Transdisciplinary Learning: a Rhizome Handbook

The conference and launch of this new book were an opportunity not only to talk about transdisciplinary learning, but also to practice it by connecting politics, pedagogy, and art.

Detail of the Handbook cover (Copyright: transcript)

On the 9th of September I travelled from the Netherlands to Berlin to attend the conference and launch of the Handbook Transdisciplinary Learning, edited by Thorsten Philipp (TU Berlin) and Tobias Schmohl (Ostwestfalen-Lippe University of Applied Sciences). It took me a travel to Berlin to realise that the cover of the handbook features a map of the streets and canals of Amsterdam! As the editors explain in the Introduction, that image is a tribute to the city once described by Deleuze and Guattari as “the rhizome city”. The stylised map also illustrates the type of science and education that the handbook advocates for: “a cooperative-egalitarian network-based process in which a variety of knowledge resources, educational biographies, and knowledge potentials gain their form” (p. 15). This approach is reflected in the structure of the handbook, consisting of 37 chapters presented in alphabetical order without any explicit structure or hierarchy. Each chapter explores a key concept or tool for transdisciplinary learning, from Boundary Work to Transformative learning, via Embodied Learning or Living labs. Like in a rhizome, some of the chapters are closely connected, while other develop in unexpected directions, like for instance those about Scrum or Mode2 – whose existence and link to transdisciplinarity I was not even aware of. This tells a lot not only about my ignorance, but also about the variety of disciplines, perspectives, and countries involved in the handbook, with a total of 113 authors and 39 reviewers. Indeed, a rhizome!

With the Handbook in our hands!

Lead by Juliette Cortes Arevalo, and with the complicity of Kathryn Adamson, Laura Verbrugge, and Roland Postma – a truly trans-disciplinary team composed by a civil engineer, a physical geographer, an environmental scientist, a political scientists, and a video-maker – we contributed to the handbook with a chapter on Storytelling, which is also the result of the encounters and experience of IHE Delft summer course Video Storytelling for Water Communication.   

Like several other authors and reviewers, we joined the one-day conference in Berlin to engage in a conversation around and beyond our respective contributions. This exercise allowed to make explicit the connections between different chapters, concepts, and tools, as well as to imagine and create new ones. At the conference, I found one particular connection that, like a rhizome, stretched beneath and across the different panels and presentations: the connection between politics, pedagogy,and arts.   

Most of the literature and debates on multi-, inter-, or transdisciplinarity that I am familiar with, adopt a rather technical approach, focusing on concepts, skills, and processes needed for this type of collaborations in education or research. The focus is on how to practice interdisciplinarity, rather than on the why. When the latter is addressed, most of the time it is in terms of “complexity of the problem”: we need interdisciplinarity to better understand complex or wicked problems like socio-ecological issues. The Handbook goes beyond this approach, explicitly addressing the political dimension of transdisciplinarity and some of the values that should underpin it. As stated in the introduction, the aim of the handbook is “to introduce transdisciplinary learning with a focus on the fundamental values of liberty and justice” (p.14). This bold reference to liberty and justice made me thinking about how transdisciplinarity – the generation of knowledge involving not only different academic disciplines but also actors outside the academia – can indeed challenge and transform the power relations and hierarchies that are often legitimated by the “traditional” way of doing science.

At the conference we had the opportunity to directly experience the transformative power of transdisciplinarity: at the end of the day, the official launch of the Handbook was hosted at the House of Statistics. As indicated by the name, this huge building near the iconic Alexander Platz, used to be the Central Office for Statistics of East Germany. After the German reunification it hosted the Federal Commission for the Stasi Documents, until 2008, when it was meant to be torn down to make room for a real estate investment in private apartments and offices. A coalition of artists, urban planners, designers, and activists for affordable housing managed to stop that project and launched a community and cooperative oriented process of design that lead to the development of a space dedicated to affordable housing, artistic workshops, educational and cultural initiatives, administrative offices and a new district town hall.

Works and construction are still undergoing, so the handbook launch was hosted in a temporary structure. Among others, on that stage there was also Gesine Schwan, whose career developed across academia and politics: she is professor of political science at the Free University of Berlin but also a renewed member of the German Social Democratic Party, that nominated her twice as candidate for the federal presidential elections in Germany. From her talk, I retained a quote by the Czech political scientist Karl Deutsch, who once defined power as “the ability to afford not to learn”. I found the quote intriguing, but also informed by a rather negative, or pessimistic approach to power: the quotes seems referring to a type of power that, given its authoritarian or populist approach, prefers to avoid acknowledging the complexity, plurality, and ambivalence of reality. In this respect, we cannot afford not to learn. And perhaps we do not wish not to learn.

Ambivalence and complexity were recurrent themes in the panels of the conference. Transdisciplinarity was advocated as a useful approach to interpret information particularly when the context is not entirely clear. Transdisciplinary learning means not only acknowledging the ambivalence and the complexity of the reality – something critical social sciences are very good at – but also learning how to navigate such reality, act in it, and perhaps transform it. My impression is that by parsing and dissecting the reality, showing its ambivalence and contradictions, critical social sciences risk to paralyse instead of empowering. In the panel “Engagement and co-creation”, Sonia Massari (University of Pisa) remarked that “Creative thinking is just as important as critical thinking, but it is often underestimated”. This made me thinking about the need for critical social scientists to further engage in transdisciplinary collaborations with people like that, because of their disciplinary or professional profile, are more used to think in terms of “solutions” – designers, for instance. I believe that this type of collaboration has the potential to generate knowledge that helps us to better understand the ambivalence and complexity of the reality, but also to act to transform it.

(Credits: Simon Hess)

Creativity and imagination were other recurrent words throughout the panels. Luckily, they were not only spoken, but also practiced, in a few artistic interventions in between the panels. The “Theatrical conclusion” by Martin A. Ciesielski (artcelerate), with the performer turning his back to the audience, offered an example of the provocative power of arts: through imagination, creativity, and emotions, the arts can challenge the traditional perspective and move us to new actions.

My next action will be to experiment some of the tools and methods described in the Handbook in my teaching. Since at IHE Delft we are busy preparing a new year of the multi and inter-disciplinary Master program in Water and Sustainable Development, I believe that the handbook can be an inspiring resource for all the colleagues wishing to infuse their courses and teaching with creative trans-disciplinary methods.

The Handbook Trans-disciplinary Learning is published in open access and all its chapters can be downloaded here.

As a digital companion to the handbook, it would be interesting to find a creative way to visualise the rhizome behind and beneath it, by drawing the multiple connections across chapters that the authors could find and that they will establish in their future practices, as well as the relations and collaborations that the handbook will inspire.

Cite this blog post
Emanuele Fantini (2023, October 5). Transdisciplinary Learning: a Rhizome Handbook. FLOWs. Retrieved June 23, 2024, from

Emanuele Fantini

Emanuele (@emanufanti) is senior lecturer and researcher at the Water Governance Department of IHE Delft. Committed to public engagement and crossover projects with artists and journalists, Emanuele coordinates the project “Open Water Diplomacy. Media, science and transboundary cooperation in the Nile basin”, he hosts the podcasts “The Sources of the Nile”, “Water Alternatives Podcast”, and “Si dice acqua”, and he is the editor of IHE Delft Water Governance Blog, FLOWs.

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