The complex subject-matter of the 21st century world presents an enormous challenge to a discipline-based scientific system. Transdisciplinarity is demanded; it goes beyond interdisciplinarity and focuses both on the relevance of research to the problem at hand and on the feasibility of conducting and implementing it. Problem areas in which different sectors of society and academia may make effective contributions to include new technologies like genetic engineering, biotechnologies, energy, mobility, and nutrition; the creation, organization, and distribution of welfare and resources; human health, age, urban and regional development, and North-South cooperation; new modes of learning, new social systems and decision-making processes; and environmental issues like climate, biodiversity, soil, water, air, recycling, and waste.
Real-world problems determine the kind of action to be taken and not, or at least to a distinctly lesser degree, the competence or the instruments available at any given time. Transdisciplinary research adopts an integrative approach to identifying such problems and working towards solutions. Industry, business, public administration, non-governmental organizations, and consulting firms all possess know-how which may be as important to developing new solutions as the knowledge generated and collected by universities or other scientific institutions. Thus, transdisciplinarity is a vital means of appropriately confronting many of the challenges of the present century. It also promises better and quicker solutions at lower costs, since its value lies not only in its potential for efficiently solving real-world problems but also in its ability to identify such problems at an early stage.
It is the purpose of the present contribution to show, by way of example, how Alexander von Humboldt, who received his education in a time when the modern clear-cut distinction of science and art did not yet exist, aimed at an inter- and transdisciplinary comprehension of his World, and how his ideas became implemented in the second half of the past century in the form of application-oriented long-term ecosystem research.