Scaffolding transdisciplinary contributions

By Roderick Lawrence

Roderick Lawrence (biography)

What do we mean by “scaffolding” and how is it used in transdisciplinary research?

Scaffolding is a metaphor transferred from building construction and used in pedagogy and teaching methods since the 1970s to assist learning processes. This metaphor has also been applied to multi-stakeholder processes that require collective decision making about complex societal challenges including conflictual situations. In this context scaffolding is used in deliberative processes, identifying those constituents that require facilitation, and selecting the appropriate methods and tools to achieve desired outcomes.

Scaffolding is increasingly recognized as necessary to assist bridge building between people, especially in transdisciplinary research and project implementation about complex situations and persistent problems that have no simple solutions. Scaffolding is required because there is no ideal or universal method for cross-fertilizing different perceptions and values in these cases. Scaffolding acknowledges that tools and methods exist and that they need to be carefully understood and adapted to the situation or problem addressed, and to the specific characteristics of its context, including the group of participants in the research project.

(Source: Roderick Lawrence)

One example of scaffolding in transdisciplinary research and project implementation occurs in addressing differences that may be conflictual. Thomas Jordan (2014) explained that interpersonal dialogue and shared understanding can be facilitated by scaffolding that supports collective thinking and co-action of a diverse group of participants with diverse backgrounds. He listed the advantages of scaffolding according to six key functions (each including several subcomponents, which are not presented here):

  1. Enabling attention support and group focusing
  2. Enhancing communication and interpersonal relationships
  3. Expressing personal attitudes, feelings and promoting group engagement
  4. Improving awareness and understanding while creating common-ground
  5. Promoting personal empowerment and mobilizing creativity
  6. Coordinating decision-making and implementation of desired outcomes.

These are active scaffolding processes. Passive factors (such as the organization of spaces for group discussions), are also important. For example, well-known and documented methods for collaborative action research include:

  • Open Space
  • World Café
  • Research Circles.

Scaffolding denotes prescribing the social and physical characteristics of spaces where members of consortia from different backgrounds meet to discuss subjects of mutual concern. Scaffolding also includes virtual spaces provided by new information and communication technologies that enable contact between the members of consortia when they are not present together.

Scaffolding used to facilitate transdisciplinary research and project implementation should be broader in scope and purpose than a focus on toolboxes (methods and tools) to involve the competences and skills of facilitators. Numerous projects illustrate how facilitators guide deliberative processes involving many participants who do not necessarily share common perceptions, meanings and values. Scaffolding increases our capability to respond effectively to these situations and problems.

What has been your experience in using scaffolding in multi-stakeholder projects? Do you have published cases you would like to share with others?

To find out more:
Lawrence, R. (2020). Creating Built Environments: Bridging Knowledge and Practice Divides. Routledge: London, United Kingdom. (Book details:)

This book builds on my previous blog post Three tasks for transdisciplinary bridge builders and includes analysis and synthesis of numerous transdisciplinary projects that collectively illustrate the advantages and limitations of innovative cases in the broad field of built environments in an era of globalization and urbanization.

Jordan, T. (2014). Deliberative Methods for Complex Issues: A typology of functions that may need scaffolding, Group Facilitation: A Research and Applications Journal, 13: 50-71.

Biography: Roderick Lawrence D.Sc. is Honorary Professor in the Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Geneva in Switzerland. He was awarded a DSc by Ecole polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) in Switzerland. He has been a member of the Scientific Advisory Board for Interdisciplinary and Transdisciplinary Research at the Swiss Academy of Sciences since 2009.

17 thoughts on “Scaffolding transdisciplinary contributions”


    This commentary discusses why scaffolding should support synthesis of the multiple types of knowledge and ways of knowing that are combined creatively in transdisciplinary projects.

    My recent book Creating Built Environments: Bridging Knowledge and Practice Divides (Routledge) discusses and illustrates the plurality of types of knowledge and ways of knowing that should be incorporated in transdisciplinary projects. Acknowledging this plurality is a necessary step before deciphering the multi-dimensional nature of real-world challenges, specific situations, and persistent problems. I have described how combining multiple types of knowledge and ways of knowing require the capacity and skills of synthesis. Synthesis is a cognitive process that creates combinations of components by deciphering the interrelations and connections that form a compound and congruent whole. Examples of how this has been achieved in the field of built environments are included in each chapter of the book.

    Transdisciplinary projects can comprehensively understand a specific situation or persistent problem before deciding what response is considered appropriate. The situation or problem can be analyzed in terms of its components and the interrelations between them and other external factors using multiple types of knowledge and ways of knowing. In order to proceed from analysis to synthesis during a project, incompatibility and differences about the subject of concern should be identified and understood before they are discussed. Differences that can be considered in-commensurable may be bridged by negotiations that create some degree of congruence. This means that personal and collective intentions, motives, perceptions and values should be addressed in relation to scientific facts, professional know-how and experiential knowledge. When differences and disagreements exist, agreements can be reached about specific issues if compromises and trade-offs are accepted by project participants. This requires the competences and skills of a facilitator who is trained to provide scaffolding for dialogue and negotiation processes.

    I recall that the capacity of synthesis was stressed in my undergraduate training in architecture and urban planning. A core reader was Christopher Alexander’s Notes on the Synthesis of Form (1964). Alexander, a mathematician and a professional architect educated at Harvard University, described the creative capacity of the human mind to design artifacts, including built environments and software, noting that synthesis is inherent in creative and relational thinking. His seminal contribution to design methodologies confirmed that synthetic ordering can accommodate diversity and plurality, rather than ignoring differences.

    The fundamental contribution of synthesis is sorely needed to formulate and implement effective responses to societal challenges in our world dominated by administrative, cultural, disciplinary, political and professional boundaries, that reflect and reinforce compartmentalization, specialization, and divisions between knowledge and practice. Valerie Brown (2010) requested a reconciliation of knowledge cultures. She has proposed and applied the convergence and synthesis of five knowledge cultures that have been used during community-based projects about sustainable development. Her proposed congruence of knowledge cultures includes knowing-in-practice, and spiritual and tacit knowledge, that form a compound whole which she represents as a mandala. Notably, each type of knowledge, know-how and other ways of knowing has a specific and unique contribution.

