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

Abstract

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.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    The articles and books chosen in Table 1 are no attempt to capture the breadth or history of transdisciplinary research. For broader reviews see: Frodeman 2010; Hirsch Hadorn et al 2008; Klein et al 2001, 2010.

  2. 2.

    While there has been a difference in the discourses and use of transdisciplinary between North America and Europe (Frodeman 2010; Klein et al. 2001; Robinson 2008), there seems to be increasing convergence between European and North American research (Lang et al 2012; Wiek et al 2012). The Australian example on integration sciences is included because it is recent, and originates from another field, the health sciences, with a slightly different methodological focus (Bammer 2013).

  3. 3.

    A more detailed analysis of the relationship between different degrees of practitioner and researcher participation and knowledge integration are taken up in another paper (Polk forthcoming).

  4. 4.

    For more information about the center, please see the home page at: mistraurbanfutures.org.

  5. 5.

    The terms ‘stakeholder’, ‘practitioner’, ‘user’ and ‘practice’ are used to refer to individuals and activities which fall within the professional mandates of public and private spheres of activity. This includes employees from the public bodies in the Consortium, such as any municipal and regional officials, planners and administrators as well as business and community group representatives and the general public and their respective activities.

  6. 6.

    The City of Göteborg, the Göteborg Region Association of Local Authorities (GR), Västra Götalands Region (VGR), The County Administration Board (CAB), The University of Chalmers, The University of Gothenburg, and IVL the Swedish Environmental Research Institute.

  7. 7.

    The City is used to refer to the Municipality of Göteborg, the largest municipality in the region. The regional bodies refers to both GR, a voluntary association of 13 municipalities, VGR, the regional political governing body, consisting of 49 municipalities, and CAB, the County Administration Board, or regional arm of the national government.

  8. 8.

    It can be argued that the time frame of the project evaluation was too short, and therefore unable to capture more long-term effects. However, analyzing the uptake of the immediate results of the projects, from the final interview and project outputs, also gives valuable information about the barriers being faced. It can also be the case that such project results have a short shelf life, due to information overload and the time pressures of planning and policy-making.

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Acknowledgments

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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Correspondence to Merritt Polk.

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Handled by Arnim Wiek, Arizona State University, USA.

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Polk, M. Achieving the promise of transdisciplinarity: a critical exploration of the relationship between transdisciplinary research and societal problem solving. Sustain Sci 9, 439–451 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11625-014-0247-7

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Keywords

  • Transdisciplinary research
  • Sustainability
  • Symmetrical participation