Designing for impact in transdisciplinary research

By Cynthia Mitchell, Dena Fam and Dana Cordell

Cynthia Mitchell (biography)

Starting with richly articulated pictures of where we would like to be at some defined point in the future has powerful consequences for any human endeavour. How can we use such “Outcome Spaces” to guide the conception, design, implementation, and evaluation of transdisciplinary research?

Our Outcome Spaces Framework (Mitchell et al., 2017) considers three essential impacts:

(1) improving the situation,
(2) generating relevant stocks and flows of knowledge, and
(3) mutual and transformational learning by the researcher/s and involved participants.

1. Improving the situation

Dena Fam (biography)

Language matters, and our choice of the term ‘situation’ is deliberate because it helps us and our partners recognise and engage systemically with mess and complexity whilst avoiding implicit notions of one-shot solutions to problems. Instead, we are seeking a discernible difference – a tangible and articulable improvement in institutional or physical conditions at whatever level (such as strategic, tactical, or operational levels) is appropriate.

2. Generating Stocks and Flows of Knowledge

Dana Cordell (biography)

Flows of knowledge are as important as stocks of knowledge when the goal is to create change. Stocks include tangible and accessible knowledge artefacts, from peer-reviewed publications and reports to blogs, apps, and social media. Flows relate to how knowledge moves eg., between disciplines, between academic and professional practice, from within the project to outside – it’s about designing-in mechanisms by which memes of transdisciplinary research insights are transported and transferred between people of shared and different worldviews. That means paying attention to the form and placement of knowledge artefacts, matching them with audiences in the right way at the right time. All of this raises questions about what and whose knowledges are valid.

3. Mutual and Transformational Learning

In the best of all transdisciplinary research worlds, everybody learns – researchers and participants learn from and with each other in an environment that enables the depth of reflection necessary to achieve deeper conceptual change associated with transition and transformation, allowing the goals that govern decision-making to be redefined. This level and quality of learning leaves a legacy on the strategies and actions of the individuals, project participants and organisations involved.

Conceptual map of the three outcome spaces (1. Situation; 2. Knowledge; 3. Learning) indicating a transdisciplinary project embedded in the broader landscape (Mitchell et al., 2017).

We see these outcome spaces as distinct but overlapping, which can lead to tensions, especially about where to focus efforts when resources such as time and budgets are constrained. On the plus side, the overlaps can be mutually reinforcing, such as when the learning that researchers experience leads to new journal publication opportunities.

Context matters, because it influences the ontological, epistemological, and axiological orientations in play. We therefore provide a sketch of the landscape from which this framework emerged. The mission of the Institute for Sustainable Futures at the University of Technology Sydney is to create change towards sustainable futures. We are a self-funding research institute, conducting project-based research either through higher degrees or funded by fees-for-service and grants. Our transdisciplinary research is normative and seeks to engage government, industry, community and other research stakeholders in the process of inquiry and knowledge production, because we believe these are powerful means for creating change and improving the social robustness of academic research.


Collaboratively identifying the preferred outcomes in these distinct spaces ahead of time can provide discernible benefits. A significant contribution is the potential to reveal, categorise, articulate, and evaluate the impact of research. There is increasing interest in Australia and internationally on how to measure the impact of research and ensure research has wider economic and social benefits. The Outcome Spaces Framework provides one way of considering how to deliberately design a pathway to impact in practice.

For the research team, articulating the project-specific outcome spaces provides a set of principles for process decisions throughout the project life-cycle: defining the purpose of improving the situation at conception influences who is involved and how they are engaged, for example. For research clients, collaborators and participants, the framework can help to ameliorate assumptions about the rarefied nature of research, potentially changing stakeholders’ perceptions about what research is, and assumptions about how to fund and manage research.

We recognise that this approach to transdisciplinary research has a particular epistemological and ontological orientation. What do you think about this orientation? How have you approached transdisciplinary research impact? How has this been influenced by your organisational context?

