The Transdisciplinary Mindset

The Transdisciplinary Mindset is inclined to boundary cross, innovate and collaborate, approach complex environments with ontological flexibility, focused on interconnectivity, as practiced through systems thinking, and engages in reflective practice.

Transdisciplinarity is a collaborative effort that sits on the spectrum of cross-disciplinary approaches. At CGU, transdisciplinarity is defined by:

  • Working around a complex problem important to society.
  • Inclusion of diverse stakeholders working together toward and re-framing a resolution of that problem.
  • Disciplinary self-reflection that is both cultural and professional, with reflective judgment and negotiation driving the collaborative process.
  • Innovative approaches emerging from the collaborative process.
Transdisciplinary mindset visualized as an atom

Identifying Problems

Complex: Many actors; No Central Controller; Strongly coupled; Non-linear relationships; Robust/resilient; Emergent.

‘Wicked’: Lacking definitive formulation; No stopping rule; Good v bad solutions, not T v F; Uniqueness of every problem; Discrepancies explained in multiple ways; Any wicked problem could be viewed as a symptom of another problem; Planners responsible for outcomes that result from the actions they take.1

‘Real-world’: Dynamic and Discontinuous; Simultaneously juggling other problems; Ill-defined; Interaction of problem-solver with environment; Iterative.2

The great ideas and solutions to complex, wicked, real world problems are:

  • crafted by teams because no one works alone, and we only get better when we learn from each other,
  • never done so you need an ongoing process, not just a checklist of tasks, and
  • matters because it’s what’s driving our world forward.3

Abilities and Domains

The Transdisciplinary Studies Program, in conjunction with our transdisciplinary studies colleagues at other research institutes and universities, has identified the following abilities and domains as critical components in fostering a transdisciplinary mindset.

Transdisciplinary Mindset Development Visualized as an Inverted Pyramid


  1. Communicating Values: transdisciplinarians are able to identify, ground, and communicate assumptions and normative values in topics related to the problem(s) under consideration.
  2. Reflective Practices: transdisciplinarians are reflective about their own perceptions and biases concerning disciplinary concept(s).
  3. Effective Collaboration: given a real-world topic and its accompanying conflicts and uncertainties, transdisciplinarians are able to identify and frame clear, relevant problems with others who have contrasting perspectives or opinions.
  4. Integrative Skills: transdisciplinarians are able to translate real-world problems into viable research questions, to identify and integrate adequate research method(s) and to apply conceptual knowledge to specific contexts to investigate these questions and to co-produce knowledge with society.
  5. Imaginative Solutions: transdisciplinarians are able to explore and develop solutions for real-world problems, while being aware of the possibility of unintended consequences of these solutions and taking responsibility for these consequences.

Competency Domains

Each of these abilities is further grounded, in part or full, in the following competency domains, which embody the transdisciplinary mindset through both research and practice.

Thinking Styles

Systems Thinking: “An enterprise aimed at seeing how things are connected to each other within some notion of a whole entity.” In other words, it is a “way of looking at phenomena and problems through a holistic lens, including how components of a given systems affect one another as well as affect the system as a whole.”

Design Thinking: A cyclical process in which a team defines a goal, designs a prototype, tests the prototype, and reiterates this until the goal is achieved. Design-thinking focuses on the intention of an intervention or product (and evaluating its success), in contrast to finding a universal truth or theory.

Strategic Thinking (from ‘strategic management’): In an organizational setting, this refers to the generation and application of effective plans that are in line with the organization’s objectives in order to create a competitive advantage. In strategic thinking, an effective strategy is divided into 1) process, 2) content and 3) context. At the heart of strategic thinking is creativity and inventiveness.

Temporal Focus: The degree to which individuals think about the cognitive constructs of past and future (and their fields of study) and how these relate to the present, as well as how the study of chronological concepts can be applied to other fields.

Intentionality/Mindfulness: In contrast to causal frameworks, a set of perspectives focusing on agency, meaning-making, wisdom, and a moment-by-moment awareness of both thoughts and feelings as valid ‘ways of knowing’.

Problem-Based Learning: A constructivist pedagogy based on student collaboration around open-ended, complex questions to develop skills for use in future practice. It is an active learning set of techniques that drive both the process and the motivation for learning.


Information Literacy: The ability to define problems in terms of information needs and apply a systematic approach to locate, evaluate, and apply the given information. Critical thinking is applied to evidence, and so users of this literacy are capable of not only telling ‘fact from fiction’ but also understand how information can be curated according to intention.

