Transdisciplinary Design

Don’t Panic!

Posted on December 9, 2011 | posted by:

Human beings are emotional creatures, often driven by impulse and instinct rather than reason. We tend to feel unsafe and uneasy in new situations and uncertainty, and our behaviour can be described to range from withdrawn and counterproductive at best, to scared and frustrated at worst. But no matter how much we would like to avoid it, uncertainty and insecurity are part of our every day life.

Just a few months ago, some ambitious adventurers came together at Parsons the New School for Design to explore a new and uncharted land called Transdisciplinary Design. Once there, the land turned out to be a thick jungle of confusion and distraction. It was our job as TransD students to find a safe path through the jungle but we could not even get a clear picture of the forest, let alone the path. There were just too many trees blocking the view.

The TransD group is incredibly diverse, consisting of a large variety of academic and professional backgrounds coming from many different countries and cultures. However, one thing we did have in common: we did not really know what Transdisciplinary Design would look like, how we could find our way through it, and above all, which individual role each one of us would play in the process. This shared uncertainty manifested in a mild feeling of unease in the beginning of the process and evolved into pure panic by the end of the semester. Uncertainty not only slowed down the creative process, it resulted in various miscommunications that caused valuable ideas to be discarded and opportunities to be overlooked. This fostered a feeling of frustration and lack of appreciation, which in turn created problems in internal collaboration.

As Jamer Hunt recently said in the TD seminar: ‘Transdisciplinary Design is to act in the face of uncertainty’. Can we overcome uncertainty? How can we create security and certainty in a process that operates almost entirely on the premise of the new and unknown? Our field of work is unexplored and undefined; yet we must operate in it and guide others through it, too. How can we find our way in new and foreign lands? The solution is as obvious as it is simple: we need a map. A detailed concept map of Transdisciplinary Design containing all the variables that play a role in the TD process, ranging from professional skills to external factors to necessary tools. In other words, we need a cook book that tells us all the ingredients we need to make a transdisciplinary cake.

A map might sound like a simple solution, but practice has shown that many things can go wrong in the design and use of such a tool. In fact, many maps merely provide the user with new depths of confusion rather than with guidance. Let’s take a look at the following example of a concept map:

A Microsoft PowerPoint slide – meant to portray the complexity of American military strategy – which prompted US Military General Stanley McChrystal to declare that “When we understand that slide, we’ll have won the war”. This is a perfect example of what Edward Tufte describes as ‘chartjunk’, a useless, information-obscuring element of quantitative information display. Sure, it was meant to be more of an illustration than an actual map. Perhaps the purpose was actually to show just how complex and unsolvable this specific issue was, but illustrating the complexity of a situation without offering a solution or a way out is not very constructive.

I don’t want to compare the complexity of Transdisciplinary Design with the war in Afganistan, but the map of the latter showed how crucially important mapping skills as well as information identification and selection are to the process.  A map that is made without these skills will inevitably further obscure the issue at hand, leading the user astray rather than guiding him. Quality infographics are an important part of the solution. Over the past couple of years this field has evolved exponentially and has seen the development of new data-processing methods that are capable of displaying highly complex information.

In the case of our TD exploration, mapping will be a way to identify a method or general working structure that fits most or at least many TD processes. To put it differently, our map will serve as a tool to identify the necessary factors and structures to set up a generally applicable working method of our own. When it is done properly, a map is a documentation of reality made from an objective point of view. If we can assemble a convincing map of TD basics, it will facilitate the distribution of responsibilities. Moreover, it will help us get a fuller understanding of the scale of a process, identify the weak points, uncover unknown relations or opportunities and afterwards, document failures and successes. This post-evaluation is vital to the development: In every project we gain valuable new insights and knowledge about the unexplored land of Transdisciplinary Design. New findings must be integrated into the map, which will therefore be in a continuous state of improvement from the moment it is drafted.

A map, however, is not a blueprint offering a TransD solution to every problem. Rather, it is an axiom system with the capability to help navigate through the overwhelming amount of skills, actions and values of the different parties and concepts involved in TD. A conventional two-dimensional map is a good starting point, but the document will have to be tailored to the complexity of our process. The structure of the map will be a hierarchical one, subdivided into classes (e.g. process and skills or values and actions) to increase readability. However, this structure will make it impossible to visualise cross-connections between the classes, as they are connected to the whole range of the hierarchy. These cross-links are logical clusters, which will create sub-categories that link the classes but are not dependent on them. The result is a three-dimensional map. The transdisciplinary process is constantly subject to radical shifts and changes. Therefore, continuous adaptation and even the possibility of obsolence must be integrated into the design of a TD map. Adding this time-factor to our model might even result in a four-dimensional map.

It is important to realise that no one is capable of foreseeing each and every factor that does, or potentially could, play a role in a system. A semi-emergent approach therefore can help solve this: interaction with all involved parties will create most of the necessary data. This will also support the documentative character of the map. Last but not least, it is important to remember that despite best intentions of objectivity and neutrality, this type of map will always represent the view of the group that created it. Nevertheless, a TD map constitutes a great instrument to tap into the unexplored potential of the TD process by rendering both obstacles and opportunities visible, thereby reducing the uncertainty factor in the process.  It has the potential of becoming a core method of the TransD process. After all, in TD as in the real world, if you have a map of a place you have never been before, you are not as scared of getting lost.

Uncertainty does not only trigger a sense of unease and alert among us humans. It also makes us adapt and learn. And as we wander through the forest of Transdisciplinary Design, we are learning more about our new territory and, with each step, are turning the unknown into the familiar.