Training the Next Generation in Interdisciplinarity

By Noëmie Probst

Some challenges can only be tackled as a team. Source: pixabay, StockSnap
Some challenges can only be tackled as a team. Source: pixabay, StockSnap

What good is a brilliant idea if it is not implemented? Prof. Liz Tilley illustrated in her talk that engineers must think beyond technology and tackle global health challenges in interdisciplinary teams.

Technological innovations, which aim to make the world a better place, are available in abundance. So, what stands in the way of a successful implementation and effective maintenance of these technologies? One possible answer is that engaged professionals are often thinking in the pillars of their own disciplines. Interdisciplinary cooperation, however, is key to turn a fantastic idea into a working service or product. Therefore, students at universities like ETH should be trained to cooperate in interdisciplinary teams and evolve an open mindset. 


Safely managed sanitation for all

Let us, for example, have a look at the target 6.2 of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) which reads “By 2030, achieve access to adequate and equitable sanitation and hygiene for all and end open defecation”. Safely managed sanitation is fundamental to human health. But still it seems to be a privilege that only a part of the world's population is granted. The appropriate technologies have been present for decades, but still 46% of the global population did not use safely managed sanitation facilities in 2020.


An engineer, an economist, and a social scientist

The idea that the complex task of implementing technologies must be a team effort isn’t new. In 1982, a World Bank study highlighted that the planning and design of appropriate sanitation alternatives requires the cooperation of various specialists. A sanitary engineer can build a toilet, but to understand the historical, institutional, financial, and social context it is beneficial to collaborate with economists and behavioral scientists. Furthermore, the World Bank study highlights the importance of the participation of the local community.


Four success factors in urban sanitation planning 

A recent publication by the Sustainable Sanitation Alliance (SuSanA) takes up this idea and calls for a holistic and integrated approach for urban sanitation planning. They mention four key success factors for the implementation of technologies in the field of urban sanitation and show where the specialists of the various disciplines come into the picture. An important prerequisite for sanitation projects is the enabling environment including government support, a legal framework, institutional and financial arrangements, skills and capacities and the socio-cultural acceptance of the technology. This step alone requires the knowledge exchange between our main characters in this example: the engineer, the economist, and the social scientist and experts from other disciplines. 

The understanding and acceptance of a new technology by the local community is key. Source: unsplash, tribesh kayastha
The understanding and acceptance of a new technology by the local community is key. Source: unsplash, tribesh kayastha

In a next step, the skills of the economist are needed to detect economic opportunities and incentives. Only under these circumstances can the engineer design and optimize the technology of interest, adapted to the local conditions. Furthermore, a technology rarely stands alone; rather, it is part of an integrated chain of technologies. But no matter how good a new technology is, it will not bring about change if it is not accepted and used by the local community. To understand the barriers and drivers to behavior change, social scientists are in demand.


Training the next generation in interdisciplinarity

The training of the skills required to manage such complex challenges and to cooperate interdisciplinarily are usually not part of the normal curricula at universities. But it would be very important to prepare the next generation of engineers, economists and social scientists for reality and motivate them to develop an open mindset and think outside of the pillars of their own disciplines. The first step towards this goal is to understand the “languages” and to learn the basic concepts of the other disciplines. Therefore, new lectures should be included into the curricula at universities, for example at ETH. The practical application, however, is even more important. Interdisciplinary student projects could train future professionals on how to tackle complex challenges and cooperate in interdisciplinary teams.


Graduates with this training will contribute to achieving the SDGs and making safely managed sanitation not a privilege, but a self-evident fact for all.