Interdisciplinary Knowledge and Institutions for addressing sustainability challenges

Global socio-environmental challenges are complex and interconnected, and they cannot be addressed by individual disciplines operating in silos. There is a need to shift knowledge generation from disciplinary, linear ‘tree’ model to interdisciplinary ‘web’ model to generate sustainability-relevant knowledge and solutions. Success in such an approach requires engaging multiple stakeholders right from the start and institutions that foster interdisciplinarity.

Go to the profile of Junguo Liu
Feb 11, 2019

The disciplinary or “tree “model has dominated our thinking for centuries. Prof. Junguo Liu from China (JL) worked on his undergraduate courses over 20 years ago in the department of “Water Conservancy”, and majored in “irrigation and drainage”, and tried to design an irrigation scheme to get additional water for crops that cannot be supplied sufficiently by precipitation when he worked on his bachelor thesis. JL did not consider the economic feasibility and social acceptance while designing the program. Similarly, Prof. Kamal Bawa from India (and working in U.S.) started as a botanist, but was able to mold his graduate training many years later to practice sustainability science. Thus disciplinary training is not a hurdle that cannot be overcome to engage in the “web model” of knowledge generation.

JL also had the good fortune of getting involved in a research program on “Integrated research on the eco-hydrological processes of the Heihe River Basin (HRB)” that was supported by the National Natural Science Foundation of China. It was fortuitous because JL had continuously worked on research on the HRB for the entire implementation period of 2011-2018, and had a chance to learn how the river is managed.

The HRB is China’s second largest inland river basin located in the arid and semi-arid Northwest. The Heihe river ends at the Juyan Lake, a water body critical for supporting the oasis in surrounding areas. The lake became dry in 1992. Degradation of the lake not only led to a decrease in oasis area, but it also made the lake bank a potential source of dust for regions thousands kilometers away e.g. the Beijing City. Early investigation of the water problems followed the ‘tree model’. Prior to the 1990s, disciplinary research was dominated by studies of the hydrological processes, and agricultural water use. The continuing degradation of the lake made researchers and policy makers realize that the knowledge produced was insufficient. Thus, an interdisciplinary collaborative research team from different institutions was formed in 1995 to investigate the driving forces for the drying-up of the Juyan Lake. Experts in hydrology and social development collaborated with ecosystem health experts to conclude that the lake degradation downstream was largely caused by increased water use in middle streams where agriculture had expanded. This new interdisciplinary knowledge then resulted in a transdisciplinary effort with researchers, central and local governments working together to co-design research to identify ways to use water resources more sustainably across the entire river basin. One outcome was the proposal of a water allocation scheme, which the central government accepted in 2000. As a result, a water diversion intervention asking for a minimum of water release from the middle to lower stream was implemented. The shift towards an interdisciplinary, solution-oriented approach played an important role in restoring the degraded ecosystems in the Heihe River Basin. The surface area of the Juyan Lake had been expanded. Meanwhile, the ground water level increased in downstream areas.

In order to address the water sustainability, we not only require disciplinary knowledge of hydrology (to understand the hydrological processes and water cycle), but also require the knowledge of meteorology (to understand the natural driving forces of hydrological cycle), ecology (to understand ecological evolution), economy (to understand the economic system that drives water uses), social science (to understand how people behave for water use and management) and many other disciplines. These disciplines alone cannot generate sufficient knowledge of sustainability. The interdisciplinary “web” model is more useful to generate sustainability knowledge with a systematic understanding of sustainability problems.

But the model model cannot be implemented without several paradigm shifts.

First, reforming our educational systems. Our academic structures generally do not foster the type of interactions required by the web model. Fortunately, progress is being made in several pioneering research and educational institutes. In 2007, the Arizona State University launched one of the first PhD programmes in the world devoted to sustainability — using interdisciplinary approaches from fields such as earth and environmental science, conservation biology, engineering, economics, sociology, and urban planning to identifying real-world solutions to environmental, economic, and social challenges. The University removed disciplinary barriers by organizing a new and perhaps the largest academic unit, the School of Sustainability with a large core faculty and scores of affiliated faculty.

In 2007, KB was engaged in setting up an interdisciplinary doctoral program in conservation and sustainability studies at the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE), a private non-profit think tank in India (, with the degree granted by Manipal University. ATREE overcame typical hurdles by organizing interdisciplinary research teams around sustainability problems instead of departments organized around disciplines. Furthermore, researchers placed emphasis on research-policy linkages and action on the ground to address societal-environmental interactions.

In 2016, the Southern University of Science and Technology (SUSTech) in China established an Academy for Advanced Interdisciplinary Studies. It brings together multidisciplinary talents, setting up large-scale shared experimental platforms, and provides venues for ideological collisions to result in the resolution of major scientific and technical problems that are difficult to solve in a single discipline.

Second, more and more researchers should move from understanding a problem to proposing and implementing solutions. Many academics are loath to cross from an ‘objective’ pursuit of truth to a more normative view of the world requiring, among other things, transdisciplinary efforts. However, the urgency of the sustainability problems we are facing including water crisis and climate change must make us think beyond pure knowledge generation.

Third, co-designing sustainability research projects by involving stakeholders at all stages is critical and an essential element of finding solutions. The implementation of a co-designed project requires continuing interactions among stakeholders, including scientists, decision makers at different levels, and local communities. Refinements to original understandings of the problem and new knowledge is co-produced during this collaborative stage. Following the principles of adaptive management, the research team needs to make constant adjustments to the original plans. Co-created knowledge may lead to a revised research design, deployment of new knowledge in solving practical problems, effective stakeholder monitoring and evaluation systems, and ultimately policy changes.

Last but not the least, restructuring of institutions to foster collaboration across disciplines and stakeholders may be critical. In 2018 China approved the first three piloting cities i.e. Shenzhen, Taiyuan and Guilin to implement the SDGs through financing, launching research projects, and involving stakeholders at all level. As a consequence, on January 15, 2019, Shenzhen Institute of Sustainable Development was formally established to assist in applying sustainability knowledge for sustainability urban development.

More and more sustainability challenges are emerging across the globe. Reorientation of academic enterprises to generate the knowledge needed to address these challenges, and restructuring or creation of new institutions is urgently needed. 

Go to the profile of Junguo Liu

Junguo Liu

Professor, Southern University of Science and Technology (SUSTech)

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