The Academy – founded by Plato and transformed into the modern University – is an ideal institution to cultivate, create, and disseminate universal knowledge. Water Diplomacy is an idea –  conceived by a group of reflective water scholars and professionals in Boston in 2006 – with an ambitious goal to explore new ways to “think and do” water scholarship for societal impact. The Tufts Water Diplomacy Program is an experiment to implement this idea through interdisciplinary pursuits, from theory to practice.

This essay reflects on our recently completed Water Diplomacy Roundtable as a synthesis of our conversations, connections, and combinations of ideals, ideas, and implementation of interdisciplinary scholarship. It also serves as a prelude to a forthcoming book. The book will begin by briefly tracing how ideals and ideas have changed over the centuries to cultivate and create scholarship for societal impact. Our Water Diplomacy experiment is an example test case to show and tell what we have done, what mistakes we have made, and what we have learned about interdisciplinary scholarship to translate ideas into actionable outcome. We view our journey as an adaptive learning experiment to address the complex problems of our time, using water as an example.

Three key lessons from our two Roundtable conversations on May 12-13, 2017 are: (a) Water Diplomacy – Theory to Practice; and (b) Quo Vadis? – Interdisciplinary Scholarship and Practice.

It’s not Either-Or; it’s And  as well as “Mind the Gaps”:

From both panel conversations, one key finding that emerged is that we need to focus on making our ideas clear for actionable outcomes. While we need to be cognizant of the duality of current representations like:

  • Numbers or Narratives
  • Natural or Societal
  • Particles or Persons
  • Explicit or Tacit
  • Deterministic or Random
  • Quantitative or Qualitative
  • Objective or Subjective
  • Facts or Values
  • Large N or Small N
  • Fox or Hedgehog
  • ??? or ???

We need to replace OR with AND. This is where interdisciplinary conversations, connections, and combinations can play significant roles for desired outcomes. In a simple world – where cause-effect relationships are well understood – the either-or representation may work. For complex problems characterized by interconnections, uncertainty, and unpredictability either-or frames for problem solving can be limiting or even counter-productive. We need to “mind the gap” between these two representations; in fact, for many real-world problems this gap is very large and needs a different way of thinking, framing, and addressing the problem. A Roundtable presentation titled Robots, Democracy and Climate Change makes this point.

Stickiness of Ideas for Actionable Outcomes:

Many of our water problems are complex because they are interconnected and interdependent. These boundary crossing water problems are dynamic, non-linear and are often interconnected with other problems including food, energy, health, environment, and ecosystems. Decisions related to these problems – involving variables, processes, actors, and institutions – are likewise complex, making a range of interventions possible. But not all possible policy choices and decisions are actionable. When neither the certainty of scientific solution nor the consensus of what intervention to implement exists: what we need is Water Diplomacy. Our principled pragmatism – rooted in equity and sustainability as guiding principles for water governance and management – approach attempts to synthesize symbolic aspirations with realistic assessment to chart a trajectory that can move us from the world of seemingly infinite possibilities to subset of sticky and implementable options for measurable outcomes.

For the Water Diplomacy Framework, our focus is on a theory of practice rather than a theory of the problem. We are not intrigued by the “beauty of the problem”; instead, we embrace its messiness of the problem by recognizing the disconnect among valuesinterests, and tools as well as problemspolicies, and politics. We appreciate the power of scientific and technological solutions for efficiency and reliability; we are also cognizant of the power of political feasibility for a solution to be actionable.  We don’t dwell on either-or paradigm; instead, we try to focus on a problem within a given system and identify the contextual capacity and constraints for a given problem by asking: Who decides water for whom, at what cost and what scale. Asking these questions allows our ideas to “stick” and develop options that are actionable and have measurable outcomes. A Roundtable presentation by an engineering student and a social science student titled Flood Plain Diplomacy makes this point.

Quo Vadis?

Today, our World is globalized.  Science, Policy, and Politics are interdependent. Change is inevitable. The pace and nature of change has accelerated at a rate that we have never experienced before. A few years ago, YouTube and Facebook did not exist; today, these technological innovations are shaping policies, changing the nature of politics, and redefining the dynamics of social networking. The world is continuously and dramatically being reshaped by the pace and intensity of scientific and technological innovations.

Has the evolution of our ideal Academy kept pace with the changing nature of our ideas to address complex problems of our time?

In 2006, at the beginning of our journey, we argued that the nature of water as a resource is changing. A changing world requires a changing education in its ideals, ideas, and implementation. Science alone is not sufficient. Nor is policy-making that doesn’t take science into account. Sustainable solutions can emerge from interdisciplinary scholarship that takes science, policy and politics into account within water networks of variables, processes, actors, and institutions.

Now in 2017, we recognize that many of our current and emerging water problems are complex because they are interconnected and interdependent. Policy decisions addressing these problems are also complex – because processes, actors and institutions are interconnected and interdependent – making a range of solutions possible.  But not all possible decisions are actionable. We argue that context creates the subspace for actionable outcome; we need to account for contextual capacity of effective action and the constraints present within a context to explore and implement intervention for measurable outcome(s). Our Water Diplomacy program was designed to educate water diplomats how to frame, formulate, design, and implement complex research projects from beginning to end with sensitivity to actionable outcomes that are grounded in the principles of equity and sustainability. What have we learned about interdisciplinary scholarship and practice? What are the effective ways to impart interdisciplinary “thinking and doing” that are transferrable to different problems and contexts?

We found a simplifying metaphor of “T” a good model of interdisciplinary scholarship. Our T model of interdisciplinary scholarship attempts to reconcile disciplinary requirements (depth) with interdisciplinary expectations (width). Here is an overview of the evolution of our T model following the trajectory of water diplomacy students.

Quo Vadis? (Where y’all goin’?) In many ways, our experiment is just beginning. However, the roundtable has offered us an opportunity to look back and reflect on a decade of ‘thinking’ and ‘doing’. Twenty-six of our students have completed (or nearly completed) their PhDs, and we look forward to watching their careers unfold with great anticipation. Meanwhile, many of our water diplomacy fellows will be writing about their research in our upcoming book. As we reflect on these lessons, we hope that our experiment and experience will inspire other similar pursuits to create interdisciplinary scholarship for addressing emerging complex problems. We look forward to your input, suggestions, and feedback – via email thinkanddo@waterdiplomacy.org – using the premise and related questions posed at the Roundtable as we work on finalizing our book.

Shafiqul Islam

Shafiqul Islam is a Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Water Diplomacy, and the Director of the Water Diplomacy Initiative at Tufts University. Follow on Twitter: @ShafikIslam