    Transdisciplinary contributions should transgress the boundaries of scientific knowledge, and break free of disciplinary confinement and preconceived ideas, then accept multiple sometimes divergent viewpoints about societal challenges, specific situations, or persistent problems prior to agreeing on effective responses to them. Synthesis is an essential cognitive processes that contributes to the formulation of these responses.

    Further readings

    Alexander, C. (1964). Notes on the Synthesis of Form. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press.

    Brown, V. (2010). Collective Inquiry and Its Wicked Problems. In V. Brown, J. Harris & J. Russell (eds). Tackling Wicked Problems Through the Transdisciplinary Imagination, pp.61-83. London & Washington DC: Earthscan.

    Lawrence, R. (2010). Beyond Disciplinary Confinement to Transdisciplinarity. In V. Brown, J. Harris & J. Russell (eds.) Tackling Wicked Problems Through the Transdisciplinary Imagination, pp16-30. London & Washington DC: Earthscan.

  2. This commentary considers the supportive functions that scaffolding should aim to fulfill during transdisciplinary urban projects. It uses the comprehensive typology of facilitation functions formulated by Thomas Jordan (this blog, 1.09.2020) and considers its pertinence based on the analysis of projects achieved since 2015 and included in my recent book Creating Built Environments: Bridging Knowledge and Practice Divides (Routledge). The second part of the book includes chapters about conceptual frameworks, methods and techniques that have been used in transdisciplinary built environment projects.

    My interpretation of transdisciplinarity is different from that delimited by either interdisciplinary collaboration, or the co-production of knowledge by researchers and practitioners, or participatory action research. I have proposed that transdisciplinary projects involve analysis and synthesis of several types of scientific and professional knowledge that should be considered conjointly with ways of extra-scientific knowing, including ‘knowing-in-practice’ and tacit knowledge of laypeople. Consequently, the scaffolding chosen by a project facilitator should account for the competences and skills of participants to communicate and synthesis different types of knowledge about a subject.

    Beginning with the 6 functional categories and 24 functions of facilitation that Thomas Jordan proposed, I briefly summarize my experience and understanding of group facilitation processes for complex built environment projects that involve participants with diverse backgrounds who collaborate on problematic issues that have no simple resolution. Sometimes, I have modified the names of the functional categories, or the tasks of some functions, to express a personal viewpoint about their content and importance based on my experience and synthesis of transdisciplinary urban projects.

    1: Facilitate Individual Involvement/Participation
    The first category of functions concerns supporting a focused attention on the issue of concern; clarifying ideas and preferences; structuring the work process; recording incremental learning to indicate progress; and identifying the assumed (sometimes dogmatic) positions of participants prior to supporting their willingness to consider other approaches and ideas. Based on my experience and synthesis, these functions can be realized if mutual respect and trust are achieved, and this cannot be taken for granted when heterogeneous groups discuss complex projects.

    In addition, I propose that functions of facilitation should maintain the focus of the group by identifying the purpose of collaboration and the expectations of the participants. Then the key components of knowledge about the project and how these components relate to each other can be discussed. This enables the project team to agree on pertinent issues that need considering; it also enables each participant to propose issues based on different types of knowledge and personal views; and then identify shared concerns that the group agrees to consider. These related functions can be achieved if participants are willing to talk and share; and listen and learn from each other. Mutual exchange and learning can be nurtured by a facilitator: Why questions, for example, can be used to prompt participants to state the reasons for their opinions and preferences and help them realize the human values they communicate to others.

    2: Facilitate Interpersonal Relationships
    This category of functions includes creating a neutral space for collaboration during the project; enabling interpersonal relationships between participants with different backgrounds; nurturing in-depth conversation rather than superficial talk; encouraging participants to share their pertinent experiential knowledge and opinions; and facilitating discussion about diverse sometimes conflicting views that prevent bargaining positions.

    A key reason for facilitation in ‘convergence spaces’ is that people from diverse backgrounds are considered as partners and their contribution is pertinent. Notably, diverse types of knowledge and ways of knowing are the ingredients of a ‘trans-anthropo-logic’ derived from the holistic and systemic conceptual framework of human ecology and used implicitly and explicitly during these projects. Hence, the human expectations, motives, perceptions, and values of all participants should be presented and discussed, and a trained facilitator can guide this communicative process.

    3: Promote Adherence and Sustain Commitment
    The third category refers to maintaining energy and participation by counteracting boredom, lack of initiative and passiveness; mobilising and maintaining commitment; shifting from blaming and focusing on problems to proposing plausible possibilities; enlarging the viewpoint of participants beyond personal interests and dogmatism.

    Based on my experience and the synthesis of urban projects, the following tasks of a facilitator can promote adherence and commitment of participants, especially laypeople who offer their unpaid time and rarely speak in public forums. One task is to understand why the project is important for the participants, the local community, and publics elsewhere. Personal and collective engagement can be supported by recording the content of sessions and documenting decisions that indicate progress; then ensuring open access to a ‘living library’ for all participants who wish to consult relevant documents about the project. This kind of support can promote accountability by continual updating a project database and information platform after each meeting or session.

    Time for reflection during these projects is rarely supported by funding. However, individual reflection and collective thinking (discussed earlier in this blog) are important because they enhance adherence and commitment, especially when they are considered as being complementary; facilitation using visual representations of various kinds can strengthen the relations between individual and collective ideas, meanings, perceptions and values.

    4: Raise Individual and Collective Awareness
    This category of functions includes clarifying important needs, preferences and values; raising awareness and understanding by relational and systems thinking; identifying contextual and external variables and the interrelations between them; involving all stakeholders, their interests, influence and viewpoints; discussing the pertinence of different perspectives and what they share.

