“Interdisciplinary”: Beyond the Buzzword

When it came time for Dirk Helbing to choose a field at university, he played to his strengths. The University of Gottingen math prodigy filed his paperwork with the Physics Department and spent the next few years pondering complex systems – a world of fractals, chaos, and statistical physics.

But as the equations piled up, exposing the inner workings of increasingly abstract phenomena, Helbing found himself looking for a slightly more tangible connection with his work. “At some point I wanted to deal with something more interesting than dead matter,” he recalls, “which is a lot of what physics used to be about.” Walking across a snowy field one day, Helbing noticed clusters of footprints moving in patterns reminiscent of his formulae’s predictions. It was as if human movement – seemingly predicated on social constructs immune to cold hard logic – was following mathematical rules.

And so, Helbing formulated his novel research direction from a foundation of logic: he was intrigued by human systems and just plain good at physics, “so I decided that I had to combine the two,” he recalls. His subsequent papers struck a chord, and today, Helbing estimates that more than a hundred research groups around the world tackle problems of pedestrian and traffic dynamics. “It really rolls physics, biology, sociology, and psychology into one,” he says, “and it turned out to establish a whole new field.”


The career path of a truly interdisciplinary researcher can be a difficult line to walk: expertise in one field doesn’t typically translate across fields, as each comes stocked with its attendant foundational principles, theoretical constructs, and dictionary of jargon. Add to that the forces of professional inertia that often reward narrowly defined expertise, and most researchers find themselves doing very similar work for decades, trading well in the currency of publications, but shying away from potentially transformational leaps.

But for those unable to constrain their curiosity or unwilling to restrict themselves to safe(r) funding paths and conventional wisdom, the intellectual rewards can be enormous. Arjen Hoekstra, a Professor of Water Management at the University of Twente, has ushered his supply chain models of water use from a quixotic thought experiment to the boardrooms of international businesses, governments, and institutions like UNESCO and the World Bank.

Hoekstra forged his big idea from the methods of environmental science, a field that seeks to catalog natural resources on a global scale. For example, only by following the sources and sinks, fluxes and flows of carbon dioxide can greenhouse gas budgets be generated, assessed, and enforced. Hoekstra applied this systems-based mentality to life’s most fundamental pre-requisite: water. The Water Footprint concept, as Hoekstra puts it, seeks to “quantify and map the volume of water that is consumed and polluted, directly or indirectly” in the sourcing of a given product. The idea has launched multiple books, a non-profit network, and a global array of workshops and water management trainings. Relatable statistics have challenged consumers to think twice before ordering a burger (“meat consumption is the single largest contributor to the water footprint of humanity,” notes Hoekstra) or buying a pair of Levi’s (which require 8,000 liters of water to produce). Instigating a behavioral change is difficult, particularly when vested interests such as governments or international corporations are exposed. “Our findings have often led to dispute,” Hoekstra says, “and I don’t shy away from that, it just shows that our research has societal relevance. Every change starts with an idea.”


In many ways, enhanced connectivity and improved data collection tools are the two key forces that reveal interdisciplinary opportunities. As more information becomes available and historically separated cultures and researchers interact, the landscape of knowledge expands. Like drying
mud in a desert, cracks emerge between knowledge centers, presenting opportunities for enterprising researchers to fill the gaps and explore the underlying foundation.

To Helbing, perhaps the most fundamental connective tissue is bottom-up, distributed data collection that has the potential to re-wire the way communities can function. This is the premise of FuturICT, a proposed platform to use digital tools and big data analysis to examine societal trends and perhaps even predict social convulsions. Helbing has been haunted by the financial collapse of 2008: just as he was about to “launch a public warning about the financial system getting more and more unstable,” the bottom fell out, “shaking the pillars of our society and our economy.”

The problem, as Helbing sees it, is a failure to grasp the fundamentals of global social and economic dynamics, but like other complex systems, this too can be studied. “We spend billions on understanding stars and elementary particles and genomes,” he says, “but where are the billions spent on fundamental understanding of our society and our economy? We need to have something like an Apollo project in order to understand these problems that are very costly for society.”

One place to start is with trust. Although trust is a particularly malleable concept, subject to nuance and thousands of explicit and implicit inputs, Helbing believes it’s within the grasp of scientific analysis. “With the type of data we are now collecting,” he says, “we will be able to visualize things that are immaterial.” For example, by linking Google trends search data to survey responses about trust and social engagement, researchers can use the ground-truthed search data to correlate keyword frequencies with social attitudes across a broad area. This sort of work could help flag incipient crises and enable corrective behavior before it’s too late. “A financial crisis is basically a trust crisis,” Helbing says. The same goes for the Volkswagen scandal, or political convulsions, or anything that stresses the social fabric. By acquiring a real-world proxy for something as ephemeral as an emotion, Helbing can show the critical underpinnings of society, from trust and solidarity, to reputation or uncertainty. “With all of this data,” he explains, “we can map all of the things we care about as a society.”


“Interdisciplinary” has been a research buzzword for several years, but its mysterious alchemy remains difficult to bottle. Wrapping your head around broadly different fields and their potential links is a difficult mental exercise, leading to a sort of societal schizophrenia. Hoekstra bemoans a lack of big-picture understanding. “We live in a higArjen2hly fragmented society,” he notes, “if one news alert brings the alarming news that the North Pole is melting quicker than we thought, while the next headline brings the good news that we can finally start exploiting the oil previously covered by ice. The world is full of these contradictions.” A more immediate hurdle for interdisciplinary work is the monothematic nature of the academic ecology, from university departments, to scientific journals, conferences, or funding programs. These walled divisions structurally and mentally predispose researchers to stay in their lanes. Even when it is attempted, interdisciplinary work suffers in its enactment. “It is widely believed that broad understanding is achieved by bringing scholars from different disciplines together,” says Hoekstra, “but that is not enough. Broad understanding needs to be internalized in individuals.”

Helbing views his science as just the latest manifestation of a well-established strategy for producing breakthroughs. “Progress in science has always come about when people managed to make things visible that we couldn’t see before,” he notes. “And now we’re entering a time of measuring the world in a new way.” The confluence of technical tools and exposure to new ideas is simultaneously democratizing the process. “All of us can now measure the world in new and interesting ways,” Helbing suggests, “and with these data we will find all kinds of new things we haven’t seen before.”


  • Top picture. Professor Dirk Helbing
  • Bottom picture. Professor Arjen Hoekstra

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