By Niko Schäpke, Oskar Marg, Matthias Bergmann, Franziska Stelzer and Daniel J. Lang
What is required for transdisciplinary real-world laboratories (labs) to successfully tackle and achieve long-term societal change? How can they make the change process transferable? What is required of the societal and scientific actors?
We discuss eleven success factors to facilitate successful transdisciplinary collaboration and to achieve desired societal effects. These are based on an accompanying research project, which supported and observed several real-world labs, aiming to develop overarching insights on methods and success factors. The accompanying research project also provided consultancy to strengthen the implementation activities of the real-world labs and supported the networking of the labs, including with labs in other countries.
The factors presented below should be seen as generic recommendations to increase the likelihood of success. As each lab has a unique character, factors should be considered, deliberated and addressed for each lab on an individual basis.
Success factor 1: Find the right balance between scientific and societal goals
Real-world labs aim to facilitate societal change and – simultaneously – to better understand it.
There needs to be an appropriate and feasible balance between both aims. The primary focus should be on societal impacts given the close collaboration with actors from practice. While secondary, labs should not neglect aspiring to scientific insights.
Success factor 2: Address the needs, interests and restrictions of practitioners
Real-world labs should address sustainability-related problems and aim to develop solutions of high societal relevance, to secure and maintain the support of societal actors.
In addition, scientific actors should acknowledge the restrictions and limitations of societal partners, and develop ways to acknowledge and incentivize contributions from practice.
Success factor 3: Make active use of experiments
Experiments provide an opportunity to test potential solutions to the problems real-world labs are established to tackle (usually related to sustainability issues).
At the same time, labs provide an opportunity to learn about what contributes to positive change. Importantly, actors in real-world labs need to develop a shared understanding of the experiments and their potential, desired and unintended impacts, as many different experimental designs are possible.
Success factor 4: Communicate proactively
Actors engaging in real-world labs are highly heterogenous and projects are often very dynamic.
This makes proactive communication during the entire lab process a must. Formats of communication should be carefully selected to specifically fit their purpose. Communication competences should be catered for in the project team. In ideal cases, strategies to prevent and resolve conflicts are built into the lab design.
Success factor 5: Develop a ‘collaboration culture’ between science and society
Real-world labs are frequently based on a close collaboration between science and society.
To make this collaboration successful, it should be started early on in the lab process. Skills and capacities for transdisciplinary collaboration of all partners should be enhanced, and sufficient resources for close collaboration should be planned for and secured.
Success factor 6: Be attached to concrete sites
Attaching a real-world lab and its research to a concrete, physical location – a neighborhood, a street or a building – generates spaces for actors to meet and to host experiments.
This makes the lab and its activities more visible and trust between engaged actors can be built. It is helpful to acquire funding to make the lab place-based, or to attach it to existing local structures. Researchers should be present on-site regularly.
Success factor 7: Create lasting impact and transferability
Long-term impact of results and transferability to other contexts are seen as key for real-world lab success, because they correspond to tangible and enduring societal change.
Actors should consider the potential for long-term, transferable results early on and identify actors with relevant interests. Actors should be on constant alert for possibilities to achieve transfer. Results should be broadly communicated, including their likely applicability in other contexts.
Success factor 8: Provide and acquire sufficient time and financial means
Real-world labs require time and financial resources.
Labs require funding for a preparation phase and financial support for actors from practice, as well as sufficient time and money for experimentation.
Success factor 9: Be prepared to adapt
Real-world labs are generally dynamic.
Processes and goals need to adapt to changing circumstances and this should be incorporated in planning for the lab. Processes ought to be designed to include iteration and learning-loops. Adaption needs to be balanced with a sufficient degree of security in the plans. A key consideration is that current funding schemes often substantially limit adaptation possibilities.
Success factor 10: Enable learning and self-reflection
Real-world labs should provide learning opportunities for all engaged actors.
The lab should harness the learning potentials in the joint, practical experiments in testing the feasibility of solutions and in adapting them as required. Researchers benefit from getting to know the perspectives of societal actors, as well as reflecting on their own views. University teaching may benefit from collaborating with real-world labs to enhance student competencies.
Success factor 11: Consider dependence on external factors
Context matters for success.
Real-world labs can be highly dependent on local politics and administration, both having their own aims and requirements. These context conditions should be considered when planning the project. They should also be appropriately communicated to the actors involved, for instance regarding uncertainties, possible failures and adaptation options. Ideally, political actors will shape framework conditions in ways that enable real-world lab success.
The success factors described above were found in the project “Accompanying, systematizing and transferring research in Real-World Laboratories” (ForReal), a collaboration between Leuphana University Lüneburg, the Institute for Social Ecological Research and Wuppertal Institute. ForReal accompanied fourteen real-world labs which were funded by the state of Baden-Württemberg, southern Germany, and located in this region.
What has your experience been with real-world labs. Do the success factors resonate with you? Do you have others to add?
To find out more:
Bergmann, M., Schäpke, N., Marg, O., Stelzer, F., Lang, D. J., Bossert, M.. Gantert, M., Häußler, E., Marquardt, E., Piontek, F. M., Potthast, T., Rhodius, R., Rudolph, M., Ruddat, M., Seebacher, A. and Sußmann, N. (2021): Transdisciplinary sustainability research in real-world labs: success factors and methods for change. Sustainability Science, 16: 541–564. (Online): https://doi.org/10.1007/s11625-020-00886-8
All illustrations in this blog post are by Oskar Marg.
Niko Schäpke PhD is an assistant professor at the University of Freiburg, Germany. He is an interdisciplinary social scientist interested in the governance of sustainability transformations. His research focus is on settings and methods of transdisciplinary and action-oriented sustainability science as well as dynamics of human agency and spaces for societal learning and change. He is passionate about advancing the capacity of sustainability sciences to contribute to transformations.
Oskar Marg PhD is a research associate at ISOE – Institute for Social-Ecological Research, Frankfurt am Main, Germany, in the research unit Transdisciplinary Methods and Concepts. His research focus is on transdisciplinary research and its effects on science and society as well as on accompanying research for transdisciplinary projects.
Matthias Bergmann PhD is a member of the research unit Transdisciplinary Methods and Concepts at the Institute for Social-Ecological Research (ISOE) in Frankfurt, Germany. He holds an Honorary Professorship at Leuphana University in Lüneburg, Germany. He focuses on the scientific foundations and practice of transdisciplinary research and on transdisciplinarity in higher education.
Franziska Stelzer PhD works at the Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy gGmbH in Germany as a senior researcher in the division of Sustainable Production and Consumption. Her research focus is on transformative research in sustainability-oriented real-world laboratories and their societal impact.
Daniel J. Lang PhD is Professor for Trandisciplinary Sustainability Research at Leuphana University of Lueneburg, Germany in the Faculty of Sustainability. He is also the President’s Special Advisor for Sustainability at Leuphana University. His research focuses on mutual learning processes between different scientific disciplines as well as science and society with the aim of developing robust solution options for urgent sustainability problems.