What does convergence mean, and why is it important?

Convergence can be described as a new collaborative research model, in which social, technical and medical knowledge and methods are combined. In fact, in scientific literature worldwide, convergence is seen as the best way to solve complex, contemporary problems in the fields of healthcare, energy, food, climate or water. TU Delft, Erasmus University Rotterdam and Erasmus MC have entered into a Convergence Alliance in order to achieve a better understanding of, and approach to, the challenges posed by the Rotterdam delta and urban deltas worldwide.

Knowledge leading to solutions

In a convergence, advantage is taken of the vast reservoir of knowledge and forms of research. But it is new, so it is also exciting. Nikki Brand is a researcher and strategic policy advisor on cross-disciplinary work at TU Delft. She explains why she believes convergence is necessary. “Knowledge at universities has traditionally been created in silos. Researchers specialise in a problem, or sometimes in a solution, but rarely do we see it really take off in practice. As a scientist, I studied international flood protection of cities, especially the role of planning. But I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life researching plans to protect cities from water without ever actually helping a city.” She saw this happen in Houston, Texas, where she was doing research. “There was plenty of knowledge, but it didn’t come together into viable solutions, nor did it get to the politicians. The city is still being flooded.”

A high level of scale

One of the first institutes to use the concept of convergence was the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, for the ‘future of health’. It has long been known that major medical challenges require a combination of biomedical knowledge, natural sciences and computer science to be solved. But convergence is also increasingly needed outside the health sciences.

Brand: “At TU Delft we have good engineers and designers, we can get them to work in a coordinated way, but we lack information from social sciences and humanities. For example, when rebuilding after a tsunami, you also need to know what role trauma plays. In delta issues, in addition to spatial planning or knowledge of hydraulic engineering or climate development, you also need administrative and economic knowledge. Precisely because deltas have such a high level of scale and complexity. Cities are becoming increasingly densely populated, deltas are climate-sensitive areas because of the rivers. “Something really has to be done if we want this to run smoothly in the near and distant future too.”

This can be a huge step forward

Nikki Brand

Theme Lead Methodology / GLUON

Interdisciplinary work

Transdisciplinary research, i.e. working with practitioners from a particular scientific discipline, is often successful, Brand explains. “But now we want to work interdisciplinarily. Adding up and combining different forms of knowledge, research methods and research into shared conceptions of problems, and shared solutions. What we want to do within Resilient Delta can be a huge step forward; a combination of sciences that we have not seen before. We are bringing together disciplines that are far apart to design total solutions.”

Hub Zwart is Dean of the Erasmus School of Philosophy and, together with Nikki Brand, leader of the methodology theme, which has been specifically deployed to make Resilient Delta a true convergence initiative. He adds: “Breaking down the walls within knowledge institutions is important. However, there is also an enormous wealth of knowledge, insights, experience and creativity in society itself. Given the scale of the challenges we face, we need the input, involvement and also criticism of citizens, civil society organisations and professionals just as much.”

Stepping over walls

It will not always be easy. Convergence is not a natural process, it requires space, time and money. “You can no longer expect researchers to just ‘do it on the side’ in their evening hours.” This makes convergence just as much an organisational issue. How do we organise it so that it has a chance of success? Brand: “We are now thinking very hard about that. It will be great if it eventually succeeds: if we manage to go beyond the walls of the universities, towards each other and towards the city.”

There is also an enormous wealth of knowledge, insights, experience and creativity in society itself

Hub Zwart

Erasmus University Rotterdam

Dean of Erasmus School of Philosophy