The university campus as a transdisciplinary living laboratory

By Dena Fam, Abby Mellick Lopes, Alexandra Crosby and Katie Ross

authors_dena-fam,_abby-mellick-lopes_alexandra-crosby_katie -ross
1. Dena Fam (biography)
2. Abby Mellick Lopes (biography)
3. Alexandra Crosby (biography)
4. Katie Ross (biography)

How can transdisciplinary educators help students reflexively understand their position in the field of research? Often this means giving students the opportunity to go beyond being observers of social reality to experience themselves as potential agents of change.

To enable this opportunity, we developed a model for a ‘Transdisciplinary Living Lab’ (Fam et al., forthcoming).This builds on the concept of a collaborative test bed of innovative approaches to a problem or situation occurring in a ‘living’ social environment where end-users are involved. For us, the social environment is the university campus. We involved two universities in developing this model – the University of Technology Sydney and Western Sydney University. We aimed to help students explore food waste management systems on campus and to consider where the interventions they designed were situated within global concerns, planetary boundaries and the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

The Transdisciplinary Living Lab was designed and delivered in three largely distinct, yet iterative phases, scaling from individual experiences to a global problem context. These phases of the living lab, which work to integrate personal and professional knowledge and practice, are also shown in the figure below:

1. Entering the living lab was the phase where students were introduced to collaborative teamwork processes, expectations of joint problem formulation and critical reflection on their own position within the system being explored: ‘digging where they stand’. This meant helping students consider their relationships with the food waste system as consumers of food and producers of waste, as well as their potential impact as designers of interventions in that system.

2. Transdisciplinary learning was the second phase where students were introduced to the concept of research as a process of system intervention, as well as skills for co-producing and integrating knowledge in collaboration with diverse partners in the food system. For the Transdisciplinary Living Lab at the University of Technology Sydney this meant listening to, questioning and collaborating with relevant stakeholders in the system to investigate historical and current approaches to the issue, and exploring precedents for dealing with food waste in other parts of the world. Central to this phase was ensuring the sharing of knowledge among the students as it was produced. This meant organising a publically accessible class blog that can be viewed at and weekly debriefs and discussions on insights gained.

3. Global context was introduced to students through the UN Sustainable Development Goals, along with the concepts of planetary boundaries, and systems leverage points. These provided guiding frameworks for developing, refining and justifying their interventions, articulating the global impact of local practice and defining the implementation and assessment of the societal and scientific outcomes of the interventions they designed.

Overview of key stages of skills development in the Transdisciplinary Living Lab model (Fam et al., forthcoming, adapted from Hummels, 2011)

Have readers used the campus as a living laboratory and site for transdisciplinary learning? If so, how have these learning experiences been structured?

We look forward to hearing your experiences!

To find out more:
Fam D., Mellick Lopes A., Crosby A. and Ross K. (Forthcoming 2018). The Transdisciplinary Living Lab Model (TDLL), Universities as Living Labs for Sustainable Development: Supporting the Implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals. Springer World Sustainability Series.

Hummels, C. (2011). Teaching attitudes, skills, approaches, structure and tools. In B. Van Abel, R. Klaassen, L. Evers and P. Troxler (eds). Open Design Now, Amsterdam, The Netherlands: 162-167. Online:

Biography: Dena Fam PhD is a Research Director at the Institute for Sustainable Futures at the University of Technology Sydney, Australia. 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: Abby Mellick Lopes PhD is a senior lecturer in design and an interdisciplinary researcher at the Institute for Culture and Society at Western Sydney University in Sydney, Australia. Her research focuses on the relationship between design and social arrangements to support the transition to more sustainable cultures and economies, tackling issues such as civic trust in drinking water, food economies, the impact of development trends on urban heat and cultures of repair. She collaborates with a wide range of academic, industry and government partners and has published extensively on sustainable design and transdisciplinarity.

Biography: Alexandra Crosby PhD is a Senior Lecturer in the Faculty of Design Architecture and Building at the University of Technology Sydney, Australia. She also directs the Interdisciplinary Design program. Her background is in visual communications and the ethnographic methods of international studies, focusing on the cultures of Indonesia. She works in the transdisciplinary research studio Mapping Edges.

Biography: Katie Ross is curious about ways to create change towards sustainable futures. She wonders what types of strategies and approaches work well in certain situations, and what ‘palette’ of processes lead to the most meaningful and well directed change. Luckily, she is a Research Principal at the Institute for Sustainable Futures within the University of Technology Sydney, Australia, where she can explore this daily. She specializes in transdisciplinary action research and learning that agitates for change in social, technical and governance systems. She brings almost two decades of experience in the sustainability sector and is currently a doctoral candidate, exploring processes of transformative learning for sustainability.

5 thoughts on “The university campus as a transdisciplinary living laboratory”

  1. In addition to Ali’s comment on relationships developed between student teams and university staff, students also had the opportunity from the very beginning of the lab till the end of the 13 week program to engage with industry partners, this was in the shape of an informal Q&A session, a half day discussion on sharing perspectives on current and future innovation in food waste system and periodic and final evaluation by industry partners on students’ final design throughout the lab…

  2. I read this blog with some interest. I am new to the field of Team Science, yet fascinated that this field has formed. I’ll be at the Science of Team Science conference in Galveston, Texas USA and will be all ears for how what I call ‘process’ is utilized to enhance the research in this fertile field.

    Can you tell me anything about how relationships are actually built through the laboratory other than just doing the research? In other words, do you take time upfront to help participants get to know each other on a personal and professional level prior to when the research gets started?

    • Hi Linda, the undergraduate students we worked with needed quite a bit of time upfront to help them get to know each other. But rather than doing standard ‘ice breaker’ type exercises, we focused on food waste from the beginning. So students mapped and shared their food waste systems at home before thinking about campus. This is what we meant by ‘digging where they stand’. For the other participants, such as staff at the university, these relationships were built during the second stage. One of my favourite parts of this process was doing a walk through of the waste system on campus and speaking with all the people involved at different points of the system. Hope this helps. The conference looks great!


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