graph theory and sociology) for analyzing ancient historical figures or sets of 18th century letters, or applying reception theory (literary criticism) to architecture or art history. The US National Academy of Sciences defines interdisciplinarity as "a mode of research that integrates information, data, techniques, tools, perspectives, concepts and/or theories from two or more disciplines or bodies of specialized knowledge to advance fundamental understanding or to solve problems whose solutions are beyond the scope of a single discipline or area of research practice" (US National Academy of Sciences, 2004).

Multidisciplinarity is closer to what UC Forward is about. Imagine you are studying a problem like how to improve the availability of fresh food in urban settings, or some other big question on urbanism, sustainability, climate change, or medical care. Multidisciplinarity would be gathering together a team of researchers who each are experts on different aspects of the subject; the biologist and economist and botanist and engineer and urban planner and sociologist and psychologist and demographer and transportation expert and business expert and agriculture expert would each work side by side on their slice of the pie. At first the problem is broken down into its parts, each person working in his or her own domain, like publishing sub-chapters in an edited volume. As coordination and consultation progresses and as the participants work together over and over, a convergence can take place. Lines merge, colleagues learn from one another, spirited debates and exchanges move the project forward.

An ideal transdisciplinary team works in a realm beyond the conventional boundaries that are defined by the modern university disciplines. The team is composed of individuals who have different strengths, interests, and knowledge-bases, but they work collaboratively and holistically on the problem as a team, using agreed-upon processes and constant communication to investigate the issue. All of the academic experts above would remain involved but other people would also be brought to the table, local business people, farmers, truckers, the mayor and town council, and announcements might be made to all local citizens who might want to participate with facilitated dialogues and listening sessions to really understand the problem, the barriers, the challenges, and also to recognize the opportunities and inherent strengths that might be leveraged in finding solutions. Biases and assumptions are continuously monitored. Processes of change and transformation are noticed and the interconnectedness of the system is explicitly examined, sometimes running simulations or scenarios to test proposals. Often transdisciplinary inquiries are informed by complexity science, network analysis, systems thinking, design thinking, participatory action research, appreciative inquiry, or use other processes that encourage imaginative inquiry based on principles of openness, transparency, cooperation, intentionality, inclusiveness, and self-reflection and self-awareness. Students are partners in the inquiry with real responsibilities, valued for the perspectives and passions they bring to the problem. Collective knowledge may lead to synergy and potentiation.

UC Forward recognizes and honors all the variations in play as faculty come together in a spirit of collaboration and innovation. Innovation can come in many forms, from inventions born of deep inquiry into a community's needs, to entrepreneurship for developing new businesses creating solutions in the marketplace, to innovation in the use of space and experience of cities and rural areas and efforts to provide access to human needs that make life humane, to innovations in the inquiry process itself, new ways of probing and understanding and problem-solving and contributing to new knowledge and insights into the many challenges we face.

We seek faculty who are willing to take on these challenges collectively, to team-teach and bring students into the inquiry and problem-solving. It is a type of experiential learning, exposing students to new methods of inquiry, new ways of learning, new community partnerships, and a new deep understanding of our interconnectedness.

We seek community partners, who want to use UC faculty and students as your think tank, to allow us to understand your situation and help find ways to meet your needs. We want to be relevant. We want to be useful.

William Ball, UC's Interim Vice-President for Research, puts it this way,”The real reason to be multidisciplinary, however, is that it has the best chance to solve real-life problems, as a single field seldom has all of the answers."




Balsiger, P. (2004), Supradisciplinary research practices: history, objectives and rationale", Futures vol 36, no 4, pp. 407-421.

Brewer, G. (1999), The challenges of interdisciplinarity", Policy Sciences vol 32 no 4 pp. 327-337.

Brown, Valerie. (2008) Leonardo's Vision: A Guide to Collective Thinking and Action, Sense Publishers, Rotterdam.

Brown, Valerie, John A. Harris, Jacqueline Y. Russel. (2010), Tackling Wicked Problems Through the Transdisciplinary Imagination, Earthscan Ltd. London and Washington DC.

Darbellay, Frederic, Kockell, Moira, Billotte, Jerome, Waldvogel, Francis (eds.) (2008), A Vision of Transdisciplinarity: Laying Foundations for a World Knowledge Dialogue, EFPL Press.

Jantsch, Eric. (2007), Inter- and Transdisciplinary University: A Systems Approach to Education and Innovation, Wiley.

Kaufman, D., Moss, T., (eds.). (2003), Beyond the Boundaries: A Transdisciplinary Approach to Teaching and Learning, Praeger.

Klein, J. (1996), Crossing Boundaries: Knowledge, Disciplinarities and Interdisciplinarities. University Press of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA.

Lawrence, R. (2004), "Housing and health: From interdisciplinary principles to transdisciplinary research and practice", Futures vol 36, no 4, pp. 487-502.

LeLe, S. and Norgaard, R. (2005) "Practicing interdisciplinarity," BioScience vol 55, no 11, pp. 966-975.

Midgely, G.R. (2000), Systemic Intervention: Philosophy, Methodology and Practice, Kluwer Academic / Plenum Publishers, New York.

Mobjork, M. (2010), Consulting versus participatory transdisciplinarity: A refined classification of transdisciplinary research, Futures vol 42, no 8, pp. 777-900.

Morin, Edgar. (2008),  On Complexity (Advances in Systems Theory, Complexity, and the Human Sciences, Hampton Press.

Nicolescu, Basarab (ed.) (2008), Transdisciplinarity:Theory and Practice, Hampton Press.

Pohl, C. and Hursch Hadorn, G. (2007), Principles for Designing Transdisciplinary Research, Oekom Verlag, Munich.

Ramadier, T. (2004), Transdisciplinarity and its challenges: The case of urban studies, Futures vol 36, no 4, pp. 423-439.

Somerville, Margaret A., Rapport, David J. (2007), Transdisciplinarity: ReCreating Integrated Knowledge, EOLSS Publishers, Oxford.

Stokols, D. (2006), "Towards a science of transdisciplinary action research," American Journal of Community Psychology vol 38 pp. 63-77.

Thompson Klein, J. (2004), Prospects for transdisciplinarity, Futures vol 36, no 4, pp. 515-526.

Thompson Klein, J., Grossenbacher-Mansuy, W. Haeberli, R. Bill, A. Scholz, R. and Welti, M. (eds). (2001), Transdisciplinarity: Joint Problem Solving among Science Technology and Society, an Effective Way of Managing Complexity, Birkhauser, Basel.

US National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering and Institute of Medicine (2004) Facilitating Interdisciplinary Research. Washington, D.C. The National Academies Press.

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