When Crossing boundaries is a good thing

About PlantLab 22 Te Tai tokerau

It’s almost a cliche now to say that we cannot solve problems with the same mindset that created them. But what does that mean in practice?

For several hundred years, most societies have lived in a rigidly structured reality. One that marginalises alternative knowledge systems, segregates professional knowledge and practice and relegates the Earth to an object to be researched, exploited (and recently) fixed.

While many people (including yourself, perhaps) take it for granted that intuitive, spiritual, creative and relational ways of knowing are valid forms of knowledge, that viewpoint is still not mainstream. Cultures that connect deeply to the Earth, which include supernatural and non-rational elements, and which have alternative ways of knowing and being in the world remain invalidated within specific academic disciplines. Look, I may be wrong, but as far as I know, no indigenous group anywhere in the world has declared themselves remotely close to repairing the damage done to their knowledge systems by colonisation. And the damage still continues.

A related issue that hampers progress is that intellectual knowledge generated in institutions and corporations is not being pro-actively shared with flax roots practitioners. At least not easily. It remains behind paywalls, embargos, and NDAs and, when available to read, uses tricky language and is often a self-referential echo chamber.

But academia and corporations are not solely to blame. After nearly three decades of working worldwide as a facilitator and consultant, I have found that some of the most judgemental, narrow-minded hate speech and bullying I’ve witnessed has emanated from peace groups, environmental movements, and spiritual communities. Othering is everywhere. And the worst groups deny they are doing it, leading to corruption and stagnation.

I feel that this way of seeing the world needs to stop to have any chance of healing the mess we’ve collectively made of this world.

Image author’s own

Climate change, biodegradation and overpopulation are symptoms of a dysfunctional mindset that causes people to see the planet as an object to occupy, consume, harvest and use to our own ends. But that mindset is not scientific rationalism or fundamentalist monotheism. It’s a more profound process that separates us and creates The Other. And in my experience, there are very few individuals I’ve met who can get beyond this. Given the self-righteous tone I have started to adopt in this post, I’m likely the worst offender!

No singular knowledge system or paradigm has the answer or can deliver a solution to what ails our world. We need academic and community knowledge sharing. Discipline-based research is as necessary as multi-disciplinary teams. Ways of knowing that include spiritual, artistic, transcendent and multi-dimensional ways of engaging with the Earth need to be resourced and validated (on their own terms). Technology and traditional practice need to sit side by side. And we need these projects to be created in partnership with first peoples or to be resourced and led by these groups entirely.

One way of working across disciplinary boundaries, at least, is transdisciplinary practice. Transdisciplinarity is a way of working where knowledge boundaries are fluid and may sometimes melt away to create ideas, products and services that defy categorisation.

Transdisciplinarity can only be effective if it is subversive. At least the way I practice it. An awareness of the power differentials and relative privileges of everyone participating and the systems they represent is critical.

Also critical is an awareness that knowledge needs to be both shared (in open source frameworks) and validated within the system and culture it is created. True innovation can occur in the synthesising process, where knowledge is experienced with open hearts and minds.

PlantLab 22 Te Tai Tokerau is an example of a transdisciplinary project in action. It’s part innovation lab, part pop up installation, part independent research hub, part CBD activation. It is one of several projects (including my PhD) in which I have facilitated parallel realities with a bigger purpose in mind.

This project, with a botanical bent, will result in a physical pop-up innovation lab located in the Whangarei CBD (in September of 2022) as well as an online symposium and a series of virtual workshops sharing emerging research. In addition, learning will be shared in an open platform after the project is complete.

PlantLab has, at its core, a cohort of cross-disciplinary practitioners who are keen to collaborate to build their own practice while also seeing what solutions and ideas can be generated through their work together. Those involved have rich identities and mahi (e.g. scientist-artists, poets with a penchant for biology, cultural leaders adept in technology).
Forms of research include traditional scientific and creative experiments, poetry, narrative, ceramics, creative tech hacking, meditation, videography and sketching – among many others.

Be aware that I am not saying this is the answer. That would be oddly ironic in a post that says narrow solutions are never sound. Instead, I am simply saying that it’s essential to find ways to communicate across barriers to a larger end. The key to this is self-awareness and an openness to learn.

This project, and other transdisciplinary ones like it, are one way of addressing some of the challenges we face. Others are occurring in the world right now. Especially as alternative currencies and resourcing systems mean research can be resourced and shared outside traditional institutions. As a result, breakthroughs will become more frequent.

But it isn’t just about technology; increasing amounts of people are waking up from the illusion of separateness in the wake of the shared pandemic experience (whichever beliefs you have around that). As a result, there is an opportunity to change how we think about our world more than ever before. And, in the long run, that can only be good for the Earth.

For more about me and my practice, go to www.maggiebuxton.com, www.awhiworld.com, or www.makethinkbe.com.

Dr Maggie Buxton

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