Transdisciplinary research in sustainability science: practice, principles, and challenges

Abstract

There is emerging agreement that sustainability challenges require new ways of knowledge production and decision-making. One key aspect of sustainability science, therefore, is the involvement of actors from outside academia into the research process in order to integrate the best available knowledge, reconcile values and preferences, as well as create ownership for problems and solution options. Transdisciplinary, community-based, interactive, or participatory research approaches are often suggested as appropriate means to meet both the requirements posed by real-world problems as well as the goals of sustainability science as a transformational scientific field. Dispersed literature on these approaches and a variety of empirical projects applying them make it difficult for interested researchers and practitioners to review and become familiar with key components and design principles of how to do transdisciplinary sustainability research. Starting from a conceptual model of an ideal–typical transdisciplinary research process, this article synthesizes and structures such a set of principles from various strands of the literature and empirical experiences. We then elaborate on them, looking at challenges and some coping strategies as experienced in transdisciplinary sustainability projects in Europe, North America, South America, Africa, and Asia. The article concludes with future research needed in order to further enhance the practice of transdisciplinary sustainability research.

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Fig. 1

Notes

  1. 1.

    Adapted from Matthias Bergmann’s presentation at the launching conference of the International Network for Interdisciplinarity and Transdisciplinarity (INIT) in Utrecht, The Netherlands, June 2011.

  2. 2.

    Not all of the projects we draw from used the term “transdisciplinary” nor did all of the projects meet all design principles; however, the basic intention of all projects was (explicit or not) to comply with the requirements of the above definition of transdisciplinary research.

  3. 3.

    See: http://www.cces.ethz.ch/projects/sulu/MOUNTLAND. See also Wiek et al. (2012).

  4. 4.

    Personal observations; project documentation available at: http://www.sdinet.org/country/malawi/.

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Acknowledgments

We would like to thank the four anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments on previous versions of this article. Furthermore, we want to thank Christopher Lüderitz and Rob Cutter for their helpful assistance. We acknowledge the feedback from the participants in the session on “Solution-oriented transdisciplinary research for sustainable development” at the 2nd International Conference on Sustainability Science (ICSS 2010), Sapienza University Rome, Italy, June 23–25, 2010, on critical issues discussed in this article. Arnim Wiek acknowledges support through the Swiss National Science Foundation grant PA0011-115315.

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Correspondence to Daniel J. Lang.

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Handled by Francesca Farioli, Sapienza University of Rome, Italy.

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Lang, D.J., Wiek, A., Bergmann, M. et al. Transdisciplinary research in sustainability science: practice, principles, and challenges. Sustain Sci 7, 25–43 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11625-011-0149-x

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Keywords

  • Transdisciplinary sustainability research
  • Design principles
  • Challenges
  • Evaluation