Structure matters: Real-world laboratories as a new type of large-scale research infrastructure

Community member post by Franziska Stelzer, Uwe Schneidewind, Karoline Augenstein and Matthias Wanner

What are real-world laboratories? How can we best grasp their transformative potential and their relationship to transdisciplinary projects and processes? Real-world laboratories are about more than knowledge integration and temporary interventions. They establish spaces for transformation and reflexive learning and are therefore best thought of as large-scale research infrastructure. How can we best get a handle on the structural dimensions of real-word laboratories?

What are real-world laboratories?

Real-world laboratories are a targeted set-up of a research “infrastructure“ or a “space“ in which scientific actors and actors from civil society cooperate in the joint production of knowledge in order to support a more sustainable development of society.

Although such a laboratory establishes a structure, most discussions about real-world laboratories focus on processes of co-design, co-production and co-evaluation of knowledge, as shown in the figure below. Surprisingly, the structural dimension has received little attention in the growing field of literature.

Overcoming structure as the blind spot

We want to raise awareness of the importance of the structural dimension of real-world laboratories, including physical infrastructure as well as interpretative schemes or social norms, as also shown in the figure below. A real-world laboratory can be understood as a structure for nurturing niche development, or a space for experimentation that interacts (and aims at changing) structural conditions at the regime level.

Apart from this theoretical perspective, we want to add a concrete “infrastructural” perspective, as well as a reflexive note on the role of science and researchers. Giddens’ use of the term ‘structure’ helps to emphasize that scientific activity is always based on rules (eg., rules of proper research and use of methods in different disciplines) and resources (eg., funding, laboratories, libraries).

The two key challenges of real-world laboratories are that:

  1. both scientists and civil society actors are involved in the process of knowledge production; and,
  2. knowledge production takes place in real-world environments instead of scientific laboratories.
Franziska Stelzer (biography)


Uwe Schneidewind (biography)


Karoline Augenstein (biography)


Matthias Wanner (biography)


Structural perspective of, and process-oriented view on, real-world laboratories (source: Schneidewind et al., 2018)

How this relates to transdisciplinary processes

Transdisciplinary processes can be understood as a specific form of joint action by scientists and practice actors which serves the collective production of knowledge. The aim is to achieve a better understanding (scientific sphere), as well as activating transformation processes (practice sphere).

Giddens’ understanding of structure highlights the meaning of reflexivity of acting in real-world laboratories and the specific form that the duality of structure takes in these laboratories: scientists refer to rules and resources, ie., the modalities of structuration. At the same time, they try to change them in line with a sustainability-oriented transformation during their interaction with practice partners.

Here we can distinguish the structural level of the real-world laboratory and the process level of transdisciplinary research (also shown in the figure). Actors in a transdisciplinary process rely on the structural elements of the real-world laboratory to establish “agency” in terms of an intentional and conscious management of knowledge production and intervention processes. A structural perspective thus complements the process-oriented view on real-world laboratories. From a structuralist perspective, a real-world laboratory is a research infrastructure in which interpretive schemes and norms as well as allocative and authoritative resources are mobilized for real-world experiments. Simultaneously, these experiments enable reflexivity, re-interpretation and – by influencing the involved structural dimensions – sustainability-oriented structural change.

The structural dimensions of real-world laboratories

Based on our own experience with real-word laboratories, we find that the transdisciplinary research process benefits from a better understanding of the specific modalities of structure that actors draw upon in the context of real-world laboratories (see table below).

Modalities of structuration (based on Giddens 1984) in real-world laboratories (source Schneidewind et al., 2018)

Interpretive schemes are crucial for real-word laboratories because cooperation needs to be built on the basis of a common understanding of key concepts and terms. This applies to the real-word laboratory itself. Using this term in a concrete real-world setting is often problematic because of different understandings.

In addition, to achieve science-practice cooperation is only possible if civil society stakeholders are involved on an equal footing rather than as “test objects” in a laboratory.

