Transdisciplinarity: Synthesis towards a modular approach

Ortwin Renn

Abstract (quote)

“The need to cope with future challenges posed by major transformations such as digitalization and sustainable development has led to several approaches to establish new concepts and methods of science and research. Scientific studies are supposed to provide background knowledge, to facilitate the desired transformations towards a sustainable future and to help resolving complex problems that accompany societies in transition. Concepts such as transformative, transdisciplinary or co-creative approaches elucidate the direction in which scientific research strives for its new role(s).

Based on the discussion of these concepts and their different roots, the article proposes a modular concept for a transdisciplinary scientific approach combining and integrating curiosity driven research with goal oriented (advocacy) knowledge generation and catalytic, process-oriented expertise. This integration promises to address some of the deficits of the existing concepts and is particularly suitable for future studies comprising orientation, strategies and reflection for designing policies for transformations.”

Highlights (quote)

  • A thorough review of concepts and approaches for interdisciplinary research with an emphasis on European traditions.
  • An analysis of the merits, problems and shortcomings of these approaches.
  • A new approach based on the combination of curiosity-driven, goal-oriented and catalytic research concepts.
  • A brief case study illustrating the new approach.

Summary (quote)

“Policymaking for dealing with wicked and complex problems requires a robust knowledge base for the assessment of the likely consequences of each policy option and is based on balancing conflicting goals considering the diversity of interests, preferences and values of society. This requires a better integration of scientific expertise for informing policymaking, so that the relevant knowledge base can be used in the preparation of evidence-informed, socially acceptable and morally substantiated decisions.

The best way to inform policymaking is by implementing transdisciplinary research methods. Transdisciplinarity becomes manifest in the systematic integration of classic curiosity-driven research (disciplinary and interdisciplinary), goal-oriented strategic research (impact assessment of different options); and process-related catalytic research (deliberative integration of knowledge, values, interests, and preferences). The defining characteristics of transdisciplinarity, namely, the systematic perspective, the orientation on complex real-world problems and the inclusion of non-scientific knowledge, are inherent to this kind of research process (Despres et al., 2004: 472; Jahn et al., 2012: 8; Pohl, 2011: 619; Thompson Klein, 2013: 190; Zscheischler & Rogga, 2015: 29).

To meet these characteristics requires an organic synthesis of the three research concepts described in this article. The curiosity-driven concept brings in the systematic insights to make policy options effective, the goal-oriented concept develops strategies to achieve the desired objectives or to constructively address problems that need public attention, and the catalytic concept delivers the institutional architecture and communicative design necessary to successfully conduct a deliberative discourse between and among the various knowledge carriers and users of knowledge.

The synthesis of these three concepts into an integrative approach of building bridges between knowledge and collective action corresponds to the transdisciplinary mission of science. Transdisciplinary approaches integrate process-related, factual, and strategy-related knowledge and ideally lead to a problem resolution that is factually convincing, argumentatively consistent, morally substantiated, and, in principle, acceptable to all.”


Renn, O.(2021) Transdisciplinarity: Synthesis towards a modular approach. Futures, Volume 130, 102744.