An Interdisciplinary Team, a Transdisciplinary Approach
Water problems do not conveniently manifest themselves according to the particular disciplinary boundaries human societies have constructed – so why should educators and researchers try to address these problems as if they were discreetly discipline-bound? At the U.S.-Pakistan Center for Advanced Studies in Water (USPCAS-W) at the University of Utah, we recognize the value of a transdisciplinary approach to solving water sustainability problems. Our team brings together experts from civil and environmental engineering, as well as from fields as diverse as soil and crop sciences, geology and geophysics, family and preventive medicine, law, political science, city and metropolitan planning, economics, and anthropology.
USPCAS-W’s rich diversity of perspectives and skills supports the design of education and research programs around the real-world problems that need solving in Pakistan. In a more traditionally structured project, problems would be approached with each discipline focusing on its own piece of the puzzle. This can lead to short-term solutions that ultimately fail over the long-term because they did not pay enough attention to system interdependencies, political and economic realities, and the needs – as well as priorities – of affected communities. By starting instead with a transdisciplinary approach, the USPCAS-W has begun with an eye toward integrated and sustainable solutions. This problem-centered, transdisciplinary design is guided by a firm belief that Pakistan’s water problems are not intractable, but they do require new ways of thinking about how to solve them.
A key indicator of any applied program’s efficacy is whether it can create lasting real-world change in the desired direction. However, the process of identifying a problem and designing and implementing a solution to it requires diverse expertise, including that which comes from stakeholders outside of academia, especially local stakeholders who can provide place-based contextual detail. Indeed, any proposed technical or policy solution must be implementable or else it is of little use – and practitioners can provide valuable reality checks and suggestions. Thus, in addition to the academic team, the USPCAS-W draws on its extensive network of water sector professionals in Pakistan, the U.S., and beyond. In this way, the team is well-positioned to carry out applied research that will contribute to industry and support the Pakistani government in its pursuit of the water-related Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
More broadly, the USPCAS-W aims to be a model for transdisciplinary research and education in Pakistan that produces scholarly contributions, inspires entrepreneurialism, stimulates policy action – and most importantly – trains new generations of Pakistani water professionals equipped with the critical thinking skills needed to address the changing demands brought on by climate change. Through the USPCAS-W’s degree programs, seminars, workshops, and exchange programs, faculty and students from across institutions and backgrounds come together and share ideas, experiences, and expertise. Because the foundation of the USPCAS-W is the strong partnership between the University of Utah and Mehran University of Engineering and Technology – and the collegial relationships that are developing among our faculties and across our networks – we envision a future of ongoing interdisciplinary knowledge exchange and problem-solving that will offer better, more sustainable solutions than would be possible with more traditional, discipline-based approaches.