An Economist, a Futurist and a Designer Walk Into a Research Institute: The Emerging Practice of Interdisciplinary Collaborative Research

An Economist, a Futurist and a Designer Walk Into a Research Institute: The Emerging Practice of Interdisciplinary Collaborative Research

As part of a short series of self-reflective articles and publications, we are exploring how we work and the benefits and challenges of these approaches operationally, intellectually, and creatively.
An Economist, a Futurist and a Designer Walk Into a Research Institute: The Emerging Practice of Interdisciplinary Collaborative Research
Nisa Malli
Work Stream Manager, Innovative + Inclusive Economy
Meghan Hellstern
Senior Projects Officer
March 23, 2020
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When you are dealing with a relatively simple health issue such as high blood pressure or cholesterol, working with a single medical practitioner such as your family physician can often be enough to make meaningful progress. When you are facing more complex issues like autoimmune disorders or physical trauma, it usually makes more sense to work with an interdisciplinary, collaborative team of medical professionals who each bring their own perspective and tools to the table. In the same way, understanding and addressing complex economic and social issues, like those we study at the Brookfield Institute for Innovation + Entrepreneurship from inclusive economic growth to the societal impacts of artificial intelligence and beyond, typically demands the application of a broad, multi-disciplinary set of practices and frameworks.

As a result, our team, and by consequence, our research and analysis, is interdisciplinary and collaborative. It is interdisciplinary in that we bring collective subject matter expertise, methodological rigor, and intellectual integrity from a range of academic and practitioner disciplines (including economics, sociology, anthropology, communications, information studies, foresight, and human-centred design) as well as policymaking experience inside and outside government. Our project teams include embedded communications experts who bring our research to life through illustrations, data visualizations, and storytelling. And it is collaborative in that the nature of the work we do requires working together not only across disciplines but across sectors, drawing on a wide network of stakeholders and experts in Canada and around the world.

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As part of a short series of self-reflective articles and publications, we are exploring how we work and the benefits and challenges of these approaches operationally, intellectually, and creatively. If you work on interdisciplinary and/or collaborative research, or are thinking about how to bring these approaches into your work, this article is for you!

What does this style of research look like in practice?

Undoubtedly, every team, project and environment is different. However, in our own work, we have noticed the following characteristics across interdisciplinary collaborative research projects:

  • Interdisciplinary collaborative research can produce novel insights and new, combined, methodological approaches. Through the synthesis of complementary strengths from different disciplines and perspectives, this type of research can generate insights that otherwise may not emerge from more narrow or traditional methodological approaches, and create new, and often more nimble methods.
  • It can reach a wider audience than more siloed work. By bringing together language, audiences, and ideas from different areas of study, this type of research can help make knowledge relevant to more diverse, and broader audiences.
  • It is often emergent and generative. The complexity of bringing together different disciplines and interests by its nature can force a less planned, non-linear approach to knowledge generation, capture, and translation.
  • It demands level-setting and translation to be done well. While more traditional forms of research typically benefit from a degree of shared terminology and knowledge among the research team, interdisciplinary collaborative research often involves a team working together while using different terminology, reference points, mental models, assumptions, and approaches. As a result, it can be messier and full of productive creative tension. Level-setting and translation are needed both within the team and in communicating results.
  • It often requires creative roles and project planning. Given that different team members bring different types of expertise, shared or concurrent research/content leadership is often required for different methodological phases as well as careful attention to sequencing and resourcing of project phases.

What are the benefits?

While this type of research can be challenging, there are numerous benefits that make it worthwhile. Interdisciplinary collaborative research has the potential to shift research and analysis away from entrenched policy and disciplinary debates. Bringing together diverse collaborators can move research out of a rut by testing assumptions, exposing differences in lines of reasoning and approaches to problem solving, reframing long-standing research questions, and exposing new ways of looking at problems outside of disciplinary and sectoral silos. It also pushes researchers to move beyond descriptive statistics, qualitative anecdotes, and over-reliance on quantitative or qualitative data alone. Instead, it encourages us to leverage statistics where available and appropriate and employ storytelling and other narrative techniques to better contextualize and understand the numbers.

What are the challenges?

However, we would be providing an incomplete picture of this approach to research if we did not acknowledge its challenges. Interdisciplinary collaborative research poses several tactical and operational challenges. For one, it generally takes longer than other types of research, because it requires multiple concurrent or consecutive research phases and analyses that braid together multiple voices, sources of data, and approaches to sense-making. This becomes particularly acute when trying to plan large and multi-phase projects with more complex synthesis, and may demand a DIY approach to research design, borrowing from existing templates and creating new ones as needed. In the writing and knowledge translation phases, lacking a shared vocabulary among team members as well as audiences can put pressure on the team to make their work readable and remove disciplinary jargon; a challenge for all researchers seeking wide audiences, but one that is particularly potent when working across disciplines. Finally, we have noticed some challenges in engaging funders, who are often focused on specific disciplines or more narrowly-scoped subjects. Additional translation is needed for this audience as well, to communicate what the research team is doing, what our outputs might be, and that these may not always be clear from the outset.  

At the end of the day, despite the challenges outlined above, we are firm believers that the benefits of interdisciplinary collaborative research far outweigh the drawbacks. In fact, it is part of what many have told us makes the Brookfield Institute for Innovation + Entrepreneurship unique in our approach and our results. By kicking off this series with this post, we are hoping to share some of what we are seeing in this emergent arena so that others either already practicing this or interested in adopting it might benefit, and so that we can learn from you.

"It requires multiple concurrent or consecutive research phases and analyses that braid together multiple voices, sources of data, and approaches to sense-making."

Seeking fellow researchers! 

Are you also doing interdisciplinary collaborative research (or something similar)? We are interested in connecting to other research teams, whether working in academia, government, non-profits, or elsewhere, to compare learnings and methodology; tactics for funding this kind of research; and best practices in managing, supporting, and living interdisciplinary collaborative approaches.

To get in touch, contact Meghan Hellstern (meghan.hellstern@ryerson.ca) or Nisa Malli (nisa.malli@ryerson.ca).

For media enquiries, please contact Lianne George, Director of Strategic Communications at the Brookfield Institute for Innovation + Entrepreneurship.

Nisa Malli
Work Stream Manager, Innovative + Inclusive Economy
Meghan Hellstern
Senior Projects Officer
March 23, 2020
Print Page

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