Interdisciplinary Collaboration

Working effectively in diverse teams.

Biomimicry is an interdisciplinary endeavor. In addition to having both biologists and designers on a team, it’s helpful to involve engineers and business students or professionals from the outset, as well as any other specialist who may have critical insights into the particular problem you are trying to solve. Therefore, the ability to collaborate across disciplines is critical to doing biomimicry well. This can be difficult because we are most comfortable working with people like us, people within our own disciplines. But the benefits of interdisciplinary work are plentiful.

Why collaborate?

 

 

We encourage the formation of interdisciplinary teams, and in fact have interdisciplinary collaboration as part of the judging criteria for many of our design challenges. So it’s worth the effort to reach out to other disciplines to find teammates or advisors.  Some advantages of cross-disciplinary collaboration include.

  • The world is interdisciplinary and cross-disciplinary research and teams are becoming much more common. You’ll develop skills for learning, work, and life, which in turn will make you more valuable for employers and other teams.
  • It enables understanding of different perspectives across subject areas and disciplines.
  • It promotes critical thinking.
  • It brings together information and ideas from different subjects and disciplines and considers alternative ways of doing things or alternative solutions.

 

Building a diverse team

 

 

Disciplines that can be particularly helpful on biomimicry teams may include: design, engineering, biology, ecology, chemistry, business, and social sciences, but the specific disciplines you seek input from will also depend on your specific challenge. If you’re a student, look for students or faculty in other departments at your school. If your school is lacking in a particular discipline, you may have to talk to people in nearby schools. For everyone working on biomimicry projects, we suggest reaching out to students or academics in universities, your local community, or an online community.

Sometimes you’ll meet a person who is working in one discipline, but has training or side interests in a different discipline. For example, sometimes a biologist is working in marketing, or an engineer has a passion for biology. These people can be especially good collaborators, because they bring even greater diversity to the team.

Another rich resource is the community of people who have been trained in biomimicry. You can find them through our Global Biomimicry Network and on various LinkedIn Groups. For the latter, search LinkedIn for the term “biomimicry” and start making connections.

Exercises

 

 

Once you have an interdisciplinary team assembled, the next step is to learn how to work effectively with a group that may be different from other groups you have worked in before. We have provided some exercises to aid you in establishing effective ways of collaborating in a multidisciplinary work environment.

Glossary Exploration

Understanding each other’s terms, definitions, and jargon is important when starting to work in interdisciplinary teams. Failing to recognize these differences in terminology can lead to frustrating miscommunication. This exercise involves reading our definitions of common words, phrases, and comparisons that we use frequently when talking about and teaching biomimicry, or that are mentioned in some of our audio and written materials. These are all found in the glossary. Most are true to an English dictionary definition, and some have a variation that is specific to their application in biomimicry.

As a team, talk about the following terms from the glossary and discuss how the meaning might be different among the various disciplines. Pay attention to these differences and watch for them and other terms with different meanings that come up in discussions within and outside of the team.

  • Challenge
  • Context
  • Design or Designer
  • Emulate
  • Function
  • Niche
  • Optimize
  • Resilient
  • Strategy
  • Sustainability
Bumper Sticker

A bumper sticker is an adhesive sticker with a message, usually attached to the bumper of an automobile. Messages are short and try to quickly capture the idea of a particular philosophical or political position, or are sometimes just funny.

  1. Sit down with an interdisciplinary group and ask each person, or each group from a given discipline, to spend 10 minutes brainstorming stereotypes about people in their own discipline. E.g., biologists might say they are obsessed with being published or getting good grades and are unwilling to share information with others. At the end of the brainstorming session, each discipline represented should come up with a bumper sticker that sums up either how they suspect others perceive them or how they truly perceive themselves.
  2. Have each person or group briefly present their results and bumper sticker, and then ask those from other disciplines to share additional stereotypes they have about that group.
  3. Discuss possible strategies or ground rules that will help your team members succeed in collaborative work, for this challenge and beyond.
Discipline Tour

Team members should take a tour of each other’s workspace, including materials, tools, books or internet resources, and software they use in their discipline. This could be a personal workspace or a lab or classroom where others in the same discipline work. Ask lots of questions and gain an understanding of the basic process each person uses in his or her studies, work, or research.

If you don’t have a very diverse team, consider approaching others outside of your team in order to gain a broader understanding of what various disciplines could contribute to your biomimetic design process.

Exploring Stereotypes

The purpose of the activity is to call out the differences among disciplines and make them easier to talk about.

Everyone sit in a semi-circle, in front of 4-5 large pieces of paper or a large white board with 4-5 columns. At the top of each column the designated recorder should write the name of a discipline (e.g., Biologist, Business person, Architect, Designer, Engineer). Start with the first column and ask the participants to give you all of the stereotypical characteristics of that discipline. So for biologist, they will probably say things like “Nerdy, loves nature, data-driven, curious”, etc. Do the same for each category. They will poke fun at each other and laugh at themselves. It can be pretty funny.

Once you’ve gone through each category, ask the participants if each characteristic is positive, negative, or neutral and put a smiley, frowny, or neutral face (or +, -, 0, respectively) next to each characteristic. Do this kind of fast or it drags on.

By the time that you go through this process, you will see that the things that really bug everyone about other disciplines are actually really helpful and necessary and sometimes their own quirkiness can be a pain. An engineer, for instance, can be very driven by numbers and often require analysis to make a decision. This can make teammates crazy, but they all recognize the value of that perspective at the table.

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