Our findings are based on 12 thematically different projects. Some of the findings are difficult to understand without linking them to the specific project’s topic. Therefore, for each finding, we indicate the project of origin, using the abbreviations introduced in Table 1. When citing a direct quote, we further differentiate on whether it is a researcher’s (Res) or a practitioner’s (Prac) statement.
Pathways of knowledge transfer
The interviewees mentioned several ways for how knowledge was transferred between TDR projects and cases. They can be grouped along three pathways of knowledge transfer (Fig. 1). Independent of the pathway, a transfer was reported to often involve adapting or further developing knowledge derived in an antecedent context for use in a new context.
The first pathway is an input from other, mostly previous research in various fields—not only TDR—to the case of an actual project (Transfer to case). In Glacier hazards (GLA), early warning technology was used, which had been previously developed elsewhere (GLA Prac-2 427). The Teenage pregnancy project (PREG) adopted an existing resilience framework to approach teenage pregnancy, not as usually done in the sense of a burden, but from a strength-based perspective. The general idea of developing a climatological atlas used in Climate atlas (ATL) had also existed before, as mentioned by a researcher:
“Well the concept can be used anywhere, and it's also not our invention. Atlases of that sort have begun for other countries. We look at these atlases. We take ideas from these atlases. We are not very close, but we are in discussion with other countries in the region to extend [the] project. We do have an advisory board, and there is, for instance, a German scientist who does similar things in Ecuador.” (ATL Res 40)
An additional example is an approach developed for a transdisciplinary teaching format transferred to research. In this regard, Nuclear waste (NUC) used a specific case study approach to tackling environmental problems. The approach had been developed for a master’s degree course (NUC Res 148).
The second pathway of knowledge transfer functions as a conduit between two projects or project parts operating in parallel on the same case (Transfer within a case). Knowledge transfer is thus not restricted to successive projects. For example, in PREG, the research team members conducted the same analysis in two countries in parallel. The ways of dealing with the challenges that emerged during the research were transferred across the different investigated contexts. Thereby, the researchers paid attention to whether the different researchers’ coping strategies could be applied in the other contexts.
The third pathway spans different cases (Transfer across cases). Most of the interviewees’ statements on transferable knowledge referred to applying the knowledge developed in the current case to hypothetical future TDR projects that could be comparable to the current case in various ways. A special type of transfer across cases pertains to geographical or temporal extensions, expansions, or scaling up of (pilot) projects or activities in the next case, a larger one, or in other ways, a more encompassing case. For example, a local practitioner mentioned the strategy of replicating developed models of how to deal with threats from temporary glacial lakes in other places (GLA Prac-2 102, 503, 552).
Additionally, the interviewees often spoke about transferring knowledge from research to practice contexts. We found that this could only be partly understood as knowledge transfer between cases in TDR. A fine line exists between research and non-research activities, which has been drawn differently in the investigated projects: They span a spectrum ranging from practice projects with research components or advice from science to research projects with occasional participation from practice. Following our study’s goals, in this paper, we explicitly exclude knowledge that was stated to be used exclusively in practice and not in another TDR project (Transfer to practice). However, we include means of making knowledge available in practice or ways of organizing a transfer to practice if these means were declared to be in principle applicable in another TDR project.
The interviewees did state that in their view and with respect to their projects, there is knowledge that in principle is transferable. Knowledge generated in TDR that can be used in other cases accordingly includes the following: (1) Transdisciplinary principles, (2) transdisciplinary approaches, (3) systematic procedures, (4) product formats, (5) experiential know-how, (6) framings and (7) insights, data and information (Table 2). It encompasses both knowledge that interviewees reported to have transferred across projects, including all three pathways identified in the preceding section, and knowledge they considered transferable along these pathways. In the following, the different classes of transferable knowledge are described in more detail, and it is explained how they are distinguished from each other.