    In addition, it is crucial to ensure that data, information and other types of knowledge that are relevant are available at the appropriate time. This means that accessibility to all these sources is necessary before analysis and synthesis of them enables the group to decide what sources are pertinent for their project, and whether relevant data and information are missing. Distinctions between empirical facts and personal opinions should be understood. Complex data sets and information should be communicated in nontechnical formats that laypeople can understand. Dialogue and negotiation processes based on reliable data and information can increase the credibility, legitimacy and salience of selected subjects, how they are interpreted collectively, and decisions taken about them.

    5: Understand Power Relations and Facilitate Empowerment
    The fifth category refers to the inclusion of all participants and expressions of their competences, knowledge and values; supporting creative ideas and alternative visions; neutralizing asymmetries of power between participants. Promoting collective ownership and responsibility rather than dependence on hierarchical project leadership is also pertinent.

    These functions are achieved by what Thomas Jordan called active/behavioural and passive/structural scaffolding. My experience confirms the need for facilitators to maintain a ‘level playing field’ by ensuring a fair situation in which nobody has an advantage over other participants. This can be achieved by defining and agreeing on ‘rules of the game’ at the outset (e.g. no one will interrupt a speaker even if they disagree with them).

    It is not uncommon for leaders and funders of urban projects to confuse public consultations with citizen participation whereas the distinctions between them were clearly explained over 50 years ago by Sherry Arnstein (1969). It is only fair and just that participants should be told at the outset whether their contribution is a consultative one that needs to be endorsed by public or private institutions. It is also important to clarify what components of a project are negotiable and what are not (e.g. legally binding rules and institutional arrangements are rarely negotiable).

    6: Decide for Implementation
    The last category concerns guiding discussions that account for different ideas, opinions and values that lead to agreements and decisions that can be implemented; the facilitator can explain what is the best alternative to a non-agreement; the implications of compromises and trade-offs should be understood by all participants; the formulation of a plausible ‘action plan’ should be facilitated.

    Finally, at the beginning of the project, the participants should have assurances that their contribution will have a social impact. This requires a social contact between all parties involved in the project, and commitment about the allocation of the resources necessary to implement it, and then monitor outcomes.

    Further readings

    Arnstein, S. (1969). A Ladder of Citizen Participation. Journal of the American Institute of Planners 35 (4): 216-224.

  3. Twelve days ago I commented on the blog Six lessons from students about transdisciplinary learning posted by Irina, Jan and Juanita, and linked their learning experience about transdisciplinarity to the competences and skills of scaffolding transdisciplinary projects (see Their blog underlined the importance of the competences and skills of instructors who teach graduate students about transdisciplinarity. Based on my experience of teaching university students and organizing life-long learning courses for professionals, it is important to underline how these different audiences require different supportive functions in order to achieve desired cognitive development. The facilitation of learning processes should accommodate the emergent experiential knowledge and learning capacity of students during courses; they should also have the ability to distinguish this objective from enabling the capacity of professionals and lay-people to share their knowledge-in-practice with other participants during training programs.

    The Zurich Winter School that Irina, Jan and Juanita attended earlier this year is a learning situation in which scaffolding is meant to support the pedagogical relationship between the instructors and students. Notably, we recall that this was the kind of situation in which scaffolding was originally used as a metaphor by developmental psychologist Lev Vygotsky (1896-1934) when he discussed supporting the ‘zone of proximal development’ that nurtured the cognitive development of students using non-verbal behaviour, interactions and dialogue between students and their teachers. Vygotsky (1978) proposed a conceptual framework of scaffolding that underscored the skills and competences of teachers and instructors to support the cognitive development of students. This capacity of facilitation is distinguished from and complementary to the methods and techniques used to enable learning processes to achieve desired pedagogical goals.

    In the coming weeks we will discuss the transfer of the metaphor of scaffolding from the classroom learning process to the conduct of what Thomas Jordan called ‘deliberative processes’ that include transdisciplinary projects involving several participants with different backgrounds and motivations. During these projects participants discuss and negotiate, listen and learn, and reflect individually and collectively about a subject, situation or common concern. Consequently, these projects involve collaboration and concertation between many participants who share different intentions, perceptions, values and ways of knowing in order to collectively decide whether to change a problematic situation, and if so, how to modify it. We recall that Thomas Jordan and colleagues in Sweden applied a comprehensive framework of three types of scaffolding based on numerous projects. Accumulated experience in Sweden has identified 24 plausible functions of scaffolding deliberative processes by groups and distinguished these functions from the methods and techniques used to support these processes.

    The key message of this comment is that it is important to distinguish between the competences and skills of a teacher in the classroom, or a facilitator of a transdisciplinary project, and the chosen means (methods and techniques) they select to support cognitive and discursive development. However, it is also necessary to acknowledge that these core components of scaffolding are interrelated.

    Further readings

    Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes. M. Cole, V. John-Steiner, S. Scribner, & E. Souberman (Eds.) Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

    • Dear Roderick, thanks for highlighting the link of the Zurich Winter School to Lev Vygotsky’s concept and Thomas Jordan’s concept.

      In particular, your point about the need of different supportive functions for different audiences is a crucial part of TD learning. The group dynamic and interactions depend on the participants’ motivation, intentions and professional backgrounds and influence the personal cognitive learning processses. For me, the personal reflection process after the Winter School was as important as the reflections during the course. Sharing my experiences with people who did not attend the course helped me to reflect on what I actually learned and how I can use that to enrich my research. Additionally, I learned even more by writing the blog article you referred to. So, reflection opportunities after the courses also contribute to the cognitive development processes of the participants.

      I am looking forward to hearing more about your on-going discussion.

      Best wishes,

  4. Visual Representations and Simulations as Scaffolding

    We have discussed why scaffolding transdisciplinary projects is necessary when these projects concern complex societal challenges, and involve participants having different (sometimes conflictual) intentions, perceptions, priorities, and fundamental values. We have noted that the range of responses to climate change, loss of biodiversity, and the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 pandemic show that there is no definitive or optimal resolution of these complex challenges.

    Earlier comments confirms that effective responses to societal challenges require more than pertinent and reliable data, scientific knowledge, and expert professional know-how. Although these are necessary, so too are sustained political commitment, the collaboration of the private sector and non-government associations, and the social adhesion and good will of the local population. When these are not guaranteed and sustained then effective responses cannot be assured; unfortunately, this is well illustrated by the diversity of national and city responses to the current pandemic.

