Within many fields, such as medicine, biosciences, and cognitive science, there is a growing awareness of the need for transdisciplinary approaches. Likewise, engineering education and research needs to be supplemented by a fundamentally new way of addressing the multidimensional, complex problems that society faces today. Because of the nature of modern engineering systems, traditional disciplinary approaches have proven insufficient; as such, researchers and educators are operating beyond traditional disciplinary boundaries to explore complementary approaches. Products have become integrated engineering systems, and design and production requirements regularly traverse disciplinary boundaries. This requires input from multiple disciplines within engineering, as well as other disciplines outside of science and engineering, such as business, social sciences, medicine, etc. As the pace of development of new technical systems has continued to accelerate, the need has shifted from interdisciplinary or multidisciplinary design teams to trans-organizational and trans-national work.
During the last decade, the number of complex problems facing engineers has exploded, and the technical knowledge and understanding in science and engineering required to attack these problems is rapidly evolving. A few examples are the groundbreaking advancements in semiconductor and software technologies, the biosciences, and nanotechnology. The last two decades of designing large-scale engineering systems taught us that neither disciplinary, nor multidisciplinary or interdisciplinary approaches provide an environment that promotes the collaboration and synthesis necessary to extend beyond existing disciplinary boundaries.
A sound transdisciplinary science of engineering systems needs, of course, to incorporate knowledge from many different areas. The core of knowledge centered on design and process will be augmented, based on discipline-specific knowledge depending on the problem at hand. The core of design and process knowledge will also be necessarily broad, incorporating concepts and methods from separate disciplines.
Transdisciplinary education and research take collaboration across disciplinary boundaries a step further than do multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary programs. In following the transdisciplinary concept, researchers representing diverse disciplines work jointly to develop and use a shared conceptual framework that draws upon discipline specific concepts, theories, and methods, while addressing common problems through a new synthesis of a common ontology, theories, models, and methodology.