Interdisciplinarity and the future of the workplace

by Nadia Hakim

 

Keywords: collective interdisciplinarity; well-being; project-based knowledge.

“The correct means of arresting the harmful influence of the overspecialization of individual research, which threatens the intellectual future, would obviously not be to return to that former confusion of efforts. That would tend to make the human mind regress, and besides it has fortunately become impossible today. On the contrary, the solution consists in perfecting the division of labour itself. All that is necessary is to make the study of science in general one more great speciality. We need a new, appropriately educated class of intellectuals which would, without giving itself up to the special study of any particular branch of natural philosophy, concern itself entirely with the various positive sciences in their present state, with precisely defining the nature of each of them, and with revealing how they are linked, and related to each other… At the same time, other scientists, before giving themselves up to their respective specialities, would in future receive some instruction in the general principles of the positive sciences. This would enable them to profit immedi-ately from the insights gained by the experts devoted to the general study of science. And, in turn, the specialists would be able to correct the generalists’ results. This is the state of affairs which scientists are at present visibly approaching day by day.”

Auguste Comte, pp. 15-16 (italics by Norbert Elias), cited in Norbert Elias (1978), p. 47-48

This blog post is about the dialogue between the social sciences and architecture, that is to say, specialised disciplines with different evolutions and using different methods, but that nevertheless are developed -also, but not only- under the same type of institution, that it to say the university.

Interdisciplinarity is necessary, and it is also a more and more required feature in research and its implementation. But it is difficult to achieve, also. Different methodological and intellectual traditions very often make it difficult to communicate between disciplines. I argue that the dialogue between two ways of working, and in this case, the social sciences and architecture, relates to two aspects. The first one is the need not only of interdisciplinarity -as in “interdisciplinary professional trajectories”-, but also of a collective interdisciplinarity, achieved through a common interest in human and environmental well-being. The second one is that the project and workshops within a project are well-adapted tools to accomplish not only one of the most pressing and central matters of our existence but also one that we have in common as social researchers and architects, which is to have a positive impact on human and environmental welfare. In other words, interdisciplinary creation is, I argue, only possible working collectively with a common ethos and through specific means to achieve this meaningful impact.

More concretely, the interest of working with architects started from a project on coworking spaces and the experience of being a worker in the 21st century I am currently developing. I want to very quickly explain what a coworking space is and why I became interested in this subject in the first place.

 

Why social sciences and architecture? Workers and the workplace in the 21st Century

Coworking spaces are usually open plan and spacious rooms were freelance professionals and other discontinuous workers -such as academic researchers, consultants, artists, writers, among other “creative professionals”- go to be able to get out of their homes, get work done, meet and talk with other people (in their working teams but not necessarily), and work on the reputational aspects of their jobs.

A poc a poc, a coworking space in Barcelona focused on sustainability. Photo by: A poc a poc BCN.

I have been developing a project on the changes in the contemporary workplace, on the importance of its spatial design for the sociability and work relationships happening there, and also on the experience of being a mobile worker in our urban, neo-liberal and digitised contexts. But I will tell you all about that in a later blogpost.

How should the office of our present and our future be? What kind of space should be designed in order to allow human and work-specific interactions, and also to sustain labour dynamics and make us happier in this globalised and digitised context?

These questions demand approaching spatial aspects of work in everyday life relations, or the spatial manifestations of social change. And who better suited to understand space than architects? And also without exaggerating my presumption we can agree that sociological and anthropological perspectives are well-adapted to understanding human experience and labour relations. This is why I teamed-up with architect Ramón Bermúdez, who has developed his work on public and private projects including the construction of the conventions centre “Agora Bogotá” and the “ET CAN” (not to be directly read in English, E.T is not involved in these projects at least for I what I know), a Transition Building for the new government headquarters in Bogotá. His passion in life is to make humanist spatial designs and urbanism (here and here to see what he’s been up to lately) and we agree on the fact that architecture needs social sciences and that social sciences need architecture in order to make both more relevant.

With this in mind, he invited me to what they call in architecture, at least in Colombia, the taller, meaning “the workshop”. This is the semester-long class where students develop a project on a focused subject. This semester’s taller focused on designing the office building for a public institution, the City Headquarters for Social Integration of Bogotá (Secretaría Distrital de Integración Social).

