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How to build transdisciplinary and trusting relationships for societal transformations 

Barry Ness & Darin Wahl. Photo
Barry Ness and Darin Wahl hope that their insights can both enhance other ongoing research in the field, as well as deepen comprehensions of transdisciplinary processes.

Sustainability science is about making impact for societal transformations. Building transdisciplinary relationships for the co-creation of knowledge with organisations outside academia is crucial to enact change. New research from LUCSUS identifies key insights for how to create and maintain more successful collaborations. The work is based on five-years of working with the Swedish craft beer sector in an Urban Living Lab.

– We provide reflections and insights from experiences working directly in transdisciplinary research, including motivations that foster robust knowledge co-creation between actors, and via hands-on efforts to collaboratively explore and experiment with sustainable change, says Barry Ness, Associate Professor at LUCSUS.

He, and PhD student Darin Wahl, highlight that research focused on promoting sustainability transitions via the employment of collaborative transdisciplinary approaches has rapidly expanded in recent years. Methods have advanced to focus on the process of knowledge co-production and co-design, as well as the testing of sustainability solutions, something which has opened doors to the development of approaches for the design, evaluation, and proper financing of more robust collaborative processes, for example, Urban Living Labs and solution experimentation.

Urban Living Labs consist of academic and non-academics working in collaboration to conduct targeted sustainability-promoting experiments, in which actionable knowledge and innovative solutions are co-developed and trialed, all with intentions to foster transdisciplinary learning and propel sustainable societal change.

Barry Ness and Darin Wahl’s research paper was motivated by a hope that their insights can both enhance other ongoing research in the field, as well as deepen comprehensions of transdisciplinary processes, especially as they pertain to close collaboration with partners outside of academia. 

– We have learned that a willingness to learn to collaborate and co-create with others goes hand in hand with the need to reflect on oneself, and what we, as researchers, bring to the partnerships beyond mere expertise in science, says Barry Ness.

The research took a practice-based pragmatist approach to transdisciplinary sustainability interventions, focusing on how to engage with real-world problems, effectively and collaboratively. From this perspective, knowledge, action, and learning are iterative and cyclical, each informing the other.

Key insights 

  • Reflect on the influence of one's own positionality and personality

It is essential that the researcher be aware of one’s own positionality when working with societal partners to derive solutions and experiment with sustainable change. Academic egos must be left be left at the transdisciplinary process door. 

  • Develop skills and capacity to practice patience, compassion and empathy

Collaborating with societal actors outside of academia almost never proceeds as planned. Researchers must be ready to practice compassion, empathy, and most of all, patience to maneuver the collaborative process. 

  •  Learn the intentions & expectations of other participants

Extra efforts both at the start and throughout a collaborative process must be placed on constantly knowing the intentions and expectations of practice partners as to not generate ill-will and disgruntlement in the transdisciplinary process. 

  • Practice situational self-awareness and adaptability

Interactions with partners often are a dynamic process, especially those that extend several years. Therefore, the transdisciplinary researcher must practice self-awareness and adaptability in the many interactions encounters with the partners to adapt to the ebbs and flows of the process.

  • Integrate collaborative reflections into regular lab/experiment meetings

Meetings to only monitor the status and direction of the living lab and solution experimentation process are not enough. Emphasis must also be placed on discussing the relationships of the involved actors in order to maintain positive and inclusive working relationships.

  • Designate organizational champion(s)

Find committed individuals working in the organization that can act as the “champion” within the organization that can take responsibility for experiment activities and communicate with others in the organization. 

To conclude, Barry and Darin want to add that even though their insights can be used by other researchers, it is also important to remember that broader structural changes are needed for transdisciplinary processes, such as Urban Living Labs, to thrive. 

–  How we finance sustainability research, how universities are structured, what denotes project success, and who is able to partake in this research are just a sampling of issues that need to be discussed and acted upon in parallel with the evolution of the approaches, says Barry Ness.

Download the article: Ness, B. & Wahl, D. (2022) Getting personal with collaborative sustainability experimentation: Reflections and recommendations from a transdisciplinary partnership with the Swedish craft beer sector. It is published in the journal AMBIO.