Sustainability Science

, Volume 9, Issue 4, pp 439–451 | Cite as

Achieving the promise of transdisciplinarity: a critical exploration of the relationship between transdisciplinary research and societal problem solving

  • Merritt PolkEmail author
Special Feature: Original Article New Directions in Sustainability Science


Transdisciplinarity is often presented as a way to effectively use scientific research to contribute to societal problem solving for sustainability. The aim of this paper is to critically explore this statement. This is done in two ways. First, a literature survey of transdisciplinary research is used to identify the assumptions that underlie the positive relationship between transdisciplinarity and societal problem solving for sustainability. This mapping identifies the claim that in-depth participation of users and the integration of relevant knowledge from both practice and research in real-world problem contexts produce socially robust results that contribute to sustainability. Second, the ability to live up to this claim is presented and discussed in five case study projects from Mistra Urban Futures, a transdisciplinary center in Göteborg, Sweden. The conclusions show that transdisciplinary processes, which fulfill the above conditions, do produce different types of socially robust knowledge, but this does not necessarily result in the ability to influence change in a sustainable direction. This instead creates a paradox in that the participation of stakeholders and the integration of knowledge from diverse sources require spaces that are both embedded in and insulated from practice and science proper. Such spaces produce results that are not easily aligned with sector-based target groups and formal policy processes. Institutionalizing transdisciplinarity in a boundary organization therefore solves some problems regarding participation and balanced problem ownership. However, it also creates new, hybrid problems, regarding knowledge transfer and scalability, which bridge the boundaries and challenge the praxis of planning and policy making.


Transdisciplinary research Sustainability Symmetrical participation 



I would like to thank all of the participants in the test projects at Mistra Urban Futures, especially the project leaders and working group members. I would also like to thank Lotten Westberg, Jaan-Henrik Kain, Tomas Hellström and Lotta Frändberg for their work and input into different parts of this research. I would finally like to thank three anonymous reviewers for very helpful comments. This work was financed by Mistra Urban Futures.


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Copyright information

© Springer Japan 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Human Ecology, School of Global StudiesThe University of GothenburgGöteborgSweden
  2. 2.Mistra Urban FuturesChalmers University of TechnologyGöteborgSweden

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