© 2016, Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht. Willingness to collaborate across disciplinary boundaries is necessary but not sufficient for project success. This is a case study of a transdisciplinary project whose success was constrained by contextual factors that ultimately favoured technical and scientific forms of knowledge over the cultural intelligence that might ensure technical solutions were socially feasible. In response to Alaskan Water and Sewer Challenge (AWSC), an international team with expertise in engineering, consultative design and public health formed in 2013 to collaborate on a two-year project to design remote area water and sanitation systems in consultation with two native Alaskan communities. Team members were later interviewed about their experiences. Project processes are discussed using a ‘Knowledge Ecology’ framework, which applies principles of ecosystems analysis to knowledge ecologies, identifying the knowledge equivalents of ‘biotic’ and ‘abiotic’ factors and looking at their various interactions. In a positivist ‘knowledge integration’ perspective, different knowledges are like Lego blocks that combine with other ‘data sets’ to create a unified structure. The knowledge ecology framework highlights how interactions between different knowledges and knowledge practitioners (‘biotic factors’) are shaped by contextual (‘abiotic’) factors: the conditions of knowledge production, the research policy and funding climate, the distribution of research resources, and differential access to enabling infrastructures (networks, facilities). This case study highlights the importance of efforts to negotiate between different knowledge frameworks, including by strategic use of language and precepts that help translate social research into technical design outcomes that are grounded in social reality.