Embracing Complexity: The Need for an Interdisciplinary Approach

June 4, 2021

The following text includes excerpts and adapted from the paper Unhealthy Neighbourhood "Syndrome": A Useful Label for Analysing and Providing Advice on Urban Design Decision-Making? (Al-Waer H., Speedie, J. & Cooper, I.) in a special issue "Happiness and Quality of Life in a Sustainable Built Environment" in the academic journal Sustainability. Sustainability is an international, cross-disciplinary, scholarly, peer-reviewed and open access journal of environmental, cultural, economic, and social sustainability of human beings. To read the full paper click here.

A Changing Professional Landscape to Meet New Challenges

In a recent article in Dezeen, Harriet Harriss, Rory Hyde, and Roberta Marcaccio collectively declare that many challenges facing the world today “are defined by their interconnectedness and by change. They cannot be solved with the old processes, but require new forms of thinking and working...” [because] “the great challenges we face do not conform to neat disciplinary silos, but cross over into the messy space between politics, economics, culture, and….spatial thinking” [1]. Our societies need greater collaboration, we need more listening and we need it now. According to Ghaffarianhoseini [2], to solve interconnected challenges requires a rethinking of professional roles. Such a “new professionalism” could unlock interdisciplinary knowledge and deliver synergistic design solutions. 

Challenges such as air pollution, traffic, transportation, safety among other are often interconnected in our cities, towns and neighbourhoods.

A new professionalism would mean professionals would need to recognize that they wear ‘many hats’. Ravetz [3] (p. 48) suggests that, to meet the diverse needs of residents, the “architect may be also a sociologist; the surveyor may be an advocate of local economic development; the landscape designer a food activist”. Bridging disciplinary silos to pursue shared goals and responsibilities is seen as being required to build a consensus that health, economic, social, and environmental outcomes are interconnected. Core professionals for the built environment are increasingly being asked, jointly if not individually, to possess and deploy a very broad range of skills. This would require them to supplement their existing knowledge base and technical skills—in design, planning and engineering—with social competencies.

Built environment professionals have long held high ambitions about how their skills and expertise can be exercised for the betterment of society. However, designers need to recognize that design alone cannot solve many of the pressing challenges facing the world today. While appeals to a “new professionalism” may act as a rallying call, by providing a means to enhance interdisciplinary knowledge and to unlock more synergistic design decision-making, we must acknowledge the limitations of such an approach [4-7]. It may give too much credit to the power of design, as a means of righting social wrongs that may require political decision making and deeper structural changes.

An Interdisciplinary Approach to Urban Design

The urban design process is highly complicated, involving many actors, engaging with multiple contending forces, with interactions between all these. It is this complexity which Figure 1 seeks to depict. 

Figure 1: The complexity involved in integrating top-down, middle-out and bottom-up contributions to decision-making (after Janda and Parag 2013; Simpson et al. 2020).

There is no “one-size-fits-all” approach that is likely to be appropriate across the board. Even in one specific location, there are likely to be competing viewpoints about how best to promote,  for example health and wellbeing outcomes—and indeed about how much priority should be given to urban design in tackling them. A more integrated attack on urban challenges indicates the need for team-based decision-making involving not just urban designers but also all those middling out actors responsible for an area’s economic and social development, as well as for the physical and mental health of its population.

The Critical Role of 'Design Outsiders'

The context in which interventions are made means that teams with specifically selected skills and expertise will be required to construct specific interventions that have to be implemented through carefully tailored workstreams. However, this will not be sufficient. Even assembling interdisciplinary teams of professionals, no matter how inclusive the areas of expertise their disciplines bring together, will not be enough. The level of inclusivity practised will have to extend ‘vertically’ beyond this as well. It will need to be capable of capturing “the wisdom of the crowd” [8], drawing from the experience and expertise of diverse groups of political and lay stakeholders rather than just those of professionals -what Design Outsider has termed ‘Design Outsiders’.

The methods employed for making decisions will need to align not just the contributions of professionals but reconcile these with those of “top down” political actors (who hold the purse strings) and with the “bottom up” aspirations and concerns of those affected when interventions in the built environment are being planned. Achieving the desirable outcomes cannot rest with a “single set of hands”—however “responsible” or “neutral” these may appear. A more inclusive network of shapers and framers, and of affected stakeholders, is required to solve interconnected challenges.

To read more about the need for an interdisciplinary approach to addressing urban challenges (specifically health and wellbeing in our neighbourhoods), view the full paper here.


[1] Harriss H., Hyde R. & Marcaccio R. Dezeen. 2021. Available online: https://www.dezeen.com/2021/01/05/architects-after-architecture-harriet-harriss-rory-hyde-roberta-marcaccio/  (accessed on 2 June 2020).

[2] Ghaffarianhoseini, A.; AlWaer, H.; Omrany, H.; Alalouch, C.; Clements-Croome, D.; Tookey, J. Sick building syndrome: Are we doing enough? Archit. Sci. Rev. 2018, 61, 99–121.

[3] Ravetz, J. Master planning by and for the urban shared mind: Towards a ‘neighbourhood 3.0’. In Placemaking: Rethinking the Master Planning Process; Al Waer, H., Illsley, B., Eds.; ICE Publishing: London, UK, 2017; pp. 39–55. 

[4] AlWaer, H.; Cooper, I. Built environment professionals and the call for a ‘new’ professionalism. In Rethinking Masterplanning: Creating Quality Places; AlWaer, H., Illsley, B., Eds.; ICE Publishing: London, UK, 2017; pp. 209–221. 

[5] Cooper, I. Inadequate grounds for a ‘design-led’ approach to urban renaissance? Build. Res. Inf. 2000, 28, 212–219.

[6] Cole, R.J. Navigating Climate Change: Rethinking the Role of Buildings. Sustainability 2020, 12, 9527. 

[7] Hill, S.; Lorenz, D. Rethinking professionalism: Guardianship of land and resources. Build. Res. Inf. 2011, 39, 314–319. 

[8] Almaatouq, A.; Noriega-Campero, A.; Alotaibi, A.; Krafft, P.; Moussaid, M.; Pentland, A. Adaptive social networks promote the wisdom of crowds. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 2020, 117, 11379–11386.