(1) TD principles
Transdisciplinary principles (TD principles) are nonspecific but key overall fundamentals, learnings, concepts, rationales, values, or rules that can be followed and may be helpful when conducting TDR. Examples of TD principles include the importance of allowing practitioners to contribute their ideas and perspectives on what the key questions are to a project (Urban planning, URB), bringing them on board from the very beginning (NUC), designating local people as the project leaders (ATL), or involving them in the form of designated advisory or support groups (URB), as noted by a researcher:
“What I see as being very, very interesting and positive is the fact that we had this group of researchers and practitioners from the public and private sector that were able to say, ‘That is the relevant research question,’ or ‘That is something you’ve not talked about but I think you should consider it in your research agenda.’ So it’s framing the research question. We had to redraw the frame because of that contribution from this group. It was one point, and I think if I was doing it again I would definitely have a group like that again in any research project.” (URB Res 11)
Other TD principles refer to requirements, such as the recognition of the expertise and the values of the people involved in transdisciplinary processes (Low carbon technologies, TEC) or general procedural flexibility (Peace building, PEACE), as mentioned by a researcher:
“I think really it’s a little bit also learning by doing in the field, finding out what works and what doesn’t work. But then also writing it down, understanding the specific kind of changes that you need to make. And remember that sometimes in the field we were really having meetings and saying, ‘How do we go from here?’ We have this pre-given kind of methodology, but actually here now we can not apply it. ‘Hmm, how do we do this?’” (PEACE Res 83)
TD principles may be thematically open or topic oriented, for example, experience-based principles for natural resource management in conflict situations (Water conflicts, CON). The CON project leaders reported that they identified a set of success principles by reflecting on the TDR project experience. These principles include the need for researchers to really engage in the real-world context, as well as the requirement for long-term engagements.
(2) TD approaches
Like TD principles, transdisciplinary approaches (TD approaches) are unspecific, but procedural in nature, providing rather general guidance on how transdisciplinary processes can be shaped. Different approaches represent particular schools of transdisciplinarity. Examples found include approaches to joint problem identification with the affected community members or to setting up and organising transdisciplinary projects (e.g., Water governance, WGOV). TD approaches also include strategies for building alliances with regional partners, which may lead to partnerships that can be used for follow-up work. TD approaches may be thematically open or topic oriented. Examples for the latter include approaches to water management—setting up “learning watershed” schemes for planning and working on solutions (Water and land knowledge resources centers, WLRC)—or to dealing with glacier hazards through designing and implementing locally well-rooted early warning systems (GLA).
(3) Systematic procedures
Systematic procedures are specific analytical procedures or step-wise instructions providing information on how to collectively derive or gain knowledge. They include methodological developments, adaptations, or new contexts and ways in which such procedures are applied in TRD projects—as opposed to procedures and ways to communicate and use research in practice, which we call product formats. Examples are adapting a hydrological model to a karstic environment (WGOV) or scientific methodologies of generating hazard maps based on coupling various models (GLA), as noted by a researcher:
“the whole methodology [of] how to produce this (…) should be transferable, and then I would say [also] the way how it is handled then further on. But this, I think, is also context-specific to some degree. I mean, to some degree, you can transfer it, but it really depends on how the institutions work, how the whole disaster risk reduction or the emergency setup is taken. So this group, for instance, (…) [maybe] in Nepal, this could be quite different. But still, it might be an interesting event. In Peru, I think, it should be quite transferable, and maybe also in other Latin-American countries.” (GLA Res 49)
In NUC, the idea of conducting repeated monitoring surveys on people’s positions was developed (NUC Prac-1 76). Moreover, the basic democratic process of siting nuclear waste repositories, tailored to the way that a society works (NUC Prac-2 41-42), was stated to be transferable. Other project leaders listed systematic empirical procedures applied as part of theory-based analytical concepts. Working with the resilience framework was reported to have included an empirical step-wise procedure (PREG), for example. TEC developed a guideline describing a procedure for identifying, qualifying and quantifying barriers to technology adoption in collaboration with technology developers and users, using the example of the building sector:
“The guideline is a process for going with you in a three-step process. First, (…) you identify the most important (…) barriers, you identify the most important, or for you, most relevant aspects in these barriers. The second is you qualify these barriers so [that] you understand who creates the barrier, who is the one who owns the barrier, how big it goes within the system, which parts of the system are affected by these barriers, and what could be the effect on other technologies, and the third element is that you quantify [these barriers]. (…) What we also say is for the first two things you need to work with various groups of stakeholders, you cannot do it alone, sitting at your desk. You need to talk those who are involved in your system and this can be transferred to any other system. So if you want to understand what are the barriers for reducing deforestation (…), which is a completely different sector and it would be also geographically different, you could use the same approach: identify these barriers jointly with the different stakeholders and we explain in the guideline also which are the methods that you could use depending on the size of your system, and then you could qualify them with the stakeholders, you can find out which are the most relevant questions for this, and then you can go to quantification.” (TEC Res 73, 90)
Furthermore, two project leaders mentioned qualitative structured system analysis methods and scenario analysis, sensitivity assessment methodologies and stakeholder-related multicriteria assessment (PEACE, NUC). In NUC, the applied procedures served to identify stakeholders’ positions and preferred options, thus involving people in creating their future. Similarly, WGOV used a systematic procedure for participatory visioning, employing spatial thinking to create knowledge about desired futures by translating more or less abstract values into landscapes.