Cultural Literacy: The ability to understand and participate fluently in communication through cultural products and artefacts, emphasizing narrative, rhetoric, comparison, interpretation and critique for the learner to better understand and utilize cultural and disciplinary contexts.

Ethical Literacy: The ability to reflect on, articulate, and respond to issues concerning morality and ethics across relativist to essentialist perspectives. This type of literacy combines the ethical and value-dimensions of a profession/field/group with policy knowledge and technical skill.

Disciplinary and Topic Literacy: An understanding of the knowledge base, lexicon, and skills used in a given discipline. Objectives in this category of literacies is to be able to process and create literature that contributes to the conversations/debates particular to a specific discipline or topic.

Effective Collaboration Skills

Negotiation: a “form of social interaction that incorporates argumentation, persuasion, and information exchange into reaching agreements and working out future interdependence.” In a collaboration, this pertains to interest-based negotiation in which the relationship is treated as a valuable element of what is at stake, while seeking an equitable agreement.

Communication: in collaboration (and conflict resolution) this refers to constructive, positive communication (eg. active listening, giving feedback, using respectful language) as well as finding or creating a common language for shared understanding across boundaries. It also emphasizes choosing effective tools, techniques and modalities appropriate for the task(s) at hand, the stakeholders, and conditions dictated by context.

Team building and teamwork: one of the pillars of organizational development based on improving the effectiveness of a team, this specifically refers to aligning members around goals, developing working relationships, and improving communication and trust.

Leadership and followership: Understanding the balance in hierarchical as well as heterarchical organizational structures, as well as the sets of skills required in leaders and followers, specifically in boundary-crossing contexts.

Collaborative Creativity: innovation and emergence in collaborative settings and finding ways to facilitate this type of collaboration. This often describes an approach within collaborative problem-solving that emphasizes idea generation and selection rather than implementation.

Integration of Methods and Perspectives: integration of multiple disciplines in collaborations around complex problems. Integration can emphasize a cognitive, structural, or cultural process. Important questions include what factors are necessary, sufficient and permissive for integration at different levels to occur.


Applied/Community-based Research: research which equitably involves community members, organizational representatives, and researchers in all aspects of the research process. This research often focuses on including community participation, resulting in better understanding of situated problems and empowering citizens to take more control within their communities.

Reflection in- and on- Action: reflection in-action is an awareness of the situation as it happens, and includes the agility, empathy, and self-awareness of one’s own assumptions and biases to change tactics if necessary. Reflection on action is a reflection after a situation has occurred, and a working towards understanding and improving in the future.

Transdisciplinary Case-Study: a specific type of case study focusing on unstructured, complex, large-scale, real-world issues, often including methods for modeling, forecasting, strategy building, and project management. These cases connect academic to non-academic spaces and actors which are go producers of knowledge in the case-study.

Quantitative/Analytical Skills: the ability to visualize, articulate, and solve problems based on available quantitative information. Quantitative methodologies emphasize objective measurements, statistical data, and computational techniques. Often this is “hypothesis-testing” research.

Qualitative Skills: subjective, observable, but not experimentally measured or examined skills, including critical thinking, creativity, resilience, etc. Qualitative methods emphasize the values in an inquiry and how meaning is made. Often this is “hypothesis-generating” research.

Complexity Theory: based in systems theory and used in organizational settings, used to discuss complex systems; their adaptability, dynamicism, and resilience. It is the study of how order, patterns and structure appear in complex adaptive systems, and it focuses on emergent phenomena over deductive and inductive reasoning.

Problem Framing/Hypothesis (re-)Generating: when collaboratively working through complex systems, an iterative process used to reframe a problem from various perspectives, both to help understand its complexity as well as to solve it. It comes from a synthesis from conflict resolution and the cognitive sciences.

Again, these core abilities and competency domains embody transdisciplinarity through both research and practice. These are the “things” that transdisciplinarians should do to develop a transdisciplinary mindset because the great ideas and solutions to complex, wicked, real world problems are crafted by teams, are never “done,” and are what matters in driving our world forward.3

Transdisciplinary Annotated Bibliography (Condensed)

If you would like to learn more about the transdisciplinary mindset, we recommend the following works.


Introductory Reading:

Sousanis, Nick. Unflattening. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015.

A graphic novel that explores the human condition and the need to reframe our ways of knowing through reflexivity, systems thinking, and complexity. A must-read!

A Deeper Dive:

Ausburg, Tanya. “Becoming Transdisciplinary: The Emergence of the Transdisciplinary Individual.” World Futures: The Journal of General Evolution 70, no. 3-4 (2014): 233-247.

