Interdisciplinarity as a Creative Process

Over the years, interdisciplinary studies has involved the development of a formal academic research process, and for those interested in doing an interdisciplinary undergraduate research project and/or those planning to pursue an interdisciplinary graduate degree, it will be important to become familiar with and develop competency in this formal process. For the majority of undergraduate students in an IDS major program, however, developing competency with interdisciplinarity as a creative process is a more practical goal that involves numerous transferable skills and aptitudes.

Like all creative processes, the interdisciplinary creative process will differ from person to person and from context to context. It is not set in stone, and although there are a series of recommended steps, the creative process is rarely linear. With all of these caveats in mind, the following are the suggested steps of an interdisciplinary creative process.

Step 1: Define the problem/issue/topic

For example: Parking on campus is always an issue my students like to discuss. What is the problem? Parking is difficult to find, and students are often late and frustrated when getting to class.

Step 2: Unpack the problem/issue/topic

  • Not enough spaces.
  • Too many passes issued.
  • Poor class scheduling.
  • Poor public transit infrastructure.
  • There are many other possible aspects of this problem.

Step 3: Gather information-identify and communicate with stakeholders (if applicable)

For example:

  • Administration
  • Students
  • City
  • Citizens
  • Faculty/staff
  • Local business
  • Shuttle/Public Transit providers
  • There may be more

Step 4: Gather MORE information

  • Research the literature
  • Consult with experts
  • Explore parking models in other cities, on other campuses, and other types of facilities
  • There may be more

Step 5: Critically analyze information and conflicts

In the case of congested parking on campus, many students believe they are engaging in critical thought by pinpointing the various reasons why parking is difficult. This is indeed one level of critical thinking; however, an adept interdisciplinarian will go a step further and explore why so many people are trying to park on campus in the first place.

In other words, most people will employ critical thought to examine why the 'normal' is not working well, but a truly innovative critical thinker will ask: "Why is the 'normal' normal in the first place?" In regards to parking on campus, this level of critical thought leads to a host of further questions that will likely compel novel and innovative ideas.

For example, in asking why so many people want to park on campus in the first place, one might be led to ask the following questions:

  • Why do most people tend to drive to campus?
  • Why not more car pools?
  • Why not park away from campus and walk/bike/board around campus?
  • Why not take more online courses?
  • What's wrong with public transit?
  • How can people's hearts and minds be influenced to try new ways of getting to campus?
  • There undoubtedly many more possible questions.

Step 6: Integrate insights for innovative ideas and solutions

This step is undoubtedly the most difficult to define, and often difficult to accomplish. What is important to remember here, however, is that integration may lead to a whole host of possible solutions which may require trial and error testing to determine their actual viability. The point is to be open to whatever insights or solutions appear. A skilled interdisciplinarian will be open-minded to what at first may seem like unconventional or counter-intuitive solutions. Remember that truly critical thinking typically challenges the status quo, and so insights and solutions will likely challenge the status quo also.

After much deliberation, students came up with the following list of possible ways to address the parking problem on campus:

  • Connect the issue of parking to health and wellness. Include Fitbits with parking passes to encourage drivers to park in less congested parking areas and walk around campus.
  • Offer tuition credits to students who commit to car-pooling or using public transit throughout the semester.
  • Create a campus-specific Uber-type app to facilitate car-pooling.
  • Raise the profile of public transit by conducting a public relations campaign in which high-profile persons (such as athletes or celebrities) are documented using public transit for a week. This would reduce stigma associated with public transit and the spotlight may encourage greater investment in public transit infrastructure such as adding more stops and more convenient routes.
  • These are just a few suggestions. There were many more.

Step 6: Reflection

This step requires reflection on how the process has broadened the view of the problem/issue/topic. At this point, proposed solutions can be reviewed and any step of the process can be re-visited and/or repeated. One might also use this step to consider the next steps in terms of implementing and testing proposed solutions.


  1. Define the problem/topic/issue.
  2. Unpack the problem/topic/issue.
  3. Gather information: identify and communicate with stakeholders (if applicable).
  4. Gather more information: research, experts, other models/examples.
  5. Critically analyze information and insights: don't just ask why 'normal' is not working. Ask: "Why is 'normal' normal in the first place?"
  6. Integrate information and insights to find innovative solutions. (Be open to possibly radical and counter-intuitive insights and solutions.)
  7. Reflect on the process. Repeat any/all steps if necessary. Plan next steps.


Created with images by _dakini_ - "A modest (painting) proposal" • UnitedSoybeanBoard - "Soybean Research Greenhouse" • Thomas8047 - "business tie" • Joelk75 - "parking garage lights" • allaboutgeorge - "Parking garage, Scenic Avenue" • scottwebb - "toronto city hall new city hall toronto" • CEThompson - "Research Notes" • stevepb - "calculator calculation insurance" • carlosfpardo - "integration" • Lhopfan - "Reflections"

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