(4) Product formats
Product formats encompass different categories–or formats–of products, in the sense of means and ways to communicate and use research results, intended for use in practice. Transferability means that, in the next project, it may be worthwhile to develop the same or a similar kind of product to communicate or use TDR outputs in practice. Thus, this class of knowledge concerns the form of how a product for using research results is shaped, rather than the very product itself. Examples include various kinds of maps [Claims on land (LAND), GLA, ATL], policy briefs (PREG), organization structures (CON), or courses (LAND, GLA). Capacity-building courses in some cases built add-ons to the actual research while in other cases, they built an integral part of a transdisciplinary project. In the case of GLA, the researchers offered university courses because at local universities, the appropriate education was missing. Although capacity-building activities represent a transfer of scientific expertise into a practical learning context, the idea to incorporate it into TDR was considered transferable to the next project.
The above-mentioned product formats can be distinguished from those that provide instructions on knowledge transfer, such as manuals or guidelines that describe systematic processes and thus facilitate designing, shaping and applying the same or similar procedures in new contexts. Examples include recommendations for organizing climate station observations to support homogenizing data collection (ATL) or guidelines for designing participatory early warning system projects, including but not limited to developing or revising hazard maps, thus facilitating the application of a systematic procedure in a new case or context (GLA).
(5) Experiential know-how
Experiential know-how encompasses personal learning and experiences gained. Some interviewees reported that they transferred or could potentially transfer skills and experiences that they had acquired in one project to other projects. Such learning represents know-how about shaping TDR processes or experience-based insights with emotional components (e.g., how rewarding true collaboration with practitioners can be). In WGOV, a researcher reported that she gained confidence in her own ability to deal with a diverse stakeholder group, which she was able to transfer to other projects (WGOV Res). A practitioner experienced how important it was to act on equal footing with other stakeholders (NUC Prac-1 43, 44, 48). We found that experiential know-how as a subcategory is either embodied by a person such that it cannot easily be passed on or made accessible to and usable for others—i.e. implicit or tacit knowledge—or it consists of learning and personal insights that can be made explicit, shared and thus passed on to others to a large extent.
Issues, problems, or phenomena occurring in a certain context can be defined and described in many different ways and from different perspectives, using various system boundaries and highlighting diverse aspects. Such descriptions are called framings. The framings identified in the 12 projects encompass specific understandings of and meanings ascribed to certain problematic phenomena, substantive concepts, theoretical assumptions and suggestions or ideas on how to conceptualize and structure an issue or phenomenon considered to be problematic. PEACE worked with the idea of relating the human rights discussions in businesses to peace promotion, which is not normally an issue in the private industry. An interesting detail is the fact that the project group introduced the corporate social responsibility concept in the context of low- and middle-income countries, which failed because their respective notions of responsibility were not shared.
