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April 5, 2015

Responding To: Week 10: University Action

Interdisciplinary Thinking and the Future of Development

Alejandra Aponte

Employing “Green Bonds” to support responses to climate change; using methodologies from the medical field to measure the impact of social programs; exploring the use of cell phones and apps to detect corruption. Today, the most innovative responses to challenges in development are rarely found in confines of a single discipline. Rather, innovation and solutions flow from the confluence of ideas from the sciences, engineering, arts, and other disciplines. Working across disciplines to address issues in development is a critical need in today’s world. Unfortunately, in an era where specialization is important for professional and academic success, ideas do not flow across disciplines easily or often. Securing the future of innovation in development will require undoing the divisions that hamper interdisciplinary thinking. Universities are particularly well placed to address this problem.

Universities are among the few, privileged locations where virtually all disciplines are in constant contact with each other. Every aspect of universities (including their building layout, course requirements, culture centers) defines when members of different fields meet, how they view each other and communicate, and if they collaborate. Universities, thereby, have an extraordinary capacity to promote interdisciplinary thinking, particularly on development issues, through large and small initiatives. Thinking large, universities can promote interdisciplinary activity by creating special degrees, labs, and other spaces designed for interdisciplinary work. Many universities, including Georgetown, have already established initiatives in this direction. These should continue to thrive and expand and, if possible, provide opportunities to identify, analyze, and test solutions to pressing challenges in health, education, finance, and other areas relevant to development.

Thinking small, universities must work to identify how interdisciplinary thinking can be added to the general tool box all graduates, particularly undergraduates, carry away with them. Granted, most graduates will not dedicate their careers specifically to development. Nonetheless, providing all students with tools that will allow them to communicate effectively with other fields, recognize disciplines’ approaches to solving problems, and the strengths/ limitations of different methodologies is bound to improve their problem-solving skills in general. Given this large potential for overall gains, universities should embrace the task of identifying strategies (eg. special classes exploring methodologies, exercises in communication, joint projects) for teaching, practicing and ensuring interdisciplinary thinking is a central pillar of all students’ education.

Interdisciplinary thinking will not materialize overnight, regardless of what strategies, large and small, are used to bring it to the fore. Once in place however, it will, as it has already proven to be, be a powerful, placing the best of every field in a conversation on how solve our most pressing development challenges.

Alejandra Aponte is a first year student at Georgetown’s McCourt School of Public Policy. After completing her degree, Aponte hopes to use the skills she is building at McCourt to improve education and health programs in Guatemala, her home country.

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