    Notably, the gap between ‘what we know’ and ‘what we do’ confirm the need for both formal and informal education and communication, and that transdisciplinary projects can facilitate interpersonal exchange, raise public awareness, and co-create social concern. Convergence and collaboration are needed, and consortia of diverse participants should be assisted by the competences and skills of trained facilitators to develop concerted action. This task is complementary to project management.

    My experience with continuing education programmes in sustainable development and large urban research projects confirms that interpersonal communication and engagement between participants can be facilitated by visual representations and simulation methods. Diagrams can visualize complex projects and alternative proposals about a specific issue, situation, or problem. When I was an undergraduate student, I was taught that a good diagram can express a thousand words! This is particularly the case in architecture and urban planning, but other fields too. However, my experience in the field of housing and urban planning confirms that the capacity of static 2D diagrams on paper, or changeable 3D diagrams on the computer screen to enhance understanding, is variable, and that laypeople can still have difficulty in comprehending complex visualizations and simulations.

    Examples of how simulations and representations can facilitate understanding and communication during transdisciplinary projects are included in chapter 7 of my new book Creating Built Environments. Influence or network diagrams, for example, are one way of representing complex subjects by highlighting the key variables of a specific case and then identifying the interrelations between them and other influential variables. Visual representations facilitate the comprehension of complex subjects; they are also a medium that enables interpersonal communication between the participants. Such contributions involve processes of ‘learning-by-doing’, and ‘knowledge-in-practice’ by participatory processes. They have been used successfully to incorporate the tacit knowledge and know-how of local populations in Kirala, India, in projects that will influence their livelihoods (see Betz et al., 2014).

    Elsewhere, facilitators have synthesized and recorded discussions and decisions during each phase of transdisciplinary projects about urban development by diagrams ‘that speak a thousand words’. Mistra Urban Futures (mentioned earlier) is one urban development initiative that has regularly used trained facilitators in this way to promote active engagement of people. Experience over several years confirms that meaningful participation is increased by using diagrams to facilitate active involvement of all those present.

    Visual representations have also been used to facilitate systems thinking. For example, Barry Newell and Katrina Proust (2012) have developed and applied ‘Collaborative Conceptual Modelling’ to represent the key components of extant societal situations and mutiple relationships between these components and other variables. They have used causal loop diagrams, feedback loop diagrams, and stock and flow diagrams to represent complex subjects and situations. They have observed that both communication and understanding are facilitated by the visualisation of these different kinds of relationships between the components of systems. Systems thinking is only way of confronting the complexity of societal challenges and we have underlined previously that other types of knowledge and ways of knowing should be considered too.

    Finally, it is important to underline that visual representations and simulations of extant situations, or problems, are not substitutes for the real-world condition they represent. There always is a degree of abstraction and simplification from reality that should not be forgotten. Like the use of metaphors (noted earlier), the “as if” of a representation or simulation should not be interpreted “as is”.

    Further readings
    Betz, L., Kunze, I. Prajeesh, P., Suma, T.and Padmanabhan, M. (2014). The social-ecological web: A bridging concept for transdisciplinary research. Current Science 107 (4):572-579.

    Newell, B. and Proust, K., (2012). Introduction to Collaborative Conceptual Modelling. Working Paper, ANU Open Access Research.

    Lawrence, R. (1993). Simulation and citizen participation: Theory, Research and Practice. In Marens, R. and Stokols, D. (eds.) (1993). Environmental Simulation: Research and Policy Issues. New York: Plenum Press, pp.133-161.

  5. Its nearly a month since I began this blog. Now, the Indian summer in many European countries has ended, spring has arrived in some countries in the Global South, but the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 is omnipresent. The extraordinary situation we all face is a timely reminder of risks to human health and well-being, and the emergent, complex, dynamic and unpredictable future we all face. Beyond current concerns about the pandemic, we should think about the unknown impacts of global change, notably climate change and loss of biodiversity, on natural ecosystems and human habitats. I have proposed that we need a new social contract that applies core principles of transdisciplinary concerted action to create an attractive, healthy and safe habitat for humans and all other species.

    Four weeks ago, I explained my interpretation and the purpose of scaffolding transdisciplinary projects to facilitate desired outcomes in response to precise situations and persistent problems. Since then, there has been a rich exchange of ideas and I thank all those who have participated. Following Vladimir’s comments, I recalled that scaffolding should be interpreted as both a noun and a verb, illustrated in my recent book by many examples in the broad field of urban planning.

    At the outset, Steven recalled the interconnections between scaffolding for education and communication. His comment reminds me of the mutual learning that occurs during transdisciplinary projects and it is one motive for personal engagement in deliberative processes. Then Martina commented on the culture of communication, reminding me of the lectures I attended by the well-known social anthropologist Edmund Leach and published as “Culture and communication: The logic by which symbols are connected”. Like Jean Piaget, a founder of transdisciplinarity in 1970, Leach was a structuralist who was concerned by a higher order of understanding founded on interrelations and interconnections
    Martina’s comment and qualification reminded me of the formal and informal forums that people often use to communicate in situations that are not necessarily conflicting, or problematic. For example, in many cities North and South of the Equator, I have discussed how community gardens are producing nutritious fruits and vegetables, and providing informal places where people can converge and communicate. I recall this is an example of ‘knowing-in-practice’ that Michael Polanyi discussed over 50 years ago, and this way of knowing should be included in transdisciplinary inquiry.

    The example of community gardening also recall’s Steven’s concern (which I share and discuss in my book) about the gap between ‘what we know’ and ‘what we do’ both individually and collectively. Steven’s comment raises the key question: “What scaffolding is appropriate and necessary to reduce the gap?” We know there is no prescription or simple answer to this question, and Rebecca’s comment recalled that multiple types of scaffolding are often required. She noted that they are temporal supports providing resources that should be available and used at the appropriate time.

