Written by: Deana D. Pennington, Associate Professor, Department of Geological Sciences, University of Texas at El Paso

Achieving sustainable infrastructure from the orthogonal perspectives of environment, economics and social outcomes will require unprecedented collaboration between academic scholars from many disciplines, policymakers at all levels, diverse government agencies, and the general public who are key stakeholders. As noted in the prior blog by Glenn McRae (October 24, 2017), such outcomes require completely new skills and competencies in the workforce, and education must flexibly adapt to meet these changing needs.  Yet in many cases it is not yet known what precise skills and competencies are needed, or how educational programs and curricula can be transformed to meet those needs.

There is one need, however, that repeatedly emerges from discussions around how to best tackle some of the challenges of building sustainable infrastructure, and how to organize people to work towards such goals. The ability to work in a team synthesizing data, information, and perspectives across diverse disciplinary and professional divides is at the heart of addressing infrastructure design that enables more sustainable and resilient communities (Pennington, 2016). Such teams encounter a variety of challenges, some of which are common to any team and have been the subject of research for decades (such as coordination mechanisms, motivation, incentives, and leadership) (Derrick et al., 2013).  Others, however, are not typically encountered by an average team, or are much more pronounced in teams attempting to address complex sustainability problems. Among these, challenges integrating diverse knowledge and perspectives that are based on deep knowledge and expertise are commonly encountered (Committee on the Science of Team Science, 2015).  Team members must combine their unique knowledge and skills to generate a shared vision of the problem to be solved — essential to effective team performance (Fiore and Schooler, 2004; Pennington et al., 2016).

Numerous researchers from a variety of professions who have participated in interdisciplinary research teams have commented on the issues involved with integrating deep knowledge across environmental, human and built domains. Challenges arise from different mental models of the problem itself; communication issues due to highly technical jargon that is not understood by those who do not use that jargon; and a lack of understanding of the basic or intermediate concepts that support deep understanding of the issues from multiple perspectives. Indeed, Roy et al. (2013) surveyed scientists nationwide researching environmental issues in interdisciplinary teams, and found that most have not been successful in achieving the synergistic outcomes hoped for.  Outstanding research still occurs in these teams, but it occurs in siloes that fails to achieve the goal of truly integrative work. By attending NCSE 2018: The Science, Business and Education of Sustainable Infrastructure you will be able to have a seat at the table to discuss these and many other challenges surrounding sustainable infrastructure.

Researchers from the University of Texas at El Paso, Northern Arizona University, University of Nebraska at Lincoln, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, together with the National Council of Science and the Environment are working together to develop and test models for overcoming the knowledge integration issue.  The results of these efforts will be highlighted in two sessions at NCSE 2018, both on Wednesday January 24, 2018 at the Hyatt Regency in Washington, D.C.: 1) a panel discussion in the morning describing the EMBeRS model for integrating knowledge across diverse perspectives along with case studies of its application in a variety of settings, and 2) a hands-on workshop in the afternoon, enabling participants to experience the EMBeRS method and reflect on how it could be used in their own situations.  We hope you will join us for these sessions, and add your insights into the challenges and opportunities of integrating knowledge for complex problem solving around the design and enactment of sustainable infrastructure.

Learn more at the Employing Modeling Based Reasoning in Socio-Environmental Synthesis (EMBeRS) project website. To learn more about NCSE 2018 and its surrounding themes, please visit the conference website.


Committee on the Science of Team Science (2015) Enhancing the Effectiveness of Team Science. The National Academies Press, Washington D.C.

Derrick, E. G., Falk-Krzesinski, H. J., & Roberts, M. R. (2013). Facilitating Interdisciplinary Research and Education: A Practical Guide. Retrieved from http://www.aaas.org/cspsp/interdisciplinary/guide/Full_Report.pdf

Fiore, S. M., & Schooler, J. W. (2004). Process mapping and shared cognition: Teamwork and the development of shared problem models. Team Cognition: Understanding the Factors That Drive Process and Performance, 133–152.

Pennington, D. (2016). A conceptual model for knowledge integration in interdisciplinary teams: orchestrating individual learning and group processes. Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences, 6(2), 300–312. https://doi.org/10.1007/s13412-015-0354-5

Pennington, D., Bammer, G., Danielson, A., Gosselin, D., Gouvea, J., Habron, G., … Wei, C. (2016). The EMBeRS project: employing model-based reasoning in socio-environmental synthesis. Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences, 6(2), 278–286. https://doi.org/10.1007/s13412-015-0335-8

Roy, E. D., Morzillo, A. T., Seijo, F., Reddy, S. M. W., Rhemtulla, J. M., Milder, J. C., … Martin, and S. L. (2013). The Elusive Pursuit of Interdisciplinarity at the Human–Environment Interface. BioScience, 63(9), 745–753. https://doi.org/10.1525/bio.2013.63.9.10


This work was supported from 2013-2015 by the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC) under funding received from the National Science Foundation grant number DBI-1052875.  It is currently supported by the National Science Foundation under grant number DGE-1545404.

Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not reflect in any way those of the National Council for Science and the Environment.