Building Interdisciplinarity in Sustainability Education and Research

Academics increasingly collaborate across disciplinary boundaries to tackle major sustainability challenges. Such interdisciplinarity has benefits and challenges.

This session was part of the NBS Sustainability Centres Community (SCC) Workshop 2021. The SCC connects business school sustainability centres worldwide.  

Universities, business schools, and centres are all calling for greater interdisciplinarity. This NBS Workshop session presented cases of interdisciplinary research and teaching from four universities. The presenters were Michelle Westermann-Behaylo (University of Amsterdam), Pilar Acosta (Universidad Icesi), Minna Halme (Aalto University), and Marcus Wagner (Augsburg University)

Discussion with session participants then built understanding of current challenges to interdisciplinarity and ways to overcome them.

Watch the Session Video

Although there is no one way to approach interdisciplinarity, some common topics emerged in the session leaders report:

What is Interdisciplinarity?

There are different levels of working with colleagues. We defined three:

  • Multidisciplinary research: Researchers from one or more disciplines work together, but in parallel, considering the same research problem from different perspectives.

  • Interdisciplinary research: This approach integrates knowledge and methods from two or more disciplines to advance knowledge and propose solutions beyond the scope of a single discipline.

  • Transdisciplinary research: This approach goes ‘beyond disciplines’ by integrating knowledge from non-scientific stakeholders to solve a problem.

Why Interdisciplinarity?

  • Interdisciplinarity is needed to tackle the grand sustainability challenges. Interdisciplinarity allows a systemic understanding of the challenges and collective knowledge building. 

  • Interdisciplinarity facilitates learning from each other.

  • Grant-makers and donors show increasing interest in interdisciplinarity

Challenges of Interdisciplinarity

Challenges include:

  • Language and how to identify common vocabularies and share similar visions of the world.  Discipline-focused academic education can impede communication.

  • Current structures organized by disciplines block access to resources

  • Leadership definitions: Researchers are usually authorities in their field, and interdisciplinarity responsibility requires redefining authority and leadership

  • Balancing targets of different schools or units within a university (e.g. around research and teaching)

  • Defining impact from an interdisciplinary perspective

  • Student assessment, especially avoiding falling back on emphasizing one’s own discipline

  • Motivating professors from different backgrounds to start the dialogue

  • How to move from multidisciplinary research to interdisciplinary research.

  • How to satisfy accreditation bodies and tenure-track systems, which still remain discipline-based. 

How to Overcome Challenges

Participants shared these strategies:

  • Be patient. Dedicated professors get to know each other in the long run and create trust and common vocabularies. 

  • Take students to the field and have them work together, e.g. by using problem-based learning pedagogies or other experiential approaches. Consider courses proposing challenges that students need to solve collectively.  

  • Developing teaching programs first facilitated the development of research projects, in the cases described by the session leaders. Joint multi-disciplinary Masters programs can create a platform and occasion to start building interdisciplinary approaches.

  • Label courses according to an SDG to encourage dialogue from different perspectives.

  • Develop incentive structures such as:

Seminar series where sustainability researchers from different disciplinary backgrounds present their research to each other to facilitate dialogue.      

Rewards to academic units (schools or faculties in a university) for attracting students from different schools to their courses.   

  • Go beyond academia and partner with other stakeholders (transdisciplinarity). For example, develop challenges with externals, hackathons, or fellowships. 

  • Start stepwise. For example, host a few seminar presentations in the first semester, then a larger teaching project in the next semester.

About the SCC Workshop 2021

Every two years, the NBS Sustainability Centres Community Workshop connects leaders of business school sustainability centres for learning and action. This session was a part of the most recent Workshop in July 2021: “Designing the Business School Sustainability Centre of the Future.” See the main Workshop page for an overview and to access additional sessions.

The 2021 Workshop was hosted by the Center for Sustainability Transformation and Responsibility (STaR) at the Vienna University of Economics and Business and the Institute for Business Ethics and Sustainable Strategy (IBES) at the FH Wien University of Applied Sciences for Management & Communication.

See the Sustainability Centres Community homepage for additional information and to join the group.

Banner photo is taken by Marius Brand of WU Vienna, who gave us a great sense of what our conference would have felt like in Vienna, had it not been virtual.

About the Session Leaders

Michelle Westermann-Behaylo, Amsterdam Business School

Michelle Westermann-Behaylo (J.D. Vanderbilt University; Ph.D. George Washington University) is Assistant Professor and Co-Director of the Sustainability Initiative at University of Amsterdam Business School. She has published articles in high impact journals on the role of business in promoting peace and human dignity, respecting human rights, and reaching the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Her latest projects consider how social media and communication technology can amplify the voices of powerless stakeholders. Her research has received financial support from the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research, the Aspen Institute, and the Institute for Economics and Peace.

Pilar Acosta, Universidad Icesi

Pilar Acosta (Ph.D) is Associate Professor at the School of business and economic sciences at Universidad Icesi, in Cali, Colombia. She earned her Ph.D at ESCP Europe and Université Paris 1-Panthéon Sorbonne. Her work has been published in international journals such as Journal of Business Ethics, Organization Studies and journals in management education. Her research focuses on the evolution of business and sustainability in the context of limited statehood and in management education. She codirects the Kairos Observatory for Corporate Sustainability at Universidad Icesi and co-founded a newly created interdisciplinary master in sustainability.

Minna Halme, Aalto University School of Business

Minna Halme is Professor of Sustainability Management at Aalto University School of Business. Her research focuses on sustainability innovations, co-creation of sustainable innovation, sustainable business models and frugal innovation for poverty alleviation. She is active in interdisciplinary sustainability research and education, heading projects that involve multiple disciplines and being co-founder of FT-listed Creative Sustainability Master programme. She is Associate Editor of Organization & Environment, and member of the editorial boards of Business Strategy and the Environment, Technovation and Scandinavian Journal of Management. Her work has appeared in several refereed journals. The Academy of Management and other scientific bodies have granted her multiple awards. She is member of a number of high-level corporate sector advisory boards and advises the Finnish Government. She has earned the Academy of Finland award for the societal impact of her research.

Marcus Wagner, Augsburg University

Marcus Wagner is Professor of Management, Innovation and International Business at Augsburg University and Associate Member of the Bureau d’Economie Theorique et Appliquee, Strasbourg, where he was a Marie Curie Fellow. His research focuses on innovation, global sustainability and strategic management, and has been published, inter alia, in Journal of Business Venturing, Long Range Planning, and Research Policy. He is a Board Member of University of Augsburg’s Environmental Science Center and is a founding member of the university’s interdisciplinary Center for Climate Resilience, which is involves 20+ new professorships ranging from the natural and social sciences to humanities. Marcus is also a Deputy Editor of Organization and Environment, a leading journal at the intersection of management and sustainability.

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