Design features for social learning in transformative transdisciplinary research

  • Pauline Herrero
  • Tom DedeurwaerdereEmail author
  • Agathe Osinski
Original Article
Part of the following topical collections:
  1. Concepts, Methodology, and Knowledge Management for Sustainability Science


This article analyses social learning in transdisciplinary research processes by a systematic comparative analysis of 20 completed or nearly completed projects in the field of sustainable development. This article considers the social learning generated by transdisciplinary processes in a broad way. It looks how social learning is embedded in the practical interaction processes between new scientific knowledge, practitioners’ life-world experiences and social experimentation. The analysis finds that three factors in particular play an important role in social learning: the clarification of the normative orientations, the co-construction of the research question and practical problem situation, and the balancing of power asymmetries. While a single criterion may not allow increasing social learning alone, the analysis supports the hypothesis that a combination of these three criteria systematically increases the strength of the social learning generated. Other factors, such as active facilitation modes and the presence of collective interest advocacy organizations, only play a strong role as a condition for generating social learning in some specific types of transdisciplinary research.


Transdisciplinarity Transformative research Social learning Sustainability transitions Facilitation 



We would like to gratefully thanking the anonymous researchers whom we have interviewed for their time and for sharing details on projects that they have been involved in. We also would like to thank Charlotte Bréda, Dorothée Denayer, Francois Mélard and Pierre Stassart from the University of Liège for the discussions on the research protocol and their comments on the article. We further thank Marc Maesschalck and Jacques Lenoble for discussions at the Centre for Philosophy of Law (UCLouvain) on earlier versions of the theoretical framework on pragmatist reflexivity. We gratefully acknowledge co-funding from the Walloon Institute for Sustainable Development (WISD, Belgian National Science Foundation FNRS-FRS) in the context of the two projects “Science écocitoyenne-territoire durable” and “Formative scenarios for sustainability”, and co-funding from INNOVIRIS-Anticipate (Brussels Region, Belgium) in the context of the project “Collaborative cities for collaborative entrepreneurs (city4coEN)”. We also thank the anonymous reviewers for their insightful comments.


This study was co-funded by INNOVIRIS-Anticipate (2016-PRFB-22a, project city4coEN) and two FNRS-FRS projects (WISD 2017 “Formative scenarios for sustainability” and WISD 2017 “Science écocitoyenne-territoire durable”).

Compliance with ethical standards

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.


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© Springer Japan KK, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Université catholique de Louvain (UCLouvain), Collège Thomas MoreLouvain-la-NeuveBelgium

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