So I went to the Universidad Nacional de Colombia –the most important public university in Colombia–, and gave a talk to his students on the future of the office. Even if they have some more theoretical courses, they aren’t used to mixing theory and practice during the taller. Ramón thinks they don’t have enough practice integrated into their programs, which is exactly what usually happens in higher education in the case of the social sciences as well. I went there offering the result of the work methods I know best: reading, writing, speaking and listening. And Ramón’s students got to mix thinking trough listening and reflecting on what I was saying, and also thinking through sketching their architectural projects after my talk. I think -and luckily, Ramón did too- they learned a lot and without any doubt, so did I.

During a class such as the taller, even if ideas such as “creativity”, “teamwork”, “experimentation” come to mind, I learnt that even though it is true that the setting of the workshops gives a condition of possibility for these things to happen and that social scientists could learn a lot from this working format, they don’t just happen deterministically due to the specific format.

The students worked mainly individually and unexpectedly for me, they did very neat small drawings, using the ruler and the eraser a lot… Did they want to make their sketches perfect in the same way I have the (not anymore) secret fantasy of coming up with the perfect argument at my first try?

This got me to think about what working with others from other disciplines could really mean, in our similarities -both disciplinary and contextual, i.e. working in an academic setting-and specialisations.

 

Interdisciplinarity is hype AND mandatory… collective interdisciplinarity an accomplishment

Interdisciplinarity is hype. And it is great to have studied a major in college of say, engineering, and then a specialization in physics, to then switching to architecture or sociology. Interdisciplinarity is indeed individually exciting, interesting and useful. But as Auguste Comte said, cited by Norbert Elias (1978), given the high degree of development that the different disciplines have attained, it is difficult or even impossible that a single thinker is able to contain the knowledge from different disciplines and offer the synthesis of all of them with new approaches to social problems. I could also add to this argument the fact that intellectual life today has to face many pressures and constraints hindering individual deep and slow interdisciplinarity (for instance, this).

This is one of the reasons I argue that we must think about collective interdisciplinarity and not just individual interdisciplinarity to be able to construct objects of knowledge that tackle with complexity.

But how can this collectiveness be accomplished? There is a certain dialogue needed both between disciplines and between human beings. This deeper dialogue is possible through a specific approach from our disciplines of origin on the one hand, and on the other focusing on “the human” and human well-being as a contact point between disciplines, that it to say, combining specificity with a general common interest and empathy. This entails acknowledging that we all are specialists of our contexts, of our experiences as academics but also as human beings, and therefore our experience as humans is the basis of this dialogue. And when two or more people with curiosity of other ways of knowing and a common interest or empathetic approach to humanity, the environment, and their well-being get together, the magic can happen.

Auguste Comte’s suggested “perfecting the division of labour itself” to avoid “that former confusion of efforts” referring to the intellectuals of a “primitive stage of our knowledge” where “all the sciences are cultivated simultaneously by the same minds”, but as these sciences began to be differentiated from each other due to their development, they gained from this separation in order to evolve and complexify. He was talking about the aspiration to have intellectuals able to study all the sciences in a collaboration between specialists and generalists. But I want to apply his idea here to think about the dialogue between specialists of different disciplines to tackle specific social problems, as is constructing a building for a local government’s social services.

A division of labour in Comte’s sense is still an individual approach to interdisciplinarity, or more exactly, an approach that is methodologically individualistic: each specialist does her job at their own time and space slot, separately. Some European Projects are designed and sustained by specialists living in different cities in the world, who stay in touch through email some times a month, and each one of them doing “their bit” on their own. These projects usually involve some meetings, maybe one or two a year dpeneding on the project, but these doesn’t transform the working dynamics followed the rest of the year. They are usually used to discuss the logistical aspects of “deliverables” such as publications, policy and research reports, for example.

But some of the dynamics of the academic’s labour could also be adapted to collective interdisciplinarity: research and discussion seminars gathered around specialists from different areas, and projects thought from their onset to be collaborative and interdisciplinary needing the collaboration to even be possible. These collective endeavours are possible only through having met formally or informally many times. In these projects, even if the workers live in different cities, there is usually the opportunity of meeting physically, and through other means such as hangouts, skype, and the like.

Interdisciplinarity might be read as the result of neoliberal pressures, for instance when academics are “invited” to work with the industry. But collective interdisciplinarity contests this by putting human interest and not financial interest at the centre, allowing us researchers to not loose sight of the main motivation to do our jobs in the first place. It goes without saying that human interest includes environmental issues at the centre as well, for obvious reasons.

Accordingly, the interest in human well-being is a potential criterion to take into account when assessing the quality of some interdisciplinary projects, given that it has become one of the conditions of many competitive calls for projects, and it is the case for European and English-speaking calls in general. It might be a criterion not only to fund projects, but also to assess a successful interdisciplinary endeavour in any project where people or the environment are involved.

