Acknowledging that you don’t know everything can be hard

Of course, over the years scientists have regularly contributed to some impressive breakthroughs. But that does not mean that they are omniscient. Tackling the great challenges of society requires more than a scientific perspective. This is why TNO is committed to experimenting with a transdisciplinary approach and is working with the Centre for Unusual Collaborations (CUCo) to achieve it. We spoke to CUCo director Corinne Lamain and Josephine Sassen-van Meer (TNO).

'As humans, we’re programmed by evolution to pursue certainty and avoid uncertainty as much as possible,' says Josephine Sassen-van Meer, who has specialised within TNO in transdisciplinary science and systems thinking. 'But in an effort to find an effective strategy to deal with a complex problems, you will inevitably have to create a context in which you tolerate uncertainty.'

Practical knowledge is essential

'Exactly! Embrace discomfort,' says Corinne Lamain, CUCo director. During training courses, she often sees participants who have a scientific background struggle to abandon their traditional approach. 'Scientists are preoccupied with understanding as much as they can about their specialist field. They’re used to knowing a lot about a subject, but that knowledge often proves too limited to tackle major issues in society. In many cases, identifying promising solutions that work will inevitably involve the application of practical knowledge. In a transdisciplinary collaboration, the basic principle is that all knowledge is of equal value. That can sometimes take some getting used to.'

Application of new knowledge

'Scientists are often unaccustomed to working on issues that reach (far) beyond their specialist field and of which the results cannot be determined in advance. But when tackling major societal problems, that’s exactly the challenge they face. It is a common misconception that all it takes is experts from different disciplines sitting down together for them to reach the ultimate solution,'Josephine emphasises.

'Scientists have been brought up with the idea that they can contribute most effectively by promoting what they know and by explaining exactly how things stand. Acknowledging that you don’t know everything can be hard. And yet that’s actually the starting principle when you’re working across disciplines.'

Corinne emphasises how important it is to abandon ideas that you have always held to be true. 'We can only tackle societal issues through the application of new knowledge. After all, if it’d been possible with existing knowledge, we’d already have made much more progress. And when I say new knowledge, I’m talking about integrating different ideas and perspectives from people from different backgrounds.'

Personal development

At TNO, working across disciplines is not yet day-to-day practice. This is largely because this way of working is still in a pioneering phase and not everyone is aware of the underlying principles. However, within the Systems Innovation Programme, system-based round tables have been established, in which participants focus on a societal theme. Over a period of several months, experts convene in ten meetings where a transdisciplinary working method is applied. So how did people respond?

'In very different ways,' says Josephine. 'There’ve been occasions when participants asked us in frustration why they seemed to be enrolled in a personal development programme. These were often the same people who’d made the biggest transformation by the end of the program and told us later that they now use this every day in their work. Although it’s obviously not realistic to expect full solutions or quick fixes in just ten days, the sessions have resulted in some very interesting perspectives and original ideas.'

Entering into the unknown

'This way of working is still experimental,' emphasises Corinne. 'It needs time. It also calls for a lot of flexibility. Mainly because beforehand you don’t actually know what direction it will take. That means you really are entering into the unknown. Often, it’s a big step to convert key concepts and ideas from the research into something more concrete; something to do or to share. That’s why we make use of a lot of visualisations. Our teams collaborate with artists and designers for that.'

Paint in their hair

'We actively involve the participants,' says Josephine. 'They enter a room with cans of paint and clay ready for them to work with. The ones who appear most reluctant at the outset are regularly the ones who are the most invigorated by the end of the day, with paint in their hair. "Appreciative inquiry" is another potential strategy for helping participants to flesh out their ideas.

'This method involves attempting to project positive facts from the past into a potential future. Scientists in particular can find this reassuring, because they attach a lot of value to things that have proved themselves in the past. We do try to keep the potential future as open as possible. If you add in too much detail, it can slow things down. We’re actually still in the process of striking the right balance. That’s why we’re so happy to work closely with CUCo.'

Liberating learning experience

'It’s a real learning experience working together and finding out what is and what isn’t effective,' Corinne agrees. 'That’s also what we hear from lots of researchers. They can find it liberating to discover that there’s an alternative form of research that’s based on sharing ideas and perspectives equally.'

Download the paper: Transdisciplinary Research: If it’s so important, why aren’t we all doing it?

From attractive conceptual notion to real-world applied practice.