“So I think it's important really to come away from the CSR [Corporate Social Responsibility] literature, as it is now, and really try to understand what peace-building elements are there before you apply these. And I think [since] we started to do more research on that, (…) we have a better understanding of the impacts that businesses can have in these kinds of environments. (…) So I think one thing is to really understand what does peace-building mean, more from a donor perspective, and then the second element is really to also be aware of the cultural differences in terms of what is actually the aim of business in society in general.” (PEACE Res 40, 42)
Furthermore, several project leaders listed theory-based and analytical alternative framings of problems among the knowledge that they considered transferable. Examples include strength-based discourse in the field of public health as an alternative to problem-based framings (PREG) or positive-impact approaches to conflict issues, replacing do-no-harm and risk mitigation rationales (PEACE). URB introduced a similar change in perspective by framing health in urban planning based on green space attractiveness instead of green space availability, as illustrated by a researcher:
“… just to give you an example, to come back to this sort of question, how much green space. I said, ‘Listen. That’s not the right question. The right question is, ‘What makes green spaces attractive for people to use them for health promoting behaviours?’” (URB Res 29)
(7) Insights, data and information
Insights, data and information represent concrete TDR project outputs and results which can be transmitted to some extent and under certain conditions. For instance, an ATL project leader listed climate station observation data from Bolivia and south-eastern Peru as potentially transferable. Through the research, higher quality data were provided.
Differentiation between the classes of transferable knowledge
Our results suggest that with classes (1)–(5) a major part of transferable knowledge in TDR consists of knowledge and learnings about TDR, about what is important in TDR, how it can be done, what is helpful to consider in TDR processes and how results and outcomes can be made usable for specific target audiences, i.e. knowledge on a meta level. They relate to conducting TDR, although they are not all completely procedural in nature but also include elements as regards content like, e.g. underlying values. Classes (1)–(3), transdisciplinary principles, transdisciplinary approaches and systematic procedures all relate to methodology but clearly differ with respect to their specificity and systematicity. One could argue that by definition, classes (1) and (2) encompass the other classes since they are of an overarching nature. However, the other classes, which are needed for the application of TD principles and approaches in doing research, do entail more specific information than the first two–which remain largely general. Therefore, it is useful to explicitly distinguish those from the TD principles and approaches as such.
Two out of the seven classes of transferable knowledge, namely (6) and (7) predominantly encompass case and context specific outcomes and learnings. We distinguish between framings that provide the conceptual basis, and insights, data and information as concrete research results.
General characteristics of transferable knowledge
From the interviews, we conclude that while knowledge is in principle transferable, not every knowledge of a given class (e.g., not every specific framing or systematic procedure as such) is transferable to another case. According to our study, whether or not knowledge of a certain class is transferable is therefore not a “yes-or-no” question. The identified knowledge is stated to be transferable while being context sensitive to some degree (e.g., GLA). Transferability seems to be bound to certain circumstances or conditions. Even on the level of TD principles, transferability has its limits, as they relate to a certain school or understanding of TDR or co-production of knowledge. Furthermore, transfer was reported to sometimes involve adapting or further developing knowledge for use in a new context.
We found a set of characteristics of transferable knowledge that might be relevant for their actual transferability (see also Table 3):
Development level (immature–mature). Depending on how strongly elaborated, tested and established the knowledge is, when transferred to a different case it either involves quite some experimentation or comes with a lot of clarity and explanatory power but may also entail more constraints with respect to transferability.
Specificity (general–specific). Depending on how specific or general the knowledge is—and in which respect(s) —, it is primarily transferable to similar or completely different cases and contexts.
Adaptability (rigid–flexible). Transferable knowledge can be flexible and can thus rather easily be adapted to a new case and context, whereas if rigid, knowledge must be transferred as it is.
Complexity (simple–complex). Encompassing knowledge that conceptualizes many elements and aspects of a case requires all these elements to be taken into account in the new case.
As our results suggest, whether or not knowledge is transferable requires a decision on a case-by-case basis since it seems to depend not only on the particularities of the case with its context but also on the knowledge’s specific characteristics. Several interviewees’ reasoning indicated that such characteristics play a role for considering knowledge transfers.