Agile Science – a future of innovative and interdisciplinary digitalization research?

How does science respond to the diversity and dynamics of the digital transformation? The CAIS Research Incubator uses the concept of “agile science” to help shape the future of a flexible and innovative digitalization research.

While many companies have long seen the importance of “agility” in projects and organizations, and of “new work” concepts for leadership and collaboration, academic research and its organizational structure have often remained untouched by them.

Given the dynamics of social developments in the wake of the digital transformation, the CAIS Research Incubator is developing a concept for the adaptation and evaluation of agile approaches in the academic context, a project that also places new demands on hierarchy, communication, and the distribution of responsibilities. This is where “New Work” as a principle of leadership and empowerment comes in.

In the long term, the Research Incubator aims to use this principle to help develop digitalization research and its methods of collaboration.

What distinguishes agile approaches?

The actual experience of developing software has given rise to various techniques that go under the label of “agile working”. These techniques have been summarized into four central principles ( 2001, Figure 1). The focus here is on individuals and interactions, the functionality of systems, customer orientation, and the permanent willingness to adapt project goals and processes in order to react to changing conditions in the best possible way, the latter being of considerable importance, especially in modern, digital work contexts.


“Agility is a measure of a system’s ability to adapt and respond, as well as the generic term for a set of methods, models, and tools for dealing with dynamics and complexity in processes of development” (Oestereich & Schröder 2020, p. 6).

"New Work"-movement

The “New Work” movement was founded by the US philosopher Frithjof Bergmann at the beginning of the 1980s. In contrast to traditional concepts of (salaried) work, “new work” focuses primarily on values such as independence, freedom (of action), meaning, and social participation (Vollmer 2019).

A clearly structured, iterative approach and follow-up at short intervals provide a wide range of options for project work. Potential target failures are integrated into work processes as essential components of continuous improvement (Figure 2). In this way, agile working supports learning in the process, and enables a solution-oriented error culture where failure is not a personal failure, but a collective moment of learning.

Work structure also opens up a wide range of opportunities for participation both internally and externally, and takes into account the needs and perspectives of the addressees of products.

This increases the quality of project results in the long term. Power hierarchies within the organization become less important; responsibility is passed on dynamically within the teams (empowerment) and divided up (self-leadership). This creates new spaces for employees to interact respectfully with one another.

How can agile work formats and New Work concepts change science and research?

Applied to science and research, this means on the one hand rethinking organizational and project-management structures, which can help improve exchange within and between interdisciplinary teams. The possibilities for flexible project management based on natural hierarchies and with a productive error culture can also prove their worth in research projects, and promote creativity and holistic ways of working (see also Laloux 2017).

On the other, it means focusing not only on the “scientific community”, but also on the population as addressees and recipients of products in the form of research results. This is not only about their needs with regard to communicating research findings in a comprehensible way, but also about their role as initiators and shapers of scientific research (e.g. active participants in citizen science projects).

How does CAIS implement agile approaches?

On the one hand, CAIS is internally oriented towards “agility” and “New Work” as a principle of systemic organizational development, a principle characterized by people-centeredness, a belief in people’s ability to shape the organization, and a clear and flexible interdisciplinary structure. A spatial concept was also developed as part of this, one that is particularly oriented towards openness and cooperation.

Agile working also means in the context of the CAIS Research Incubator selecting working methods and tools from the modern management of projects in IT, consulting and design, and applying them to the interdisciplinary academic context (Figure 3). For example, selected elements in the process of identifying topics for the CAIS research programs are directly based on the Double Diamond principle (Figure 4).

In addition, continuous monitoring of social developments serves to identify relevant topics, problems and questions, these then being used as a basis for designing CAIS research programs. In the long term, formats such as real-world laboratories and citizen science projects are used to involve citizens in research processes. Besides research and teaching, the task of science is thus expanded to include a so-called “third mission”, one aimed at exchange and cooperation with society.

Abbildung 4. Der Themenfindungsprozess entlang des Double Diamond
Literature (2001). Manifesto for Agile Software Development. Abgerufen am 28. Januar 2020 von

Laloux, F. (2017). Reinventing Organizations. Ein illustrierter Leitfaden sinnstiftender Formen der Zusammenarbeit. München: Verlag Vahlen.

Oestereich, B. & Schröder, C. (2020). Agile Organisationsentwicklung. Handbuch zum Aufbau anpassungsfähiger Organisationen. München: Verlag Vahlen.

Vollmer, J. (2019). New-Work-Urvater Frithjof Bergmann: Der alte Mann und das Mehr. t3n magazin. Abgerufen am 28. Januar 2020 von