 

The workshop and the project as tools for collective interdisciplinarity

Projects can be defined as objective-oriented endeavours focused at a certain time and space. They are the modern manifestation of resources, space and time management, and these, together with the workshop as a format for productive activity are the incarnation of the demand for simultaneous productivity, creativity and finding meaning -while of course, having fun-. Even though a critical analysis on the relation between the project and modern labour conditions is called for, I will here raise the question, for now, of its adapatibility to develop and try ideas, not necessarily new, but simply as a way to accomplish things in collective interdisciplinary groups.

Let’s get back to “el taller” with Ramón and his students. How does the present technologically infused workplace has to look like? Architects aren’t shy to work not only oriented towards problem-solving or reflecting on social problems as sociologists are, but towards normative problem-solving. Why should somebody commute to attend an office to work these days, beyond the situation (or structural constraint) of being forced to? How can the experience of spending most of your working life in an office a pleasant one? Architects would think it is the functionality and pleasure of being in a certain place with certain people. Students of architecture have different interests of course, and passing the course is one of them. Their focus for the taller is to make their buildings work, and from what I was able to experience while being with them, everyday life human experience comes last in their concerns, as long as the other aspects of a building aren’t “solved”. I mean, it is understandable, you need to construct buildings that won’t collapse, but at the same time, is structure enough?

Ramón thinks bad architecture solves functional problems without thinking about the person, his well-being or enjoyment both esthetically or environmentally, and this is the real challenge here: to be able to encompass the technical and experiential aspects to help create good architecture. While I learnt about how a building is conceived, I invited Ramón’s students to think about how it feels to be able to be constantly controlled by your boss, or to not having access to a quiet place to think by yourself.

Here we can have a look at one of the projects that were presented two months after my  visit, made by student Diana Castillo.

 

This is when an architectural social science and a humanist architecture have a role and are able to speak to each other, focusing on human interaction, on the effect of being alone or surrounded by people on our quality of life, or the effect of natural sunlight or scenery on our motivation for work, people’s experience of technologically mediated environments, or even the transformations in the mentalities that impact how we think of workplaces.

We agree with Ramón on the fact that adding layers of complexity to creative processes is an imperative in our contemporary world(s), and simplification, individualization and unquestioned authority in creative processes standardizes the outcomes, and make the human element invisible.

As I mentioned earlier collective work isn’t secured just by using the workshop as a format within a project and creativity as well as real interdisciplinarity can be hindered by hierarchical relations within the working group and also by the fear to making mistakes, not to mention other important reasons as the requirement for speed. I will not solve these problems here, but rather reminding them and visibilizing them to be able to take them into consideration when creating a working plan for actual interdisciplinary collaboration at the service of us all.

This is an ongoing practice, and the result of my brief experience with architecture students showed me the potential for these collective interdisciplinary collaborations, that continue to be developed together with Ramón, to introduce the human experience and relations in architectural design, and introduce the importance of designed environments in the analysis of human experience and social relations.

It is most probable that if what was a one-time visit could be a sustained collaboration, the impact of a collective interdisciplinary standpoint would have had a stronger impact on these student’s projects. In fact, I would be glad to hear about architecture schools including an approach like this in their curriculums.

I began with Auguste Comte and I will finish with a reflection by Tim Ingold and Mike Anusas (2013), who state very soundly that:

“Traditionally, design has tended to adopt a technologically deterministic approach to environmental issues, focused on objects and their end results. This approach has its value and place but is limited in its understanding of human practices and ways of perceiving. To overcome this limitation, environmental design research has devoted increasing attention to experience, behavior, and culture. ” (…) “[a]nthropology has expanded from its human-centered roots to embrace inquiries concerning materials, technology, and ecology. At the same time, design—traditionally rooted in the study of materials— has expanded to engage more deeply with cultural phenomena and ecological processes. (…) Our call, then, is for a design practice that is reflexive toward its own disciplinary creations; participatory in its understanding of life; knowledgeable of the interrelationships between perception, culture, and materials; and active in creatively engaging with the continued enhancement of human life.” (p. 68-69)

References

Anusas, Mike & Ingold, Tim (2013). Designing Environmental Relations: From Opacity to Textility. Design Issues, 29(4), 58-69. http://doi.org/10.1162/DESI

Elias, Norbert. (1978) What is sociology. Columbia University Press New York, 1978