Ausburg discusses the traits of a transdisciplinary individual, with an emphasis on the roles of creative inquiry, cultural diversity, and cultural relativism.

Pohl, Christian. “What is Progress in Transdisciplinary Research?” Futures 43, no. 6 (2011): 618-626.

A discussion of transdisciplinary thought-styles, which links the individual to a larger community. According to Pohl, a thought-style resembles a mindset in that it is fluid and subjective.


Introductory Reading:

Schon, Donald A. The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think In Action. New York: Basic Books, 1983.

A discussion on how reflection-in-action works and how to foster this creativity in future professionals.

A Deeper Dive:

Ryan, Anne. Reflexivity and Critical Pedagogy. Edited by Tony Walsh. Boston: Brill Sense, 2018.

Reflexivity as essential in creating sites for transformative possibilities in education, for teachers and students alike.


Introductory Reading:

Giri, Ananta Kumar. “The Calling of a Creative Transdisciplinarity.” Futures 34, no. 1 (2002): 103-115.

A discussion on the process of creating a transdisciplinary individual, with a focus on the concepts of interperspectivity, disciplinary embeddedness, and the transgressive nature of transdisciplinary inquiry.

A Deeper Dive:

Rajan, R. Sundara. Beyond the Crisis of European Sciences. Shimla: Indian Institute of Advanced Study, 1998.

Rajan, a philosopher, discusses transcendence of life and disciplines, and how disciplines transform over time.

Design Thinking

Introductory Reading:

Brown, Tim and Jocelyn Wyatt. “Design Thinking for Social Innovation.” Stanford Social Innovation Review, (Winter 2010).

A seminal article in design thinking. An introduction to the principles of good design and how these can be applied to tackle complex problems. Brown and Wyatt illustrate these principles with examples of successful design implementations across the globe.

A Deeper Dive:

Stanford University Public Library. “Library of Ambiguity.” Accessed March 31, 2022.

A one-stop-shop for an introduction into design thinking and practice. There are downloadable resources for projects to elicit design thinking, ranging from short worksheets, games, and reflection prompts, to long-form assignments.

Systems Thinking

Meadows, Donella H. Thinking in Systems: A Primer. Edited by Diana Wright. London: Earthscan, 2009.

An accessible yet thorough discussion of the principles of systems thinking and how these principles can be used to better understand the world around us.

Complexity Theory

Introductory Reading:

Holland, John H. Complexity: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.

John H. Holland, one of the leading figures in the field of complexity research, introduces the key elements and conceptual framework of complexity. Discussions range from complex physical systems such as fluid flow to complex adaptive systems such as the interdependent ecosystems of rainforests.

A Deeper Dive:

The Santa Fe Institute. “Complex Systems Theory.” Accessed March 31, 2022.

Courses open to the community based out of the Santa Fe Institute, a leading school in complexity sciences. These courses range from introductions into the world of complexity to systems, chaos, agent-based modelling, non-linear dynamics, and fractals.

Effective Transdisciplinary Collaboration

Introductory Reading:

Klein, Julie Thompson. “Interdisciplinary Teamwork: The Dynamics of Collaboration and Integration.” In Interdisciplinary Collaboration: An Emerging Cognitive Science, edited by Sharon J. Derry, Christian D. Schunn, Morton Ann Gernsbacher, 23 – 50. Mahwah, NJ : Lawrence Erlbaum, 2005.

Klein discusses the core components of interdisciplinary collaboration, including teams and leadership to project structure and goals.

A Deeper Dive:

Klein, Julie Thompson. Beyond Interdisciplinarity: Boundary Work, Communication, and Collaboration. New York: Oxford University Press, 2021.

Klein discusses the core components of interdisciplinary collaboration, including teams and leadership to project structure and goals.


Introductory Reading:

Bammer, Gabriele. “Communication” Integration and Implementation Insights: A community blog providing research resources for understanding and acting on complex real-world problems. Accessed March 31, 2022.

A blog that touches on all things related to inter- and transdisciplinarity, with a particular focus on team science, collaboration, and communicating across boundaries.

A Deeper Dive:

Lotrecchiano, Gaetano R. and Shalini Mistra, eds. Communication in Transdisciplinary Teams. Informing Science Press, 2020.

A collection of essays on transdisciplinary topics, including: the roles of language and collaborative knowledge in transdisciplinary teams, viewing transdisciplinary learning and engagement through the lens of complexity, and challenges and opportunities in conducting collaborative transdisciplinary research, among others.

Please note these resources are under active development. If you have questions or would like to learn more, please contact us.