Mobilization and commitment of actors requires a minimum of local identity, eg., with regard to the district or suburb, city or region in which the real-word laboratory is embedded. This is why a clear distinction and description of real-word laboratories and their link to locally set definitions and identities is of great importance.

In many real-word laboratories, the level of legitimating rules is sensitive. Are scientific actors and practice actors able to refer to shared norms which justify their interference in concrete city or regional settings? The justification of such a science-driven intrusion into society depends on many factors:

  • regional differences in the affinity towards science,
  • the recognition and reputation of the local scientific institutions; and,
  • the credibility of the scientists involved.

Our experience is that establishing and stabilizing such legitimation structures becomes more important as soon as real-word laboratories start engaging with and changing existing structures of power.

The availability of allocative resources has an immediate effect on real-word laboratories. The scope of an intervention depends on human and financial resources. These define the depth of the initiated transformation processes, including:

  • How many people can be reached by real-word laboratories
  • Is it possible to utilize whole areas, buildings, infrastructures, districts for real-world experiments?
  • Are investment resources available for testing, eg., new forms of regenerative energy supply?

Apart from allocative resources, the scope of real-word laboratories depends on authoritative resources, ie., the possibility of utilizing power in political or organizational governance processes, including:

  • Is it, for example, possible to experiment with road closures to bring forward mobility experiments?
  • Can official communication channels promote real-world experiments?
  • Can a management board motivate members or employees to participate in real-world experiments?

The specific characteristics or, in German, “Eigenart” of each real-word laboratory is determined by the specific interplay of its structural elements. The structural specifics of real-word laboratories have a significant impact on the type of transdisciplinary processes taking place within a real-word laboratory. A clear analytical understanding of the different structural dimensions facilitates the identification of different “patterns” emerging in real-word laboratories – with patterns offering a basic understanding of how experiences made in one particular real-word laboratories can be learned from and transferred to other contexts.

Does this fit with how you think about structure? Are there other dimensions of structure that you think should be included? How has structure played a role in real-world laboratories that you have been part of?

To find out more:
Schneidewind, U., Augenstein, K., Stelzer, F. and Wanner, M. (2018). Structure matters: Real-world laboratories as a new type of large-scale research infrastructure. A framework inspired by Giddens’ Structuration Theory. GAIA – Ecological Perspectives for Science and Society, 27, S1: 12-17. (Online, open access) (DOI): 10.14512/gaia.27.S1.5

See also the supplement: Schneidewind, U., Augenstein, K., Stelzer, F. and Wanner, M. (2018). Compilation of real-world laboratories with different spatial and thematic scopes (examples from Baden-Württemberg, North Rhine-Westphalia, and Switzerland). (Online):…Schneidewind__Supplement_Cases.pdf (PDF 180KB)

Giddens, A. (1984). The constitution of society: Outline of the theory of structuration. Polity: Cambridge, UK.

Gross, M. and Krohn, W. (2005). Society as experiment: Sociological foundations for a self-experimental society. History of the Human Sciences, 18, 2: 63–86.

Biography: Franziska Stelzer PhD is a research fellow at the Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy in Germany. Her main research interests are real-world laboratories in the context of transformative research and societal impact assessment.

Biography: Uwe Schneidewind PhD is president of the Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy and professor for Sustainable Transition Management at the University of Wuppertal, Germany. He is a member of the German Advisory Council on Global Change (WBGU). His main research interests are transformations to sustainability in their technological, economic, institutional and cultural dimensions and the role of science and science policy for sustainable development.

Biography: Karoline Augenstein PhD is a junior research group leader at the Center for Transformation Research and Sustainability (TransZent) at the University of Wuppertal, Germany. Her main research interests are in sustainability transitions research and transdisciplinary approaches, currently focusing on upscaling strategies for an urban sharing society.

Biography: Matthias Wanner is a research fellow at the Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy, Germany. His main research interests are real-world laboratories, bottom-up approaches and psychological dimensions for societal change.

To read or not to read…

Community member post by Gabriele Bammer

This is the second annual “state of the blog” review.

