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Learning to collaborate while collaborating: advancing interdisciplinary sustainability research

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Interdisciplinary collaboration has become mainstream practice for sustainability researchers. However, interdisciplinary research teams encounter numerous challenges for which they may find themselves under-prepared. In this article, we challenge the often-held assumption that researchers already know how to collaborate when entering interdisciplinary research teams and argue that, if we want to enhance interdisciplinary sustainability research, we need to take collaboration and its challenges seriously. First, we suggest thinking about interdisciplinary research collaborations as spaces that comprise epistemic, social, symbolic, spatial, and temporal dimensions and that produce different degrees of comfort and discomfort for researchers. Thinking about collaborations in this way supports a more systematic understanding of collaborative challenges. Second, we make a proposal for learning to collaborate while collaborating, so as to tackle challenges of interdisciplinary research. Drawing on a literature review and on experiences in the project Leverage Points for Sustainability Transformation, we argue for advancing collaborative interdisciplinary research for sustainability by creating and engaging in collaborations in ways that prioritize learning to collaborate. We outline a strategy for learning to collaborate while collaborating, which implies: (1) creating conditions for learning to take place, which includes paying attention to discomfort as a trigger for learning and (2) engaging in collaborations in ways that strengthen researchers’ collaborative capacities by cultivating particular orientations, knowledge and skills. The fundamental inquiry is whether and how learning to collaborate has a role in more fully realizing the inspiring potentials and ambitious goals of interdisciplinary research for sustainability.

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The authors warmly thank the Leverage Points research team for creating the formative accompanying research role and for their unstinting openness. We thank Ulli Vilsmaier and Daniel Lang for their feedback on previous drafts of this article. This research is supported by the Volkswagenstiftung and the Niedersächsisches Ministerium für Wissenschaft und Kultur (Grant number A112269) as well as by a Marie Curie fellowship (Grant number 752135).

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Correspondence to Rebecca Freeth.

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Handled by J. David Tàbara, Institute of Environmental Science and Technology, Spain.

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Freeth, R., Caniglia, G. Learning to collaborate while collaborating: advancing interdisciplinary sustainability research. Sustain Sci 15, 247–261 (2020).

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