Unlocking the potential of cross-disciplinary collaborations for sustainability

Let’s look inwards and explore the role of research communities in encouraging and supporting researchers to fulfill the promise of cross-disciplinary collaboration being the answer to the world’s grand challenges.

The rationale behind formal academic consortia and communities is supported by evidence-based research waging on cross-disciplinarity as a requirement for a successful implementation of sustainable and circular processes and innovations. Moreover, inter-faculties and cross-institutional collaboration are considered a powerful magnet for research funding and more often than not, a requirement for project approval. However, very little is known about cross-disciplinary collaboration within research communities aimed at developing sustainable solutions, their challenges and/or pathways to success.

By examining the interplay between various disciplines within cross-disciplinary research communities, one may identify effective strategies that enhance collaboration and support the development and implementation of sustainable circular innovations. Furthermore, the potential influence of such collaborative efforts on broader policymaking and scientific communities, particularly in the context of climate change mitigation and the transition to a circular economy, needs to be explored.

During interviews with researchers, common themes emerge when discussing their collaborative experiences within research communities. Despite diverse disciplinary backgrounds, researchers often share similar challenges and approaches when engaging in cross-disciplinary collaborations. For example, the communication barrier that arises when researchers from different fields collaborate and “do not speak the same language” is extremely common. Additionally, the time commitment required for these collaborations can pose a hurdle for researchers with multiple projects.

Although research communities or consortia are normally centered around a specific subject, researchers place great importance on promoting internal cross-disciplinary collaboration as the primary reason for the community's existence in the first place. In some cases, research communities formed through profiling activities may unintentionally favor established partnerships, perpetuating existing collaborations rather than encouraging the development of new cross-disciplinary connections.

Within the research community, a structured research or project assignment is often viewed as the conventional method for fostering cross-disciplinary collaboration among members. Conversely, when pursuing collaborations outside the community, researchers tend to rely on direct outreach methods, such as emails or phone calls, to establish connections and engage with potential partners in other disciplines or organizations. To overcome this, strong individual leadership, agency, and inclusiveness are essential to cultivate novel cross-disciplinary collaborations that align with the community's strategic objectives.

When it comes to enhancing cross-disciplinary collaboration, a systematic approach and the role of supervisors and leadership are critical factors in ensuring success. The responsibility of fostering collaboration cannot be left solely to individual researchers, even within established groups or communities. Although learning about other units' research is often emphasized, the 'how' and 'when' of this process remain unclear, underscoring the need for guidance and structure in promoting cross-disciplinary collaboration within research communities.

Moreover, effective communication of research consortia’s goals and strategy is essential for fostering motivation among researchers inside such communities. Feelings of isolation and being left out are also quite common among researchers. While having a communication specialist is beneficial, again, the importance of active leadership cannot be understated. Supervisors and PIs play a crucial role in engaging researchers by clearly conveying the community's objectives, promoting inclusivity, organizing cross-disciplinary interactions and consistently reinforcing the overall strategy. This approach ensures that researchers feel informed, valued, and committed to collaborative effort.

Universities that include cross-disciplinarity in their strategy should carefully examine research communities and consortia, which bring together individuals from diverse disciplinary backgrounds and various career stages. By doing so, universities can better understand how to effectively facilitate collaboration among these researchers, ensuring that cross-disciplinarity translates into meaningful and productive partnerships, which would ultimately help address society’s grand challenges. The possible implications of such knowledge are significant, particularly in the context of Finnish and European research funding mechanisms. One of the desired outcomes of such exploration is a deeper understanding of how cross-disciplinary research on circular economy and other climate change mitigation efforts can be supported from both financial and organizational perspectives.


Natalia Freitas
Natalia Freitas
Department of Marketing, Management and International Business
Oulu Business School, University of Oulu

Natalia Freitas is a doctoral researcher at Oulu Business School. Her primary focus centers on sustainable and circular economy transitions in cross-disciplinary environments. In addition to advancing her individual research, she has facilitated workshops and other activities designed to unite researchers with diverse disciplinary backgrounds in the pursuit of successful collaborations.