    Based on real-world situations in cities and countries around the world, I have explained that combinations of interdisciplinary collaboration, cross-sector professional co-ordination, political commitment and leadership, and social adherence to behavioural norms and rules are all needed for transdisciplinary concerted action; they should be combined creatively using the competences and skills of trained facilitators to understand multiple meanings, perceptions and values in order to collectively define and implement effective transdisciplinary responses to current and future societal challenges. Unfortunately, this is rarely occurring with respect to the current coronavirus pandemic as I recently noted in a publication by the New York Academy of Medicine.

    Further readings

    Lawrence, R. (2020). Responding to COVID-19: What’s the Problem? Journal of Urban Health 97, 583–587.

    Lawrence. R. (1989). Structuralist Theories in Environment-Behavior-Design Research: Applications for Analyses of People and the Built Environment. In E. Zube & G. Moore (eds.) Advances in Environment, Behavior and Design, volume 2, pp. 37-70. New York: Plenum Press.

    Leach, E. (1976). Culture and communication: The logic by which symbols are connected. Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press.

  6. Dear Roderick, dear all, the discussion is inspiring. Even if one is experienced in conducting TD projects, each project remains a bit “adventurous”. The processes perform differently depending on the topics under discussion, the persons involved and the socio-spatial context, in which they are embedded. As researchers we have an eye on the design of the processes and the dynamics regarding content related and social aspects, but we have to admit that we can’t really steer or control the ongoing processes (not least because we are part of them.) I perfectly agree with Roderick (on September 7), when he argues, that “competences and skills used to support transdisciplinary projects require more understanding and applications” and things can’t be managed by opening the toolbox. Scaffolding is a valuable metaphor for the researchers’ role as facilitator, supporter and honest broker of (scientific) knowledge, and it provides an outlook on the actions that can be taken. (I like the metaphor, even though it could be understood as a bit paternalistic and objectifying. But I assume the practice partners co-construct the scaffold…)

    To “enable an enlarged understanding that incorporates multiple viewpoints based on different sometimes conflicting knowledge cultures” (Rodericks’ first response to Vladimir) is an important premise in TD research and guides us as a regulative idea (Kant). On the other hand, I think we have to judge our possibilities realistically. We only can try to create the best conditions for successful projects. I would like to add three aspects to the discussion (following the key functions of scaffolding mentioned by Roderick with reference to Jordan 2014).

    1) Relationship-building and a culture of communication possibly have to be developed apart from critical and conflictual situations.
    I have made the experience (and we know that from conflict theory, too), that in difficult constellations with contradicting and eventually conflicting positions it is helpful to create settings, where the subject can be discussed on a more general level, irrespective of any specific decision making situation. For instance regular dialog forums can be introduced, where people meet to exchange perspectives apart from specific cases. Thus, scaffolding means to relieve the system of the pressure to decide immediately and to create heterotopic spaces (Foucault).
    (A comment on point 2, “Enhancing communication and interpersonal relationships”)

    2) Transparency of personal points of view and the depersonalization of topics are important prerequisites for handling wicked problems.
    The reconstruction and explanation of structural conditions and system logics laying beyond a conflicting situation can help to handle topics on a meta-level. Selected theoretical input (e.g. from conflict theory, organization theory, systems theory) in an adequate dosage proved to be helpful. Apart from questions of individual guilt, it can help to clearly see the inherent contradictions, the wicked character of the subjects under discussion. To explicitly depersonalize a topic can foster communication in heterogeneous groups. It’s like finding a consensus in dissent.
    (A comment on point 4, “Improving awareness and understanding while creating common ground”)

    3) As researchers we have to critically reflect on which of our roles and actions are accepted by the practice partners.
    This aspect touches the question of legitimation. Do decisions really have to be made as part of TD processes? Further, can decisions be made easily as part of TD projects? Are the stakeholders really willing to do that? To exchange perspectives and knowledge, mutual learning, is one thing, to make decisions and implement measures another. Sometimes it is a question of the scope and the bindingness of the decisions to be made, if stakeholders are willing to decide and if they accept the researchers as facilitators. I have made the experience that stakeholders withdraw, when things “get serious” (even if they signalled willingness to action in the beginning of the project). One important factor is the planning stage in projects. In contract research, financed by the practice partners, the commitment to the process and the willingness to action is high, but that’s not necessarily the case in all TD projects, particularly if the initiative for a project comes from research. Thus, to which degree the potential of scaffolding in decision making can be made fruitful depends on the specific constellation of a project.
    (A comment on point 6, “Coordinating decision-making and implementation of desired outcomes”)

    • Thank you Marina for your interesting comments on the blog. I am replying to some points you have raised to let you know my position and share a few more ideas.

      First, I had not considered scaffolding as being paternalistic. Since reading your comment I have confirmed to myself that I do not think it is intended paternalism. The metaphor of scaffolding (which I recall is a figure of speech rather than an object) is meant to illustrate how facilitating transdisciplinary projects can (and should) provide a human-centered supportive framework for the reasons you mentioned, and others too discussed by Thomas Jordan and others. I think that without scaffolding some projects may not achieve their potential and desired outcomes.

      Your comments about providing the best conditions for transdisciplinary projects highlights the important function of facilitating projects according to their specific characteristics. In my new book, apart from discussing methods and methodology, I have reinterpreted the concept of convergence space proposed by Paul Routledge (2003) as a support for communication between participants in a transdisciplinary project. Convergence spaces are not only physical meeting places; they can also be virtual platforms enabling people to communicate about a project, and distribute documents too.

      Your third comment about scaffolding as a means to lower tensions between people is interesting and important. I have participated in projects in which a timid person in a small group of 12 participants has been encouraged to speak by the facilitator and this requires competences and skills, especially in situations where there are one or more dominant participants who want to speak. As you also noted, participants may have in-commensurable interpretations, wishes and values, and a facilitator can help manage conflicts, and hopefully negotiate agreements. I think we need to give more attention to this subject. You also mentioned the pressure of time which I have repeatedly experienced as a personal and a shared frustration. Often the calendar and time allocated for projects is imposed by predefined conditions (e.g. administrative limits, amount of funding, availability of people) which are often not negotiable. It is important to clearly announce the ‘rules of the game’ at the beginning of projects rather than later. Related to time, adherence to projects by all participants cannot be assumed and a main reason for lack of commitment is whether regular, long-term participation is necessary.

