360 Degrees – The Role of Interdisciplinarity in Solving Social Problems
26 April 2019 - Impact Hub Basel

Encouraging interdisciplinarity, the act of combining different areas of knowledge, was a key takeaway from our March documentary screening event. If we could amass and implement the entirety of the world’s diverse knowledge, it is evident that many global issues (e.g. climate change, food security, waste reduction, etc.) could be solved effectively. But that is both too theoretical and ambitious – so how about we focus on building up our local base?

Interdisciplinarity is both a simple and complex topic – logically, it makes sense that if we combine different perspectives, we can maybe solve a problem quicker, more efficiently, or at the very least, understand the problem better. That said, enacting interdisciplinarity is a different ballpark. I’ve written previously about the importance of sharing perspectives and how Impact Hub Basel facilitates this, but I wanted to go more into depth on why interdisciplinary thinking is vital, at least in my life. 

My educational background can be outlined through my research, starting in bio-informatics, then moving onto particle physics, CSR, economics, corporate law, and finally landing in applied math. While you judge my indecisiveness on career pathways, all these endeavors were motivated by one simple quest – to figure out what motivates people. Easily done in an afternoon, right? And through that, I’ve been able to focus the learnings on what I really like doing – helping people, something I try to do here through the blog.

Incorporating sustainability into daily life is often seen as effortful and un-sexy (unless maintaining worms and composting is attractive to you). Especially mixed in with work deadlines, family responsibilities, and general self-care, taking time to “save the world” doesn’t necessarily fit in. Over time though, more people have started engaging in such practices. This is due, in no small part, to the environmental significance (researched by scientists) and social acceptance (a result of good communication strategies and the engagement of global and local “influencers” from various backgrounds). I’m simplifying, but if your boss or trusted friend talks about fixing his or her electronics vs. buying new ones, there’s a good chance you’ll at least think about it too.

But recycling plastic containers doesn’t solve much, so how can we effectively address sustainability concerns? My sustainability background is related to food security, so let me use a food waste example. Estimates show that around a third of all food produced for human consumption is wasted (not taking into account food loss in growing stages). If we want to be able to feed almost 10 billion people by 2050, that number needs to be reduced significantly. The first step is gaining insight on the issue, then comes the problem-solving and solution-generation.

Only recently have food-waste conversations started to incorporate diverse opinions into forming helpful solutions. Fruiti-cycle, a social business based in Uganda, from our partner Thought For Food Foundation, helped create low-tech solutions for post-harvest food loss (an estimate 40% of food waste). The team developing the product comes from a diverse set of backgrounds – engineering, design, and business. You know, people who wouldn’t usually get together every week for coffee. These endeavors, along with a few thousand more, could reduce food waste considerably, save money for consumers, food services and governments, and improve public health. 

So how does this apply to you? Most readers will probably only engage in the food supply chain as consumers, but still can have a great impact on reducing local food waste. If you think about local food issues, discuss these among friends or diverse communities, and engage in problem-solving, you’re practicing interdisciplinarity. Apps like Foodsharing, TooGoodToGo and Pona (aimed at reducing food services waste) were constructed through this process. And with interdisciplinary solutions, individual efforts can be multiplied, to an impressive extent.

And none of this will be possible without talented people from diverse industries getting together locally and globally to solve the issue. Impact Hub Basel, and actually all Impact Hubs in the world, provide the space and opportunity for this to happen. And not just focused on food security. Our March (2019) event demonstrated the need for innovation on all levels to promote sustainability – creating FabLabs and maker spaces (engineering), incorporating biomimicry into production (biology and technology), designing “better” cities (urban planning), and encouraging new types of infrastructure (design and architecture).

Who knew so much learning could be done when you combine a documentary screening with popcorn and pizza? Want to take part in more of our events and join our knowledge sharing community? Come to our future events, or connect with us directly – we always enjoy hearing from y’all!

Caroline Steiblin