Eleven success factors for transdisciplinary real-world labs

By Niko Schäpke, Oskar Marg, Matthias Bergmann, Franziska Stelzer and Daniel J. Lang

1. Niko Schäpke; 2. Oskar Marg; 3. Matthias Bergmann; 4. Franziska Stelzer; 5. Daniel Lang (biographies)

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

This blog post is adapted from https://isoe.blog/wie-man-die-gemeinsame-forschung-im-reallabor-erfolgreich-gestalten-kann-einsichten-aus-der-begleitforschung-in-der-diskussion/

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.

12 thoughts on “Eleven success factors for transdisciplinary real-world labs”

  1. Thank you for the overview. From my experience and research on urban living labs, I find that the mentioned success criteria reveal some important blind spots contingent on the underlying definition of a “successful transition”. To be successful, we need to re-politizise transitions and the underlying power structures and (Europatriarchal) knowledge systems they are embedded in and which they reproduce. Labs need to represent more diverse stakeholders and adopt an intersectional perspective on participant selection. There moreover is increasing research on the need to question the underlying capitalist political economy of Western transition environments, hence transformative labs need to be evaluated in relation to how their internal and external workings diverge from existing economic practices.

    • Patrick, many thanks for your critical reflections.

      I do agree on the importance of considering the political and power dimensions of transition processes and how assessing what is a success.
      The present success-factors rely on the self-evaluation of studied real-world labs, and they put an emphasis on which factors are deemed crucial for successfull collaboration.
      Importantly, they are not an attempt of ex-post or external evaluation of success. See our reflections on limitations and future research needs here https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs11625-020-00886-8

      If you put it more concretely: How would you outline success factors in your line of thought?
      Would you see them as complementary to the ones outlined above?
      I would as well be very interested in respective empirical insights in success of transformation labs!?!


  2. I appreciate the thought and experience that went into this article and suspect one of my favorites, number 9, was a factor in living through these success factors. I wonder if another factor is a balanced respect for the lessons of the past, the challenges of the present, and the potential for the future? Thank you again, Jim

    • Jim, many thanks for your comment.

      Not sure if I fully understand your question. Reflecting it, I do think that “factor 3: Make active use of experiments” invites to build a bridge between what we believe to know about the past (e.g. what could work to tackle a sustainability challenge and what caused the challenge), considering the future developments we want to contribute to (e.g. a specific aim, vision or pathway in relation to the experiment) and working to overcome the challenges in the present (namely, when practically implementing the experiment). This way, the experiment invites participants to make considerations and discussions really tangible.

      Factor 10, Enable learning and self-reflection, relates to this process of connection between past, present and future, too. It considers the very nature of the lab and experiment, to being of a procedural nature, requiring adaption, reflection and learning while going along.

      Is this speaking to your question?

      • Hi Niko–thank you for the reply. My comment was based on experience that efforts sometimes look at the past in a critical way that doesn’t leverage lessons of the past, things that worked as well as those that did not. Engaging in efforts: “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?” implies some deficiency or problem which invites analysis of the present. And in looking at some point in the future, we also are invited to look at the messiness of transitioning from now to then. I think your factors 3 and 10 are useful in doing that and my suggestion was to make it a bit more explicit. Thank you, Jim

  3. Thank you for the great post. I esp. appreciated the Success factor 1: Find the right balance between scientific and societal goals. This is very close to the team science context I work with, “co-production of knowledge” between scientists and stakeholders. I wonder what specific tools, or practices have helped in integrating these two strands of knowledge? In addition, what meeting rhythm worked for your projects — there is always a worry that we are taking up too much of our stakeholders’ time. I appreciate your advice!

    • Many thanks for the very relevant question. We documented some of the key learnings we distilled from interviews of real-world lab partners in the article the blog post is based on. Find it here https://doi.org/10.1007/s11625-020-00886-8

      Citing the article:

      Methods to address and balance scientific and societal needs, interests and restrictions (M1)

      Methods used in the co-design phase when setting-up an RwL were most frequently mentioned. This indicates the need for special methodological attention when starting projects, initiating collaboration and considering practical and science-oriented needs, interests and restrictions.

      The following methods were used most frequently and worked particularly well to identify and integrate practitioners’ and scientists’ problem perceptions, objectives and knowledge:
      • Topic-specific information events, such as lectures, expert and stakeholder workshops and citizens’ consultation hours.
      • Interviews and surveys with societal experts.
      • Direct, personal contact to provide specific information to practice partners.
      • Visioning Workshop: 1. joint vision search; 2. from visions to scenarios; 3. evaluation of scenarios by the participants.

      Co-authors from BW-Labs supplemented the following methods:
      • Round table with regular meetings to find ways to work collaboratively on local challenges.
      • Building `tandems´, combining researcher and practice partners, when doing excursions, workshops or presentations.

      On your second question: I find it difficult to give general advice on this. It might be helpful to think about different phases of the project and how intense collaboration and thus involvement of practice should be in those parts. And to inquire on needs and wants of engagement. But that is a very general response, of course. Personally, I find the functional-dynamic approach to collaboration developed by Michael Stauffacher and colleagues insightful here. E.g. https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-94-007-2333-7_11

      Hope this is of help

      • Thank you for the generous sharing, Niko. The methods and advice are very timely and helpful, as are the further resources. I am appreciating the guidance for a project I am engaged in right now. Many thanks.

  4. Interesting article, thank you. I am very keen on the idea of ‘a real-world lab and its research’ being attached to a place, although it doesn’t have to be be concrete (-:

    A neighborhood, a street or a building does generates spaces for actors to meet and to host experiments, but there is more to it I think than a meeting space and visibility. People have important attachments to place that change research, and of course, there is a lot of important research that is based on place based methodologies. If you are interested, we have put some resources together on that here https://www.mappingedges.org/place-based-methodologies-overview/

    I think one of the best examples of a place based real world lab is CLEAR https://civiclaboratory.nl/who-we-are/
    Hope these links are useful.

    • Dear Alexandra Crosby,
      Thanks a lot for the interesting links!
      I agree on the broader relevance of the place-based character of real-world labs – and for sure they are not the only approaches on this level.
      Curious to learn more about your experience.


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