      Your comment about depersonalizing issues is pertinent and necessary to reduce the likelihood of ‘winners and losers’. My experience with two Local Agenda 21 projects in French-speaking cities in Switzerland is that some participants want to ensure or protect self-interest rather than promote community or public good. A key question I have not yet answered is “How can we ensure that ego-centrism is replaced by altruism, and personal benefit is superseded by the common good?” Rather than an open door, can the selection of participants be justified to respond to this challenge? Here we consider fundamental democratic, ethical and political dimensions of transdisciplinary inquiry that you have raised in your comments and need more consideration. Many thanks and good luck with your ongoing projects in Austria.

      Further readings
      Lawrence, R. (2020). Collective and creative consortia: combining knowledge, ways of knowing and praxis, Cities & Health:

      Routledge, P. (2003). Convergences space: process geographies of grassroots globalization networks, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 28 (3) : 333-349.

  7. Dear Roderick
    Thank you for the information about your blog. Very interesting and useful information!

    Roderick, I was confused by your thesis:
    «Scaffolding is increasingly recognized as necessary to assist bridge building between people, especially in transdisciplinary research and project implementation about complex situations and persistent problems that have no simple solutions. Scaffolding is required because there is no ideal or universal method for cross-fertilizing different perceptions and values in these cases».

    If you will allow me, I would like to share my thoughts on this thesis.
    A well-known philosopher argued that if you divide one big difficult-to-solve problem into 50 small difficult-to-solve problems, it will not lead to the solution of the main problem, but will create the appearance of a process for solving it. Simply put, in this case, the problem will remain unresolved. In the context of this statement, my question is: If “there is no ideal or universal method for mutually enriching different ideas and values in these cases”, how “the tools and methods will be carefully understood and adapted to the situation or problem under consideration, as well as to the specific characteristics of its context, including the group of participants in the research project”?

    A problem is a problem that has no solution. The problem occurs when all its components and system-forming elements are not visible. The scientific worldview allows you to see these components. Interdisciplinary, multidisciplinary, and transdisciplinary approaches consistently expand the horizon of scientific worldview. If the horizons of these approaches are not sufficient, then it is necessary to use similar system approaches. If this logic is correct, then the maximum horizon of the scientific worldview provides a systematic transdisciplinary approach. This means that if the scientific community has realized that there is an unsolvable problem, then at this point there must necessarily be a scientific approach that should provide a solution to such a problem. Do you think that perhaps in this situation we should take two more rational approaches? To build scaffolding:
    – based on a single, but corresponding to the level of the problem, scientific approach;
    – based on the interesting idea of “methodological flexibility” (John van Breda, PhD, Senior Researcher: Transdisciplinarity Centre for Complex Systems in Transition).

    With respect.
    Vladimir Mokiy

    • Thank you Vladimir for your contribution. Your comments suggest I should clarify some key points. If I understand correctly, we have shared and different viewpoints about how to understand and effectively respond to complex societal challenges and problems.

      First, I refer to your quote from an unnamed philosopher that segmenting or fragmenting complex situations or problems will not solve them. This is exactly what Jean Piaget and Eric Jantsch discussed when they first discussed transdisciplinarity at the International Seminar on Interdisciplinarity in Universities in Nice, France, in 1970. They challenged the autonomy and independence of specialized disciplinary research. They provided a framework on which collaboration between disciplines has been developed. We should not forget that discipline-based research has made fundamental contributions to scientific knowledge about certain kinds of problems. However, the contribution of science to resolving societal problems involving public policies is limited, as Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber explained about 50 years ago in their well-known article on ‘wicked’ problems (see below).

      Second, I refer to your comment about a scientific method for problem solving. I have indicated that there is no ideal method, or research protocol, like those used in scientific research. In order to resolve societal problems (such as provision of housing, or public health care), Rittel and Webber explained that they should NOT be reduced to scientific problems disconnected from a human/societal context in which they are situated (which could be implied in your last paragraph). This fundamental principle has been overlooked by many scientists who have ignored human intentions, motives and values, whereas Rittel and Webber explained they are inherent to ‘wicked’ problems. In essence, they explained that complex societal problems are embedded in these contextual variables of human culture and they help explain why there can be a gap between ‘what is known’ and ‘what is achieved’ when dealing with persistent problems. The case of climate change is one example. I have explained that diverse human intentions, motives and values need to be understood and addressed in transdisciplinary projects, and this should be facilitated by scaffolding proposed by trained facilitators. Facilitation enables scientific knowledge to be associated and combined with other types of knowledge and know-how about specific problems; then this new knowledge should be communicated, debated and (if necessary) negotiated with actors, institutions and the general public. Transdisciplinary projects enable an enlarged understanding that incorporates multiple viewpoints based on different sometimes conflicting knowledge cultures. Scaffolding can support achieving transdisciplinary projects because it is much larger and more complex than opening tool boxes, as Thomas Jordan explained in his article (see below).

      Third, I would like to comment on your statements “A problem is a problem that has no solution. The problem occurs when all its components and system-forming elements are not visible. The scientific worldview allows you to see these components.”
      I think your interpretation of problems is very different from the interpretation and distinction made by Rittel and Webber between ‘tame’ and ‘wicked problems’. They described why ‘tame problems’ do have solutions, whereas ‘wicked’ problems do not. They explained, that ALONE scientific knowledge will not resolve ‘wicked’ problems because they cannot be isolated from their societal context, especially the institutional, legal and political characteristics of situations in which they occur. I have used the case of the current coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 pandemic because it is a ‘wicked’ problem that should not be disconnected from public policies, international and national governance, allocation of appropriate resources, and the adherence of populations to behavioural and social norms and rules. If I understand Rittel and Webber correctly, a ‘tame’ problem corresponds to the production of a vaccine for Covid-19, because it will only treat the symptoms rather than the multiple causes of the incidence and propagation of coronavirus SARS-CoV-2. This does not mean that the vaccine is not important; it illustrates how problems are defined and interpretated quite differently by scientists, policy makers, private practitioners, and the general public in our heterogenous societies.

