Interdisciplinary Education and Socio-technical Innovation in Urban Development

Lukas Gilliard
HafenCity Hamburg GmbH / Technical University of Munich

Introduction and Aim
Urban development is increasingly been identified as key field of expertise in solving social, environmental, and economic challenges of the future (e.g. WBGU 2016; Habitat III 2017). Current development patterns are globally insufficient. European cities, for instance, have been permanently undersupplying housing for decades (Barton & Wilson 2018: 6). The fastest growing American cities are those in Texas and Arizona that are dominated by unsustainable settlement patterns such as low-density suburbia (Tanzi 2018). And, ‘China used more concrete in 3 years than the US used in the entire 20th century’ (McCarthy 2014). While scientific progress is made in various sectors individually, there are no integrated actions towards a sustainable, social, and economically just urban future (WBGU 2011).
The presentation is result of the past five years of doctoral research. The dissertation tries to understand the role of higher education for socio-technical innovation in urban development. I hypothesise that development projects and processes benefit from interdisciplinary approaches, because a group of experts with different disciplinary backgrounds has access to the most recent discipline-specific ‘powerful’ knowledge (Young 2013: 108) and can therefore create innovative proposals. In contrast, the all-round planner can only access established theories of other disciplines due to his limited insight and reproduces proven normative concepts in various places.
Research Methodology
The research employs a relational-systemic impact model based on the ideas of demand and supply as well as input, output and impact shaped around the two educational concepts of competency and employability (Gilliard & Thierstein 2016). The model provides the analytical frame for two empirical parts: a curricular analysis of programmes that prepare students for spatial development and planning practice, and 35 interviews with employers of planning graduates in public administration, private offices and consultancies, real estate, and academia. Both analysed programmes and interview partners are located in Austria, Germany, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and Ireland.
Results and Implications
The empirical data supports the hypothesis that innovative urban development practice requires the collaboration of disciplinary experts from all spatially relevant disciplines. A single discipline specialised on issues urban development such as urban planning cannot sufficiently cover the breadth of required competencies for resolving current and future social, economic, and environmental challenges. Socio-technical innovation is based upon connecting powerful knowledge across disciplinary boundaries. However, financial constraints and the loss of strategic capacity in public administration makes interdisciplinary teamwork for day-to-day urban development tasks unpractical. All-round urban planners assume a special role as disseminators of knowledge from exceptional leading projects of innovation to routine operations.
Higher education needs to supply graduates for both innovation and dissemination. Disciplinary experts need to learn to collaborate beyond their own discipline in order to produce innovations in practice. In addition, some graduate need to receive significant insight into multiple disciplines in order to apply innovate ideas to routine tasks. Based on these results, I suggest a bipartite higher education system. On the one hand, higher education needs to impart specialised disciplinary knowledge based upon the latest results of scientific research. Current university structures with its disciplinary silos, traditional pedagogic formats, and Humboldt’ian unity of research and teaching are made for this purpose. On the other hand, higher education needs to accommodate interdisciplinary co-learning across disciplinary boundaries. Educators need to assume new role of managers bringing together students from multiple disciplines with practice-based tasks and practitioners.
The proposed two-part structure separates traditional forms of learning and research from new forms of practice-based co-learning. It provides answers to the struggle of universities to be both independent high level research institutions and engaged members of society and local communities. Innovation relevant to practice is the result of linking specialised disciplinary research and teaching across disciplinary boundaries.