I’ve used some of the break over Christmas and the New Year to reflect on my research and what I’m trying to achieve (research purpose). A reoccurring thought over recent months has been that I ought to more clearly ‘locate’ what I’m doing in the emerging sustainability science field. As a consequence, I’ve been reading papers by some innovative researchers in this space such as Arnim Wiek, Cynthia Selin, and Thaddeus R. Miller (all associated with Arizona State University’s School of Sustainability), and Lennart Olsson, as well as their co-authors such as Daniel Sarewitz, John Robinson, and Derk Loorback. In this post I will detail some themes in this literature (e.g. about the characteristics of transdisciplinary research) and questions regarding transdisciplinary and forward-looking research activities.
Most of the papers I’ve looked at argue transdisciplinary research has a few core elements:
- Greater participation of stakeholders
- Problem orientation
- Solution orientation
A great overview paper on ‘Transdisciplinary research in sustainability science’ defines transdisciplinarity as: “a reflexive, integrative, method-driven scientific principle aiming at the solution or transition of societal problems and concurrently of scientific problems by differentiating and integrating knowledge from various scientific and societal bodies of knowledge”. A few aspects of this definition jumped out at me: the focus on reflexivity, methods focus, and the problem and solutions orientation.
Two key questions that “bubbled up” over the break are: 1) whether scenario exercises – or other prospective exercises – provide an effective way of doing transdisciplinary sustainability research, and under what conditions; and 2) what key challenges need to be addressed (e.g. for achieving and tracking real-world impacts), and what techniques can be used to address them?
In my experience, good quality scenario analysis demands highly interdisciplinary thinking and analysis – e.g. think of the different disciplines that conduct research on various ‘STEEP’ topics (Social, Technological, Environmental, Economic, and Political phenomena) and their complex interconnections. I’ve also often discussed with colleagues how breadth in futures analysis seems to come at the cost of depth – such concerns are at the heart of my critical reading of many papers in special issue of On the Horizon discussing Slaughter’s book Biggest Wake-Up Call in History.
This generally seems to be amplified in sustainability research. An important example is resource scarcity. E.g. Assessments of oil supply/price risks demands knowledge of geology, economics, engineering, and application of political science frameworks, as well as resource availability and technology development. Most analysts only have strong knowledge of some parts of the more complex whole. Also crucial is the relationships between energy availability and costs, economic growth and innovation. The solutions side also often demands inter- and transdisciplinary modes of analysis and action – such as for improving energy efficiency (e.g. green buildings) or better enabling energy innovation, and in decision-making about science, technology and innovation.
Intriguingly, some researchers who worked on the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment argue that scenarios provide a method for integrating epistemologies. They point out that the study of social, economic, and ecological phenomena is often discrete, rather than examining the links between them as attempted in sustainability science. They also argue that there are few practical methods for integrating the many perspectives needed to understand social-ecological systems.
Also relevant is the discussion in ‘Transdisciplinary research in sustainability science’. The authors frame transdisciplinary research as addressing the need for new modes of knowledge production and decision-making. The former refers to the need for more participatory procedures. Some practitioners of transdisciplinary research have sought to examine its influence on the decision-making capacity of stakeholders (e.g. via social network building and the generation of knowledge relevant for action). Similarly, futures researchers and practitioners generally position such techniques as tools for better decision-making, seeing this as the primary aim. This, thus, also provides possible links.
Some researchers (e.g. Bob Frame) have argued that prospective techniques can be used to enable new modes of knowledge production. Frame argues that some can provide techniques for achieving greater participation in order to “co-produce” knowledge for sustainability. (His broader argument is that post-normal ‘social technologies’ are needed which act as “heuristic instruments” [his terms]).
However, like the applied/strategic foresight space, evaluative practice on sustainability science remains nascent (Wiek et al 2012). To my knowledge no one has comprehensively examined methods like scenario-building and analysis as transdisciplinary research methods (being used as better understand and address sustainability problems) – along with the impacts of such exercises, e.g. how they do/don’t translate into action. Nor to my knowledge have researchers examined in-detail how the challenges of transdisciplinary research are handled within such exercises.
A final way to think about this is to consider the current state of sustainability science. Wiek et al (2012) argue that “sustainability science is still characterized by the quest of how to move from complex systems thinking [a descriptive/analytical mode] to transformational change” (p.7). Both are described as including forward-looking aspects. The former considers how coupled human–environment systems have evolved (in the past) and might further develop (in the future). The latter is solutions-oriented, examining normative questions regarding desired ways that coupled human–environment systems would function and might look like (i.e. in compliance with value-laden goals and objectives) as well as strategic and operational questions that explore potential transition pathways for getting there.
Further and unanswered questions
Nearly two decades ago Wendell Bell argued that futures studies should be understood as a transdisciplinary action science (as part of his attempt to provide a more rigorous and systematic basis for futures inquiry in the book Foundations of Futures Studies). Since then we’ve seen greater use of tools like scenario thinking and analysis in sustainability research and related domains, but little detailed evaluative research (e.g. formative evaluation or summative evaluation).
It seems to me that the question of whether scenario exercises – or other prospective exercises – provide an effective way of doing transdisciplinary sustainability research requires far greater consideration of: cognitive processes and outcomes (both as barriers and in terms of cognitive development), learning barriers and effects, and broader socio-political impacts. Some research has sought to explore each of these areas, but few robust assessments have been done. Moreover, more is needed to clarify the challenges that need to be overcome to achieve good results and the related implications such as for methodology, broader process design, and for facilitation.
This also requires attention to multiple levels of analysis: the individual level (e.g. changes in cognitive styles, individual learning), and the social levels (i.e. broader social effects).
Additionally, as Lang et al 2012 point out (in ‘Transdisciplinary research in sustainability science’), there is a need to better understand context conditions and their implications for transdisciplinary research projects. They discuss how transdisciplinary sustainability research is always embedded in specific contexts (socially embedded) and the importance of different cultural contexts. In addition, sociological theory may be of use in better understanding context conditions (e.g. social field theory).