      Finally, the limits of scientific knowledge were clearly stated by Michael Polanyi over 50 years. The other types of extra-scientific knowledge and ‘ways of knowing’ he discussed were considered to be equally important. However, they are often ignored by scientists and academic researchers, but transdisciplinary projects can and should correct this omission. Hence, your final questions about methodological agility are pertinent and necessary; the content of the scaffolding is project-based and emergent, as I noted in my comment to Rebecca (see below). Moreover, your reference to John van Breda’s work is timely because he and his colleagues have challenged the transfer and use of tools boxes from the global north to the global south without accounting for the different societal context in which they are applied. I have discussed this subject and provided many examples in my recent book. I hope this reply is helpful.

      Suggested Readings

      1. Polanyi, M. (1969). Knowing and Being: Essays by Michael Polanyi. London UK: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

      2. Rittel, H. & Webber, M. (1973). Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning. Policy Sciences, 4, 155-169.

      3. van Breda, J. and Swilling, M. (2018). The guiding logics and principles for designing emergent transdisciplinary research processes: Learning experiences and reflections from transdisciplinary urban case study in Enkanini informal settlement, South Africa, Sustainability Science 14:

      • Dear Roderick, your comments are impeccable! After reading these comments, many experts will consider this topic exhausted. But it is your idea of “scaffolding” that allows me to continue our discussion…

        Agree that the context of scaffolding is not possible without the context of the construction object itself. This means that one type of scaffolding will provide communication between different specialists, when the main goal is the efficient construction of a single-story building. Another type of scaffolding will provide communication for specialists when the ceiling of the first floor is just the floor of the second floor of a multi-storey building. In both cases, the scaffolding must comply with certain safety rules. These rules establish conceptual, theoretical and methodological limitations and barriers that depend on the boundaries of the horizon, including the scientific worldview.

        I am sure that these restrictions and fences for buildings of different storeys will be based on different, possibly contradictory, authoritative opinions. For example, in your comment, you write: “I have indicated that there is no ideal method, or research protocol, like those used in scientific research. In order to resolve societal problems (such as provision of housing, or public health care), Rittel and Webber explained that they should NOT be reduced to scientific problems disconnected from a human/societal context in which they are situated (which could be implied in your last paragraph). This fundamental principle has been overlooked by many scientists who have ignored human intentions, motives and values, whereas Rittel and Webber explained they are inherent to ‘wicked’ problems. In essence, they explained that complex societal problems are embedded in these contextual variables of human culture».

        Therefore, if we consider the construction of society as the construction of a one-story building, then it turns out that ‘wicked’ problems are natural attributes of a developing society, like a person’s hair and nails. Therefore, it is fundamentally impossible and useless to solve them. But if we build a society as a multi-storey building, then the presence of ‘wicked’ problems is a challenge to the scientific worldview and the monodisciplinarity of higher education. And they must inevitably accept this challenge and respond to it with dignity. We do not disagree on this point. I don’t think we have any disagreements at all, but there is only some misunderstanding. For example, you write: “Transdisciplinary projects enable an enlarged understanding that incorporates multiple viewpoints based on different sometimes conflicting knowledge cultures. Scaffolding can support achieving transdisciplinary projects because it is much larger and more complex than opening tool boxes». For my part, I am sure that if a person is a natural object, then building a society is a natural process that can and should be known, understood, described and made manageable and trouble-free. Only for this purpose it is necessary to start construction of the next floor of the building of human society with the help of appropriate transdisciplinary scaffolding.

        Perhaps, when building this next floor for fences and scaffolding restrictions, we should consider the culture of human society as a kind of ‘interference field’ of religious, mythological, philosophical and scientific worldview? I think that the statement of Rittel and Webber can be shaken if we strengthen the disciplinary social and humanitarian methodology of first-floor scaffolding, not just a transdisciplinary methodology, but an appropriate systems transdisciplinary methodology (meta-discipline) that is suitable for the limitations of second-floor scaffolding. In this case, we are talking about a systems transdisciplinary method of “ternary counterpoints” (see: Mokiy, V. S. & Lukyanova T. A. (2019). World Social and Economic Development in the Theory of Ternary Counterpoints. European Scientific Journal. Vol. 15, no 23, ESJ August Edition, pp. 12-27. DOI:

        In conclusion, I would like to say that a discussion on such a complex topic should be divided into several interrelated aspects: ideological, conceptual, theoretical, methodological and technological. In this case, we will involve different specialists in our discussion: philosophers, methodologists, technologists, teachers, etc. If we draw General conclusions only on one aspect and do not clarify the content of all other aspects, then it will be difficult for blog readers who are only at the beginning of their intellectual activity to evaluate some important arguments and counterarguments. At the same time, it may be found that some authoritative opinions of authoritative scientists can be refuted or not directly follow from the axioms, laws and models of the scientific disciplines that they represent. In this case, they can negatively affect the aspirations and daring of young scientists who can follow the course and result of our discussion.

        Do you agree?

        • Thank you Vladimir for your second set of comments, suggestions and questions which I appreciate and reply hoping this interesting exchange of ideas will be pertinent for you and other readers.

          First, your comments about context are pertinent because contextualisation is a core component of trandisciplinarity and can be contrasted with reductionist approaches in many conventional scientific research protocols that decontextualize, isolate, and study the subject of concern without accounting for the conditions in which it exists. Rittel and Webber (1973) challenged this custom of much scientific research. However, we should remember that anthropologists, linguists, and other researchers in the humanities and social sciences have developed in situ methods for the study of cultural and societal variables that are embedded in a context, both geographically and temporally. We should learn from these discipline-based contributions.

          Your second concern about rules and limits is related to the above because these are embedded in legal and institutional frameworks that are contextually defined. We have learned much about them from studies of everyday life, especially collective responses to changing behavioural norms and legally binding rules. Think of the case of the introduction of the compulsory use of seat belts in many countries several decades ago, for public health reasons, and how that change was challenged by some groups but not others. My experience of transdisciplinary projects indicates that the rules and limits need to be discussed and agreed by the participants; the facilitator’s includes proposing what she/he considers to be the appropriate rules and limits for each project; what is negotiable should be understood by all as early as possible.

