| 10 minute read

The power of transdisciplinary approaches to urban challenges

Déspina Kortesidou
Urban challenges

Does a city swamped by tourists, waste, or traffic jams sound familiar? I wouldn’t be surprised to see your heads nodding in agreement. With half of the global population and about 70% of Europe’s citizens living in urban centres, two of the most pressing urban problems of our time are poverty and environmental degradation. However, it doesn’t stop there, as cities are vulnerable to a concentration of many social and environmental challenges, including over-tourism, waste management, mobility, sustainable land and energy use, and the inclusion of migrants, among others. [1]

Why it matters

Given that by 2050, 68% of the world’s population is expected to live in urban areas, cities must prioritise sustainable urban development that is sensitive to their specific contexts to ensure a just and prosperous life for their inhabitants. In the face of the interconnectivity of urban challenges, there is a need for more cross-sectoral and cross-discipline research, experimentation, and implementation through multi-sector collaboration. Involved stakeholders could involve universities, governmental and non-governmental agencies, civic society, media, and business stakeholders; all working on tackling urban challenges. Luckily, the very promises that pull people to urban centres, turning them into the engines of the European economy – education opportunities, jobs and prosperity – also have the potential to create conditions that ensure a good quality of life and help cities grow sustainably through the sharing of knowledge, funding, and other urban policies and initiatives.

How can social innovation be facilitated?

In this article, we draw on relevant research from the UrbanGoodcamp, a European-funded initiative on different methods to facilitate social urban innovation and establish a structural change in response to urban challenges.

Through a participatory evidence-based approach, our team identified four methods for tackling urban challenges in a cross-sectoral and cross-disciplinary way[2]:

  1. Transdisciplinarity as a systemic approach to understanding complex issues from various disciplinary fields and societal sectors;
  2. Urban Living Labs for providing a co-innovative setting in which multiple stakeholders can jointly develop metropolitan solutions;
  3. Advocacy actions, such as activist research, communication of impactful approaches to urban challenges; and policy-making consolidating systematic actions for urban transformation, and
  4. Civic participation for activities, including participating in public community events, joining advocacy or grassroots movements, and contributing to decision-making on urban societal issues.

In this article, we specifically focus on transdisciplinarity as a method to design urban solutions that prioritise high-impact research and practice integral to social needs.

Transdisciplinarity’s central premise in cross-pollinating disciplines and perspectives

Transdisciplinarity can act as the cornerstone for different social urban innovation initiatives, from informing researchers or practitioners about their overarching line of work to choosing methodologies that fit the purpose and including a wide range of stakeholders in urban design and development decision-making processes. For the successful integration of different disciplines, peoples, and perspectives, including academics, policymakers, societal organisations, industry, and citizens[3], Dr Dan Podjed, a research fellow at the University of Ljubljana’s Faculty of Arts, highlights the importance of collaboration between social and technical disciplines to understand urban challenges holistically so to effect tangible changes.

For instance, central to one of his project’s successes on urban mobility was the thorough collaboration between applied anthropologists and engineers. When the engineers closely followed the anthropologists’ ethnographic field research, they deeply understood the rationale and motivation of commuting citizens across four cities. Only then, with this new knowledge, did they begin to design a tech tool to ameliorate mobility challenges for citizens. Instead of the commonly utilised techno-solutionism, this transdisciplinary alternative of techno-social innovation opts for innovation with social impact that is attuned to the target group’s needs and challenges.

Moving away from ‘one size fits all’ mass-produced solutions, unattached from people’s needs, and utilising approaches that can improve people’s lives requires a crucial shift from an expert-centric research and solutions development to a people-centred approach.

Dr. Dan Podjed

Ways to utilise transdisciplinarity for urban social innovation

1. Transdisciplinarity for identifying research and practice methodologies

Building on the people-centred solutions developed through the intertwining of disciplines and perspectives, another crucial aspect of transdisciplinarity is identifying and adapting methodologies to suit specific research and project needs. In his transdisciplinary urbanism projects, rather than specialising in a particular method, Damiano Cerrone, the co-founder of SPIN Unit and UrbanistAI, advocates specialising in developing and utilising versatile and eclectic methodologies. Hence, Cerrone emphasises the need to adopt versatile methodologies tailored to specific challenges and projects and adapt different methods to suit unique requirements, whether data-based or image-based, depending on the project’s nature.

Given that need, integrating a generative AI imaging tool, such as UrbanistAI, allows users to translate urban design prompts into visualisations of potential design solutions to enhance the quality of urban design decision-making through collaborative ideation. Such a tool proves instrumental in going beyond the disciplinary-focused vocabulary, allowing people of different cultural backgrounds, abilities and even languages to collaborate on urban transformation and adaptation. Cerrone states, “this is one way to democratise and facilitate decision-making negotiations and involve citizens, aside from city leaders, and experts in urban applications, and transform them from commentators into active placemakers”.[4]

2. Transdisciplinarity for designing urban spaces and places

Transdisciplinarity can also be used as a method to design urban spaces holistically. An example of such a space is the Alusta Pavilion. Built in the courtyard of the Museum of Finnish Architecture and the Design Museum, the Pavillion is a tangible manifesto of a new architectural approach advocating for participatory planning and co-design by actors by different disciplines. Alusta is part of architect Maiju Suomi’s practice-led doctoral research at Aalto University’s Department of Design.

