Facilitating Greater Interdisciplinary Collaboration?

I think our institution has a vital function to play in the 21st century. This is a time that presents complex challenges that exceed the expertise of any one disciplinary domain. The existential threat of climate change is one urgent example, forcing us to understand what is happening as a result of our industrial civilization, and what we can do about it. Multi-faceted problems require multiple tools, utilised in a coordinated way. In the university, this translates as conversation between and collaboration across disciplines.

Historically, I don’t think we have been very good at this at UC. However, I am hopeful that we may now be ready to respond to the interdisciplinary imperative our troubled times present. Let me demonstrate with a story of an opportunity squandered and a story of an opportunity we may yet sieze.

The earthquakes presented UC with immense fiscal and logistical challenges, yet even as we struggled on with our disrupted lives and our disrupted campus, our predicament stimulated exciting opportunities. Our Vice Chancellor gave the green-light to various initiatives from different parts of the university. Support was given to strengthen earthquake engineering and to establish the digital humanities earthquake archive CEISMIC- all good things that could make us proud of a university not only recovering from the earthquakes but also responding productively to them. Something else was instituted though, which you may not remember- the Centre for Risk, Renewal, and Resilience.

I first heard about this while on a cross-college working group of academics considering an endorsement in resilience and sustainability for the Bachelor of Science degree. Many of us were either teaching about resilience to disaster or had begun to do so. However, upon hearing about this new centre, we all wondered why it seemed to be none of our business. It sounded like it could be a space for interdisciplinary activity, a space where we could put perspectives from the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences into conversation. I was immediately put in mind of the Stockholm Resilience Centre, which seeks to address the ecological challenges of our global civilization by facilitating collaboration across disciplines and with society at large. Perhaps something similar was intended, focussing on the challenge of remaking Christchurch. Sadly, it seemed there was no such vision, just a cynical, short-term aspiration to sell courses to the engineers that some thought would be flocking to Christchurch for the rebuild.

This was a chance to create an interactive space beyond the silo-ed units of the university, free of the zero-sum game that pits them against each other in a futile competition that produces structural disincentives for cross-college cooperation. It was a chance to promote joined-up thinking on the multi-faceted problem of disaster recovery by drawing on the diversity of expertise here at UC. It could have helped us develop a global reputation for an integrated approach to disaster recovery (not just scattered expertise in its particular aspects). But it was not to be.

However, with the recent announcement of the Kia Topu initiative; a concerted focus on food, sustainability, and the future, it seems like we have been gifted a new opportunity for interdisciplinary collaboration- for different kinds of scholars and scientists to learn from and work with each other. What we make of it remains to be seen, but I surely hope the university realizes that the question of meeting our needs in a world beset by increasing social and ecological disruption will require collaboration across the disciplinary divides that our current institutional structures entrench.

Piers Locke

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