Insight: Why research integration matters

Transdisciplinary approaches have real potential to advance infrastructure research
Insight: Why research integration matters
UKCRIC Executive Manager (University of Birmingham)

Many of the specialisms upon which infrastructure and cities rely for their effective design, operation, governance, management, and maintenance are underpinned by the principles of certainty, accuracy, precision, and prediction. Not least of these is civil engineering. Yet, infrastructures and cities are characterised by complexity and emergence. In recent decades, understandings of infrastructures and cities have begun to reflect these properties and, in particular, transdisciplinarity is promoted as critical to advancing these new understandings. However, this potentially presents conceptual and operational challenges for civil engineering (and other specialisms) as there is a fundamental mismatch between the certainty, accuracy, and precision required by engineers and the complexity and emergence of transdisciplinary research approaches.

The forms of value arising from research integration (i.e., the scientific and knowledge contributions) are themselves contentious, leaving practitioners exposed to competing claims and making them ill-prepared to exploit new insights to full advantage. Through UKCRIC, we are exploring these mismatches and contentions, laying a foundation for how civil engineers in particular (and those from other disciplines alongside urban professionals) can conduct research in infrastructure and cities whilst leveraging emergent, transdisciplinary, integrated approaches.

In 2019, UKCRIC commissioned a report that explores transdisciplinary research approaches and how they can add value to the study of infrastructure and cities, with a focus upon civil engineering. In so doing, it tests UKCRIC’s hypothesis that transdisciplinarity must incorporate an ability to work constructively and collaboratively beyond one’s own discipline by virtue of developing an understanding of the philosophies, cultures, languages, methodologies, and to some degree literatures, of all the disciplines involved in infrastructure and urban design, and thereby shape how all the disciplines influence the combined activity. The report examines how UKCRIC can foster transdisciplinary partnerships and activities, delivering academic, and industry impact nationally and internationally through a new ‘characterisation of transdisciplinarity’.

The characterisation is positioned as UKCRIC’s first step in developing a research integration framework suited to the opportunities and challenges posed by infrastructure and cites and it has been tested at two international events in September 2019. On the 10th of September we ran a workshop (Towards the establishment of a new transdisciplinary area of scholarship in infrastructure and cities) at the International Interdisciplinarity Conference in Gothenburg, Sweden. Between the 18th and 20th of September we ran a workshop at the International Symposia for Next Generation Infrastructure (ISNGI) in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

UKCRIC represents a paradigm shift in the UK’s approach to infrastructure and cities research: how it is conceived, funded, organised and put into practice. Transdisciplinarity has the potential to advance this paradigm shift, but transdisciplinary manifestations are heterogeneous and context dependent, making them difficult to apply. The characterisation identifies target areas for enabling, facilitating and embedding transdisciplinary thinking and practices; such as, problem framings, skill sets, methodological and communication ‘distances’, accountability, quality control, governance and processes.

If you would like to know more about this work, please contact Professor Chris Rogers and Joanne Leach at the University of Birmingham.

Image credit: Photo by Hans-Peter Gauster on Unsplash