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Building the right teams to tackle the future of Cities

by Richard Palmer

Trans-disciplinary approaches bring us into the world of ‘both/and’, not ‘either/or’, demanding awareness and humility.

When I first started thinking about designing future cities, I had no idea that there was so much contention over the different terms for how a group of people with different expertise can work together. But there is. So let’s start with a disclaimer: I am not an expert in the theory of how teams work, so the ideas in this post are simply my own interpretations.

This post is just an exploration of how I believe we can shift our shared understanding of complex design challenges (like cities) by reframing the rules of engagement between design team members, from multi-, through inter- and towards trans-disciplinary design.

The shortfalls of specialists working in isolation have become increasingly apparent in the design of complex systems.

The shortfalls of specialists working in isolation have become increasingly apparent in the design of complex systems. It seems that even the most conservative of design spaces – old school engineering – have begun to recognise this. There are few remaining proponents of the ‘my-way-or-the-highway’ engineering, who simply demand that all other systems meet their requirements.

While the bluster of self importance often remains, I have witnessed a shift in professional attitudes – to be more accommodating and understanding of the importance of other disciplines in complex design challenges.

Multi: many. Many disciplines. Multi-disciplinary approaches recognise the importance of having a range of specialists on a team, and that the communication lines between team members need to be transparent and clear. This distinction from conventional ‘specialists-in-isolation’ approaches allows design challenges to be informed by the needs of all the specialists.

In my (short) career I have seen the rise of multi-disciplinary teams as the preferred model for the built environment (although it is still an emerging trend in the local industry). The idea that the free flow of information and design concepts between mechanical, electrical, civil and structural engineers may improve the quality of the design, while novel, is not outside the realms of mainstream understanding. Green building tools such as Green Star have also made multi-disciplinary design (sometimes called integrated design) a critical part of new buildings.

But multi-disciplinary approaches only take you so far. Having clear communication between disciplines is important, but it does little to break down the discipline silos. Multi-disciplinary design solutions avoid some of the obvious pitfalls of experts working in isolation, but are not able to really take advantage of the diversity of expertise and understanding in a team.

The first step in getting more from a team of specialists is the concept of inter-disciplinary design. My understanding of inter-disciplinary work is that it implies a sharing of methodology between disciplines. In many cases, it can be using quantified analysis where previously only qualitative tools had been used, or vice versa.

For example, urban designers have made huge steps in the qualities of successful urban spaces (bulk, look and feel, mixed use, massing etc). However adding a layer of quantified analysis, in terms of resource intensity or density thresholds for different technical systems, provides a level of insight  that can really inform the design and optimise urban systems.

Many of the failures of technical urban interventions are due to the lack of consideration given to social systems.

Similarly, bringing qualitative assessments such as building community or social justice to technical fields – like the provision of infrastructure for basic services, can assist in making the interventions appropriate to the end users. Many of the failures of technical urban interventions are due to the lack of consideration given to social systems.

This ‘borrowing’ of methods for advancing design appropriately, while not limited by any means to quantitative/qualitative assessments, is at the core of inter-disciplinary thinking. It recognises the value of different approaches and paradigms in delivering design that is more sensitive to its context.

And yet even inter-disciplinary processes still largely rely on individual specialists, each working in their area of expertise – taking inspiration from other fields for sure, but still operating in a specialist paradigm.

Which brings us to trans-disciplinary thinking…

Trans: across. Across disciplines… An approach where specialists are not confined to their fields; options and insights from non-specialists inform design; methods are shared, debated, dissected – from all sources. Human experience informs process, and the patterns of interaction begin to inform the details.

While ‘multi’ acknowledges the importance of communication between silos and ‘inter’ builds real bridges between them, ‘trans’ dissolves the silo walls completely and opens the debate on design to all participants.

By virtue of having walked down a street, the structural engineer can comment on public space and aesthetics.

By virtue of having walked down a street, the structural engineer can comment on public space and aesthetics. Crossing a road qualifies a QS to engage on traffic. Governance specialists, artists, mothers and teachers all have something to contribute to inform the development of technical systems. Engineers must be able to deliver their specialist knowledge, but not be limited to it. Above all, every design decision becomes rooted in context.

Trans-disciplinary approaches are critical in the assessment of complex systems because they allow broad patterns to be considered concurrently during design. While ivory-tower specialists typically isolate elements and work from details to wholes to make progress, trans-disciplinary teams work from the whole, and fill in the details in time.

In observing, analysing and designing cities, trans-disciplinarity allows us to see the whole picture: the lives lived; the children playing safely in the park; the community; the jobs; the amenity; the commerce; the built form; the climate resilience; the return on investment; the food security; and the green spaces – in one multi-coloured, multi-layered picture. And the picture is informed and held by the team, not just an individual.

Trans-disciplinary approaches bring us into the world of ‘both/and’, not ‘either/or’, demanding awareness and humility. But its rewards are resilient and relevant systems in a world where reality is complex.

This article originally appeared on June 3 at The Pointy End blog, a discussion on sustainable design in Africa’s cities, presenting the pointy end of sustainability.

Richard Palmer is an engineer by training, a consultant by profession and an ecologist at heart. He is currently employed by WSP Green by Design in South Africa to offer design services on green buildings and urban sustainability projects.