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Eroding the institutional silos

Multidisciplinarity and collaboration are recognised as the way to tackle the complex problems of the future. TU Delft has much expertise across its eight globally networked faculties, but these still reflect the traditional engineering and design specialisations. Such institutional silos often hinder inter faculty collaboration at home, so how straightforward is setting up collaborations to more effectively educate the designers and engineers for the future?

Just an open faculty door is not enough to bridge the gaps in multidisciplinary collaboration. (Photo's: Sam Rentmeester)
Just an open faculty door is not enough to bridge the gaps in multidisciplinary collaboration. (Photo's: Sam Rentmeester)

The university acknowledges the need for thematic cooperation and multi-disciplinarity in research and integrating disciplines in its Delft research initiatives (DRIs). Dr. Steffen Nijhuis, land-scape architecture assistant professor at the Architecture and the Built Environment Faculty (BK), is generally satisfied with such formal research arrangements, but emphasises informal issues at the educational level, where the multidisciplinary approach is at the initial stage of development.

He considers urban planning and design and land-scape architecture truly interdisciplinary and integrative by nature, bringing different knowledge fields into their designs. "We are integrators and in a time when other disciplines become more and more specialised, we thrive by working together with them," he said. "Further specialisation is not so fruitful for us when we do not interact with other groups." Nijhuis coordinates the graduation studio of the Landscape Architecture Mastertrack at the Urbanism Department. In his design studios he aims to teach students the collaborative approach with other disciplines and this is when organisational problems arise.

"If we want to invite a colleague from civil engineering to be a mentor, our timetables and schedules are hard to match," he said. "In the last few years at the student level I have seen that in our landscape architecture group we don't get a civil engineering student in the regular programmes. Their timetable is very different." Civil engineering students can start their research graduation project at any time but at BK they start in September and February. So there are only two moments in the year when students from both faculties can collaborate.

Field work
Mark Voorendt confirms this. A PhD researcher of flood defences at the Civil Engineering and Geo-sciences Faculty (CiTG), he also lectures on hydraulic structures. He is also teaching multidisciplinary collaboration to students on a small scale. Each year he invites two landscape architecture students to participate in his field work data gathering trip to Bulgaria. They work on design assignments with his hydraulic engineering students.

"We collaborate with this project training and incorporate it into our programmes," he said. "It's always tailor made for those interested in bridging the gap." By gap he means the distrust among experienced engineers and landscape architects that feel their disciplines are being encroached upon, wary that the others are doing their job. "Having a multidisciplinary group and people involved from the beginning working together, without one discipline leading the other, is the right method for the best results," he said. That's why he starts with students because they're unaware of any gap. "We bring them together and get them to cooperate on a project, especially at the MSc level. There are also BSc students participating in architecture workshops," he said. "They still have to overcome a cultural gap but it can be bridged quite easily." Nijhuis believes in these small initiatives. "We start testing ideas that are no big deal when they don't work," he said. "If they do work they will tend to grow anyway, which is more effective than crying for help."

Bigger involvement
In fact Nijhuis and Voorendt have been involved in something a little bigger. They contributed to the DIMI (Deltas, Infrastructures and Mobility Initiative) backed Integrated Infrastructures and Design Minor (IID) which ran for the first time in the first semester of the 2015-2016 academic year. DIMI project manager Hans de Boer brought an enthusiastic group of teachers together with a shared interest in an integrated approach to infrastructure design. He built on personal relations and mutual understanding to support and refine the minor programme. He considers the minor itself an integrated design, first from a process perspective and then in its comprehensive interrelated content.

It is a tough trade off to accommodate practical multidisciplinarity within a core programme with already limited time to transmit fundamental knowledge and skills. Some faculties do have multidisciplinary projects at the master level but in most specialised programmes there is no room for this kind of experience. The DIMI has supported these multidisciplinary projects within the MSc programmes with civil engineering projects incorporating collaboration on water management, hydraulic engineering, and transport, but architecture students were not participating.

So a minor is a good place in the educational curriculum where you can combine disciplines and broaden the student's perspective. It addresses real life issues which already provide tremendous experience value in the third year of the BSc, although it is quite challenging as students come to this with only two years of previous study.

"We need students with a T-profile, that is specialists with a better understanding of other fields of expertise. Not generalists per se, but people with a feel for the needs of other disciplines and aptitude to working with them in teams," said De Boer. "All types of issues and assignments will involve teamwork because they are too big and too complicated to tackle. We have tried to incorporate this into the didactics of the IID minor programme courses."

In the first semester of the 2016-2017 academic year the IID second edition has again attracted around 25 students, half coming from CiTG. The rest are from mechanical engineering, architecture, industrial design and management students. "Making it real is a key part of what makes the minor compelling and it is fun," said De Boer. "Our lab is the world."

Nijhuis believes that such a minor can be like a joker bringing new things into the system, and that there should be more effort to synchronise these actions at the institutional level. "That a group of people that collaborate well together at our scale exists is great, but it should percolate into the bigger system," he said. He thinks a new graduation programme could be really focussed on this integral aspect. "Like a large scale version of the DIMI initiative but being very clear about the result and what kind of diplomas will be related to it," he said.

Top down
For Udo Pesch, when we talk about science in any organisation the creation of silos is a natural phenomenon. Pesch, assistant professor at the department of Values, Technology and Innovation at the Technology, Policy and Management faculty, studies the relationships between science and engineering and society. He corroborates the standpoints of Nijhuis, Voorendt and De Boer.

A bureaucracy is organised top down. It's a hierarchy about command and control, requiring vertical accountability of decisions and actions. The problem of classic bureaucracies is this silo structure and aspects outside it are not considered. This is true for TU Delft, but Pesch sees there is an awareness of this. A move towards multidisciplinarity, reflexivity and openness, has been a quite recent at TU Delft.

"We cannot sell the traditional engineering any longer, involving the guy who knew how it worked," he said. "The heterogeneity, the complexity and the unpredictability of problems are so much greater that it just won't work that way."

"You do deal with concrete problems, design challenges, that drive you towards much more collaboration than within a normal traditional university," he said. "If you talk about silos and traditional universities this is much more prevalent. It's what makes working here much more pleasurable."

Pesch believes not only working together is needed, but also plurality and diversity of people to overcome the deadlock produced by a too homogeneous cultural group. This gives you the creativity and new ideas that you need it to be innovative.