The guiding logics and principles for designing emergent transdisciplinary research processes: learning experiences and reflections from a transdisciplinary urban case study in Enkanini informal settlement, South Africa


Transdisciplinarity is not a new science per se, but a new methodology for doing science with society. A particular challenge in doing science with society is the engagement with non-academic actors to enable joint problem formulation, analysis and transformation. How this is achieved differs between contexts. The premise of this paper is that transdisciplinary research (TDR) methodologies designed for developed world contexts cannot merely be replicated and transferred to developing world contexts. Thus a new approach is needed for conducting TDR in contexts characterised by high levels of complexity, conflict and social fluidity. To that end, this paper introduces a new approach to TDR titled emergent transdisciplinary design research (ETDR). A core element of this approach is that the research process is designed as it unfolds, that is, it transforms as it emerges from and within the fluid context. The ETDR outlined in this paper emerged through a case study in the informal settlement (slum) of Enkanini in Stellenbosch, South Africa. This case study demonstrates the context from and within which the ETDR approach and identifies a set of guiding logics that can be used to guide ETDR approaches in other contexts. The study demonstrates that the new logics and guiding principles were not simply derived from the TDR literature, but rather emerged from constant interacting dynamics between theory and practice. Learning how to co-design the research process through co-producing transformative knowledge and then implementing strategic interventions to bring about incremental social change is key to theory development in ways that are informed by local contextual dynamics. There are, however, risks when undertaking such TDR processes such as under-valuing disciplinary knowledge, transferring risks onto a society, and suppressing ‘truth-to-power’.

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Fig. 1

(Source: Jaglin 2014)

Fig. 2

(Source: Tosey et al. 2012)


  1. 1.

    According to Jaglin (2014: 438) service provision in southern cities is “a combination made up of a networked infrastructure, deficient in varying degrees and offering a rational service, and of private sector commercial initiatives, whether individual or collective, formal or informal, which are usually illegal in respect of the exclusive contracts of operators officially responsible for the service. These services fill the gaps in the conventional service and, depending on the type of urban area, target either the well-off clientele or poor clientele excluded from the main networks because of lack of resources, geographical remoteness or illegal status. These delivery configurations have one thing in common: the conventional network does not always reach the end user.”

  2. 2.

    Such high experiments have been discussed in the well-established literature that emerged after the Chernobyl disaster. For a review see Gross & Hoffmann-Riem (2005).

  3. 3.

    By the time we approached the people of Enkanini in their informal social networks there had not been any shared experience amongst them of having worked jointly on any such project (e.g., electricity, water, waste). In other words, they were ‘un-mobilised’ following the NGO sector discourse. So, this ‘culture’ (or shared experience) of working together only emerged during our TDR process. As this was not something we intentionally planned for, it is reasonable to claim that it truly emerged during the TDR process.


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Correspondence to John van Breda.

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van Breda, J., Swilling, M. The guiding logics and principles for designing emergent transdisciplinary research processes: learning experiences and reflections from a transdisciplinary urban case study in Enkanini informal settlement, South Africa. Sustain Sci 14, 823–841 (2019).

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  • Interdisciplinary research
  • Transdisciplinary research
  • Emergent design
  • Multi-track transdisciplinary processes
  • Boundary objects
  • Social transformation and innovation
  • Transformative knowledge co-production