Mitchell, C., Cordell, D. and Fam, D. (2017). Beginning at the end: The outcome spaces framework to guide purposive transdisciplinary research. In, D. Fam, J. Palmer, C. Riedy and C. Mitchell (Eds.). Transdisciplinary Research and Practice for Sustainability Outcomes, Routledge: London, United Kingdom: 25-38.

Biography: Cynthia Mitchell is Deputy Director and Professor of Sustainability at the Institute for Sustainable Futures at the University of Technology Sydney, where she has been pioneering transdisciplinary research since 2001, principally in learning, water services and international development. She is a Fellow of the Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering. Her passion for improving our collective ability to articulate, do, and value transdisciplinary research began when an engineering professor said of her research student’s work, ‘I just can’t see a PhD in this’, and an education professor said ‘I can see three’.

Biography: Dena Fam is a Research Director at the Institute for Sustainable Futures at the University of Technology Sydney. Over the last decade she has worked with industry, government and community actors to collaboratively manage, design, research and trial alternative water and sanitation systems with the aim of sustainably managing sewage and reducing its environmental impact on the water cycle. Her consulting/research experience has spanned socio-cultural (learning for sustainability) institutional (policy analysis), and technological aspects of environmental management. With experience in transdisciplinary project development, she has been involved in developing processes for transdisciplinary teaching and learning, in particular methods/techniques supporting the development of transdisciplinary educational programs and projects.

Biography: Dana Cordell is a Research Director at the Institute for Sustainable Futures at the University of Technology Sydney. She leads and undertakes international and national research projects on sustainable food and resource futures. Many projects involve high-level stakeholder engagement to improve societal relevance and foster mutual learning. She co-founded and leads the Global Phosphorus Research Initiative – the first global platform to undertake transdisciplinary research, policy and public engagement to ensure food systems are resilient to the emerging global challenge of phosphorus scarcity. She has been awarded an Australian Eureka Prize for Environmental Research, and listed in the Australian Financial Review/Westpac 100 Women of Influence.

4 thoughts on “Designing for impact in transdisciplinary research”

  1. Differences about what is valuable (the axiological stuff?) can lead to a simple but devastating consequence. It can lead to information, knowledge, intelligence, insights (whatever you choose to call it) being passed between collaborators and parked (because the receivers or even the senders do not ‘get’ the value) rather than shared in an active sense, with each collaborator really working at uncovering, sharing and exploiting any value that may exist but be hidden by collaborators’ biases, assumptions, prejudices and priorities. Most breakthroughs are exactly that: they break through the tyranny of expected outcomes (but only when people are willing to risk ‘wasting time’, and perhaps their reputations, on exploring them).

  2. The key is to state “where we would like to be at T(n)” not in terms of of us but in terms of the Effects we want to have had or be having on our context. Example for producers of enterprise systems is to envision the effects the user of your system will have on their customers, suppliers and competitors.

  3. Apart from your “choice of the term ‘situation’ “, are there any features of this approach that leave space for emergent insights and identification of alternative possible end points? I might not have grasped all the details but it does come across as if the end you seek is to be predefined, with lots of input but still completed in advance of moves to deliver it, and complexity only comes into the way you seek to achieve it, which I should think risks limiting both the breadth and extent of change.

    I’ve been reading and thinking about evaluation that allows for complex emergence and have yet to come across a comprehensive approach that I could see working. I suspect that it requires not just fresh thinking about evaluation but also a different approach to formulating strategic and tactical objectives, a shift towards identifying a preferred direction rather than a required end point.

    So long as dominant funders and decision makers confine their support to efforts based on business case style justification, emergent possibilities will be confined to the subset of all possible futures that wind up at the predetermined end point. Some of the synergy that might flow from interdisciplinary research seems likely then to be locked out.

    • This framework does allow emergence to happen and reap the benefits beyond the predefined outcomes: [Moderator note, in October 2021, this link was non-functional and was deleted: (politicsandideas[dot]org… contextmatters… index)]
      Best, Mukesh


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