With her partner, Elina Koivisto, Suomi collaborated with researchers from various departments of Aalto University, who played a vital role in advising and shaping the design and functionality of the pavilion to acknowledge the well-being of both human and non-human animal visitors. Specifically, ecology researchers ensured that the plant selection within the pavilion catered to local pollinating insects’ feeding and protection needs, while ceramics professors supported the construction using natural materials, while also considering the environmental and social impacts of materials and the lifecycle of spaces. Furthermore, beyond working closely with researchers, Suomi and Koivisto sought partnerships with the Museum of Finnish Architecture and the Design Museum to reach a broader audience and actively engage museum visitors through discussions, workshops, and lectures within the pavilion. Suomi shared that “the pavilion offers a space for thinking on the collaboration of plants, human visitors, natural processes and passage of time within the urban systems, while simultaneously sparking conversations about sustainability, ecology, and the potential for positive urban change”.[4]

3. Transdisciplinarity for establishing long-term engagement with stakeholders

Partnerships that involve all affected stakeholders are at the core of social innovation projects with a transdisciplinary approach. This approach is especially relevant regarding Urban Living Labs and their approach to providing a co-innovative setting to jointly test, develop, and create urban solutions that can be adopted smoothly and swiftly, thus creating long-term regional impact. As far as Mark Kauw, a program developer at Amsterdam Metropolitan Solutions Institute, is concerned, a critical lesson in establishing true co-creation and active participation of multiple stakeholders lies in understanding stakeholder perspectives, managing risks and expectations, and aligning values and interests between academia and stakeholders to foster effective collaborations.

A commitment to contributing resources, funding, and research to Urban Living Labs most likely stems from the stakeholders’ shared interests and a mutual understanding of the collaboration’s potential benefits. Moreover, an essential element for mutually beneficial collaborations for creating Urban Living Labs is a return of value to the communities or platforms that contribute valuable empirical material for research. In the case of successful Living Labs, having a dedicated district in the involved municipalities to collect necessary local data facilitates the establishment of a robust local network, the access of data from the city, and fostering collaboration with the local community. The enduring nature of this collaboration, which functions as a platform rather than a short-term initiative, highlights a shared commitment among participants for sustained, long-term engagement. [4]

4. Transdisciplinarity for ensuring inclusive consideration of perspectives

Finally, when organising and designing discussion spaces that centre diverse and unique perspectives, it’s important to intentionally shift away from the conventional “expert”-driven conversation towards a more interactive and inclusive format, fostering a more equal and engaging dialogue. Placing “experts” in quotes allows us to think beyond the binary of experts with formal, academic or professional expertise in urban design and include those with empirical experience acquired through practical, hands-on involvement in real-world projects, such as fieldwork and community engagement. Going beyond the expert-driven narrative is an approach Romy Haymans, a program development lead at Pakhuis de Zwijger, and their team utilise when designing and developing programs and events around the common thread of the future of daily life in Amsterdam, the Netherlands and the world.

Haymans explained to us how such a dialogue model works in practice, “when it comes to the interaction between the Pakhuis de Zwijger’s invited speakers and audience, our team quite literally flipped the script, encouraging the audience to debate the discussion’s main topics alongside the panels of ‘experts’”. When acknowledging the significance of perspectives from everyone affected by a persistent urban challenge (may it be an “expert” or a “non-expert” citizen, Haymans emphasises the relevance of the “nothing about us without us” slogan in shaping Pakhuis de Zwijger’s inclusive and dynamic approach to dialogue. While discussion formats that centre the audience or any stakeholders with no formal certification of expertise in urban design topics are a work in progress, the initial response from the Pakhuis de Zwijger’s audiences has been positive, signalling a successful move towards more inclusive and participatory discussion models, that can be utilised in various stages of urban design[4].

Conclusion

In shaping tomorrow’s cities, converging transdisciplinary research and practice emerge as potent forces for urban social innovation in multiple ways: by integrating diverse perspectives to create holistic methodologies, using versatile tools to adapt to various project needs, designing spaces that consider both human and environmental well-being, fostering long-term stakeholder engagement, and flipping power dynamics to include all voices.

References

[1] Pact of Amsterdam, retrieved via: https://ec.europa.eu/regional_policy/sources/policy/themes/urban-development/agenda/pact-of-amsterdam.pdf

[2] Arnold, R. D., & Wade, J. P. (2015). A definition of systems thinking: A systems approach. Procedia computer science, 44, 669-678.

[3] McPhee, C., Bliemel, M. J., & van der Bijl-Brouwer, M. (2018). Transdisciplinary innovation.  Technology Innovation Management Review.  From: https://timreview.ca/article/1173

[4] Kortesidou, D., Day, D., Zinovyeva A. (2023) Social Urban Innovations and the Supporting Role of Universities Thoughtbook, University Industry Innovation Network B.V. https://www.urbangoodcamp.eu/publications.html

Ready for more?

In a follow-up article, we will share six recommendations for universities on how to shape tomorrow’s alternatives and drive the transition to social urban innovation through the academic context of education and research while fulfilling universities’ social commitment to their communities. Additionally, as part of upcoming UIIN events, we will continue the discussion through our Fireside Chats on empathy-driven, fit-for-purpose innovation from the University of Galway and on a comprehensive exploration of innovative strategies for fostering sustainable impact within various organisation contexts, among others.


Déspina Kortesidou (author) is a senior consultant at UIIN and holds an MSc in Behavioural Neuroscience Sciences and a BSc in Molecular Biology. In her work, she supports institutions on topics relating to social innovation, institutional transformation and strategic partnerships.

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