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The Antidisciplinary Mind

Interview with Anja Melander

“My hope is that more people discover the possibilities that lie beyond the realm of certainty and leap into the unknown.”

Anja Melander, our Head of Culture is off to Austin, Texas, today to attend South by Southwest (SXSW). She will be part of an event hosted by Invest Stockholm and Visit Stockholm talking about what she refers to as the Antidisciplinary Revolution and why collaboration across difference should be treated as a key skill in the 21st century. We sat her down to ask some questions about what she will be talking about and why it matters.

How would you define Antidisciplinarity?
It’s a difficult word with an easy explanation. It basically boils down to radical collaboration, moving beyond the boundaries separating academic disciplines in order to collaborate across difference.

What does that mean in practice?
Imagine a group consisting of a physicist, a psychologist, an economist and a graphic designer. They have all been trained in their specific discipline, internalizing a language, way of thinking and talking, ideas about right and wrong, and basic views of time, truth and human nature. When asked to collaborate on a project, they end up in conflict and misunderstanding, in a cycle of status management, confusion and disharmony. Why does this happen? Basically, because we don’t know ourselves very well. This lack of awareness of what’s driving our own behavior makes it difficult for us to understand and collaborate with others. Adopting an antidisciplinary mindset means stepping out of your own discipline to see it more clearly, ask better questions and listen generously for a more complete view of reality.

Why is it important?
On an individual basis, I think we could all benefit from a reality-check. To remind ourselves that our opinions are not the truth, but rather a result of our previous experience, education, culture and upbringing. By engaging with people who are different from us, we can learn to reduce our blind spots, understand the other side and perhaps even gain some humility.

On a global scale, I think the interconnected, complex and ever-changing nature of the challenges ahead will require this kind of radical collaboration. Global warming, social injustice and cultural hegemony will not be solved by a group of homogeneous experts relying on standard ways of doing things. Instead, we should be tapping into the collective effort of diverse and curious minds who are aware of their own biases, open to explore uncharted territory and not afraid to fail.

So, you’re proposing an “Antidisciplinary revolution”?
Well, I’m not talking about overthrowing governments or incarcerating specialists. What I’m suggesting is that we take a look at what has happened within academia since the start of the 19th century. The industrial revolution radically increased the need for specialists, and within academia the number of scientific disciplines practically exploded. This lead to a series of magnificent contributions to science and humanity but also to an escalating division of knowledge. I believe, a large part of academia today looks like the Tower of Babel, one giant family speaking thousands of languages, knowing more and more about less and less and increasingly losing touch with reality.

So, what can be done about it?
An antidote to this current conundrum, could be to establish academic laboratories working across and beyond disciplinary constraints, aware of the intricacies of human collaboration, willing to break free from conventions and open to exploring the spaces in between. These academic laboratories are rare, the most impressive one in my opinion being the MIT Media Lab in Boston, Massachusetts, where a group of people are uniting North and South Korea through music, motorizing shoes for amputees, designing pacemakers powered by the beat of the human heart and building cities without infrastructure.

My hope is that more people discover the possibilities that lie beyond the realm of certainty and leap into the unknown. We, as an academic institution, have a moral responsibility to provide students with the skills, patience and determination to thrive in such radical collaboration. In a time characterized by rampant polarization, crumbling democracies and distracted despots, we simply cannot afford to lose sight of the bigger picture.