          Your third concern about “the construction of society as if a building” can be discussed to highlight the problematic use of metaphors. In the case of scaffolding for transdisciplinary projects, it would be mistaken to consider only the support to of physical/material structures like the scaffolding around buildings. This is a limited literal sense of the term which Thomas Jordan and colleagues in Sweden extended by discussing three key functions of scaffolding: first, passive physical scaffolding (such as the choice of space and furniture layout for deliberative processes); second, passive scaffolding that applies methods and techniques (such as Research Circles, TIP – see reference); third, active scaffolding by trained facilitators who pilot the deliberative processes. It is crucial to add that the contribution of a researcher (an insider with knowledge about the subject of deliberative processes) should not be confounded with the function of a project facilitator (a pilot for the project that should have a neutral position).

          Your final point is crucial because transdisciplinarity has been directly associated with overcoming segmentation and fragmentation of discipline-based thinking since 1970. Then, both Eric Jantsch and Jean Piaget endorsed systems thinking for creating a higher level of understanding of complex situations and problems. Here I recall the discussion of Gabriele Bammer’s blog about the competences and skills of ‘T-shaped researchers’ in 2017 (see: which you may not have seen. Its timely to recall that transdisciplinary contributions do not refute the importance of disciplinary knowledge and know-how; rather they combine and use them with other types of knowledge and know-how to create the higher order of understanding that Jantsch and Piaget agreed was necessary to deal with complex situations and problems. This is why I have highlighted the need for creativity, relational thinking and synthesis in my new book.

          Suggested Readings

          Persson, S. (2009). Research Circles: A Guidebook. City of Malmö: Centre for Diversity in Education

          Ross, S. (2006). The Integral Process for Working on Complex Issues

  8. Thanks Roderick. I like the language of scaffolding very much. My reflection on reading your blog piece was that, for construction purposes, scaffolding is erected as a temporary support structure and then dismantled once the building or bridge, or whatever it is, can stand alone. It also enables the builders to move safely around a site while it is still under construction (or maintenance). While metaphors probably shouldn’t be stretched too far, this raises a productive line of inquiry for me about when to put scaffolding up and when to take it down again in transdisciplinary research. Musing aloud: If we get so accustomed to it that we no longer notice it as scaffolding, but treat it as part of the structure, does that mean we fail to put weight on the structure itself when it could in fact support our weight? Can we try lowering the scaffolding layer by layer, so that we test whether the transdisciplinary research can stand unsupported? I’ll keep chewing on these thoughts …

    • Thank you Rebecca for your interesting comment which I appreciate, especially your concern about the temporal dimension of using scaffolding and then removing it. You have interpreted the metaphor as I have intended, and your comment raises crucial issues about dependency. Scaffolding in the construction sector is not only a temporary support, it is usually taller and larger than the buildings or infrastructure that being constructed or renovated. Hence scaffolding enables the construction of a structure that would not have been possible without the scaffolding (e.g. multi-storey buildings). Likewise, I posit that scaffolding transdisciplinary projects enables achieving outputs and outcomes that may not have been achieved without scaffolding, and this is also why I proposed the metaphor.

      Regarding your concern about when to construct the scaffolding and when to remove it in the context of transdisciplinary projects, I think this key question involves circumstances specific to each project. The decisions about scaffolding should be made collectively with the support of the competence and experience of trained facilitators; the function of project facilitators is to advise and guide transdisciplinary projects involving multiple participants. The appropriate scaffolding should be selected as early as possible in the project; it will depend on the subject of mutual concern, whether it is conflictual, what resources are available, the time allocated for the project, and who participates. Later, dismantling the scaffolding will be influenced by the capacity of the project participants to develop and adhere to collaborative initiative they trust; this is necessary before a degree of independence can be created and scaffolding can be removed. While transdisciplinary projects usually have an agreed beginning, they will usually continue after the end of funding, or facilitation, and public support, often as group or communal projects that become independent because they have transferred rights, responsibilities and power of decision making to the participants. Thanks again for your interesting commentary and I hope I have provided some ‘food for thought’.

  9. Initially, this blog explained why the competences and skills used to support transdisciplinary projects require more understanding and applications than they have received to date. We now add that fair and just decision making processes cannot be guaranteed by legal or institutional frameworks, and that dealing with cultural and social diversity, including social inequalities, is a challenge in our world of increasing differences. Experiences in the fields of urban planning and sustainable development indicate that scaffolding is a much needed support for interpersonal communication, and especially dialogue between participants who have different intentions, meanings, perceptions, and values about specific problems or situations that may create conflicts. Fortunately, the competences and skills required to pilot and negotiate multi-stakeholder processes are valued in Sweden and recognized by a profession of facilitation applied in many circumstances. A workshop in Gothenburg in March 2019, co-organized by COST Action INTREPID and the Urban Futures Open Research School (at Mistra Urban Futures Gothenburg Platform), included examples of experiences acquired in recent years:
    Facilitation with scaffolding has been used to implement urban projects in cities in Sweden and many other countries that promote just sustainable development. As these kinds of cases increase we need to jointly answer the question “What effective outputs and outcomes of transdisciplinary projects would not have been achieved without scaffolding?” Sharing your experience can contribute to a better understanding of the merits and limitations of scaffolding.

    Suggested reading:
    Andersson, P., Ringnér, H. & Inglis, J. (2018). Constructive Scaffolding or a Procrustean Bed? Exploring the Influence of a Facilitated, Structured Group Process in a Climate Action Group, Systemic Practice and Action Research 31, 327–345.

  10. Nice tie-in between scaffolding for education and scaffolding for communication. I like to think that we often face a “leap of inference” between what we understand… and the actions we take. The less we understand, the greater the leap, and so the greater chance of failure. That leap is doubled when we must connect with others. So… scaffolding to bridge the gap makes great sense.Thanks!


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