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.

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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. 

Junguo Liu

Professor, Southern University of Science and Technology (SUSTech)


Go to the profile of ZHANG Junyuan
ZHANG Junyuan over 1 year ago

(Wang Tianwei, a junior student in SUSTech) It's a fascinating essay, interdisciplinary education or collaboration  shall be  the trend in future education. One can be an excellent researcher with a outstanding major knowledge, but he may never be a nice problem-solver, which requires broad knowledge, that is interdisciplinary skills. Tree model may foster students to be skilled quickly, but it's not good for future collaboration when facing a complex problem. nowadays, human is facing more and more problems that involves many different field, e.g. environmental contamination, not only the contaminant itself or the factories should be in concerned, but also the economic influence and society. because usually, the problems happen with human's producing activities. That's just a small epitome. but on the other hand, interdisciplinary education needs more resources and often means longer education duration(not just 4 years for a undergraduate), maybe sometimes multinationally, so that they can really have an interdisciplinary knowledge, but not knows a little about each field.  I hope the Academy for Advanced Interdisciplinary Studies in SUSTech will make something pioneering.

Go to the profile of ZHANG Junyuan
ZHANG Junyuan over 1 year ago

(Junyuan ZHANG, Student from SUSTech)Obviously, tree model is not suitable for most present research. For instance, when I need to do a research about surface water, I should also excel in chemistry and geology. Therefore, the web model was put forward. It is true that multiple co-operation can help the researcher solve many problems. For example, as the passage mentioned, water allocation policy need to use various subjects to balance the nature and society. But I think there is another model more approach to the real condition--maybe a model like the circular cone. The model is nearly same as  web model, but it is three dimensional, for the reason that I think the multiple fields should have the core leader in the cone. I mean when Professor Liu doing the  Heihe River Basin project, the main problem is a hydrology problem. Therefore, the core is hydrology, and other subjects just offer help. From the web model, we can also see the core. Whereas, I think circular cone is more easy to be understood, even if it is not concise. All in all, the web model still plays a significant role in the research. It is essential that use diverse kind of knowledge in a study. 

Go to the profile of ZUO Jinchao
ZUO Jinchao over 1 year ago

After reading the paper and the article,I completely agree  what's  the author‘s attention. In the 21st century,  the knowledge exponentially growth. How to acquire and utilize the knowledge is becoming a huge challenge for our educational system. As mentioned in the article, addressing sustainable development requires multidisciplinary integration, including hydrology, ecology, socio-economics, management, etc. Participating in solving a real problem or designing a project will make students grow fast during learning a lesson. In many courses in SUSTech, we are required to finish a project or a presentation relating to the course. I think it is very excellent approach to form the knowledge and I enjoy this way.

Go to the profile of ZUO Jinchao
ZUO Jinchao over 1 year ago

(Jinchao Zuo, student in SUSTech) 

Go to the profile of Shifan Xue
Shifan Xue over 1 year ago

The paper is very impressive and enlightening. In the world where diverse disciplines are flourishing and competing with each other, the need for interdisciplinary cooperation cannot be overlooked. Sometimes, despite the surpassing disciplinary expertise one may have, the possibility of addressing a universal concern single-handed is out of the question. A most notable example for this would be global warming. At the very beginning, people might count on disciplinary efforts, environmental science in particular, to cope with the problem. However, as it turned out, the result left much to be desired, unless joined efforts by various disciplines are made, such as environmental science, energy engineering, politics, economics, law and so forth. Interdisciplinary approaches are bound to be the new trend and the 'web' is an ideal model for replacement.

Go to the profile of ZUO Jinchao
ZUO Jinchao over 1 year ago

(Yiqiu Wu, student in SUSTech) The paper has unique insights and advanced vision . The interdisciplinary has always existed, just like environmental engineer, it contains a lot of knowledge about chemistry and biology, but in order to solve problems related to the environment, people divided related points into environmental disciplines. However, in the age of information technology, the cost of learning knowledge becomes lower and the efficiency of communication becomes higher, we are able to solve complex problems. At this time, these more complex problems are challenging our existing discipline system. Before the establishment of the new system, in order to solve these problem such as governance of the Heihe River Basin mentioned in the article, we need interdisciplinary knowledge, the interdisciplinary “web” model come into being. Therefore, a platform such as the Academy for Advanced Interdisciplinary Studies established by SUSTC is essential.

Go to the profile of Yitong Yang
Yitong Yang over 1 year ago

The point in this article is very good. What is clear is that we need people who are vertically developed -- well-researched in an academic field -- so that the research can be advanced and accurate, but we also need people who are horizontally developed -- have comprehensive multidisciplinary knowledge -- who are more appropriate for solving practical problems. There are interdisciplinary phenomena in many subjects nowadays. For example, environmental economics has become a common term, and resource-economy-environment is often studied as a chain reaction. Many enterprises also have sustainable development departments, which means that interdisciplinary talents are needed by the society. So it's good to accept the interdisciplinary study and apply it to our school.

Go to the profile of Xingyue Zhang
Xingyue Zhang over 1 year ago

In this essay, authors proposed the "Interdisciplinary ' web ' model" to emphasize the necessary connection and collobration among different subjects in solving sustainabillity problems. I cannot agree more with them. Different from theoretical disciplines like mathematics and physics, being highly connected with the future of human determines the solution-oriented characteristic and unique complexity of sustainability problems. 
Take a look at 17 sustainable development goals adopted by all United Nations Member States: to realize SDGs requires knowledge involving meteorology (13.Climate Action), biology (14. Life below water), sociology (5. gender equality)... I believe all the disciplines are involved and take their own irreplaceable place in solving these global problems.
As a senior in SUSTech who just starts to be engaged in scientific research, I feel inspired by Pro.Liu’s lecture and essay: Always be open-minded and solution-oriented. While I am still trying to achieve a balance between learning broadly and learning deeply and I am considering whether it is really beneficial for undergraduate to learn broadly in the sacrifice of the proficiency in their own specialized field to a certain extent? I believe there is a long way to establish a balanced and effective educational system.

Go to the profile of Yinong Cai
Yinong Cai over 1 year ago

From history, hydrology not just depend on water.
Human’s civilization, art, building etc. all come from water. On the other hand,
research about hydrology not only focus on the water itself, we must put us attention
on ecology, the economy system of water uses and  behave for water use and management, like LJ
said. About the “ wed “ model, it’s sure that the problems of sustainability
need the thought of interdisciplinary conservation.
But it isn’t an easy goal through many effects has been done, the root of this
problem is the system of education in the world and people don’t have enough
energy to consider too many fleids.It is especially
important to build a platform for all researchers to discuss and evaluate a
problem together. I’m happy to see professor. Liu can have a try. Maybe someday we'll all be beneficiaries