Gabriele Bammer (biography)

Why are you reading this? That sounds like an aggressive question, but it’s not meant to be. It’s a prelude to asking: is the blog serving a useful purpose for you? If so, what is it doing right? If not, what could it do better?

The blog was established to provide easier access to concepts and methods for dealing with complex problems in any field (environment, public health, welfare, education, security and more) and to connect a diverse and fragmented community – primarily of researchers.

November 2017 marked the blog’s second anniversary and this 169th blog post reviews how we are tracking, as well as asking for your input. Continue reading

Three lessons from statistics for interdisciplinarians and fellow travellers

Community member post by Gabriele Bammer

Gabriele Bammer (biography)

In last week’s blog post on recognising interdisciplinary expertise I argued that forming a new i2S discipline could help embed interdisciplinarity and related approaches (transdisciplinarity, systems thinking, action research, T-shaped research and others) in the academic mainstream. But how would such a discipline work? What are the challenges to establishing an i2S discipline and how could they be overcome?

The discipline of statistics provides three productive analogies. Key to success in both statistics and i2S are: collaboration, dedicated journals to publish advances in concepts and methods, and lobbying for effective application of the discipline. Continue reading

Recognising interdisciplinary expertise

Gabriele Bammer (biography)

Community member post by Gabriele Bammer

Could we overcome the challenges of embedding interdisciplinarity in the academic mainstream if relevant expertise were defined and recognized as a new discipline? What is this relevant expertise?

Here I consider team-based interdisciplinarity addressing complex societal and environmental problems and argue that it needs specific expertise over and above that contributed by disciplines. This set of knowledge and skills is currently poorly defined and recognized.

If contributing such know-how was an established role, it could provide a way of more adequately integrating interdisciplinary researchers into academic institutions. Furthermore, the time is ripe to codify that expertise by pulling together lessons from decades of experience. Continue reading

One university’s response to addressing complex real-world problems / Respuesta de una universidad para afrontar problemas complejos del mundo real

Community member post by Carlos Mataix, Javier Carrasco, Sara Romero and Marcel Bursztyn

A Spanish version of this post is available

How can universities more effectively address complex real-world problems, especially in sustainable development? What’s needed is not only disciplinary expertise, but also an ability to deal with systems problems involving wicked dynamic interrelations and a diversity of stakeholders, with varying levels of power to design and implement solutions. Researchers need to interact with a diversity of actors, inside and outside the academic community and to take into account diverse mental frameworks, languages, cultures and interests.

The Innovation and Technology for Development Centre at the Technical University of Madrid (itdUPM)

A growing number of faculty members at the Technical University of Madrid have sought to address this challenge, leading to the creation in March 2012 of the Innovation and Technology for Development Centre (itdUPM).

The Centre’s main characteristics are:

  • Its aim of contributing to the solution of sustainability problems through both collaborative research and postgraduate problem-oriented education, involving students from diverse disciplines
  • Voluntary affiliation of university faculty members and researchers to itdUPM, with more than 200 currently holding joint appointments or multiple affiliations between departments or research groups and itdUPM. A faculty member will undertake teaching duties for their department, disciplinary research within their research group, and action-focused research on sustainable development problems with members of the itdUPM network
  • Affiliates also include non-academic professionals and experts with a record of collaboration with itdUPM and its working groups
  • The Centre is organized as a network
  • Teams are not permanent and they are established as task forces of varying durations.

The Centre’s organization is represented in the figure below. The circles represent the network’s nodes:

  • Management Committee (19 lecturers and coordinators of Research Groups and PhD holders)
  • Standing Committees (working under the Management Committee to speed up processes and programmes)
  • Communities of Knowledge and Practices (communities focus on different disciplines)
  • Technical Team (fulfills the enabler node function composed by a group of individuals dedicated exclusively to itdUPM).
Carlos Mataix (biography)

Javier Carrasco (biography)

Sara Romero (biography)

Marcel Bursztyn (biography)

Continue reading

Why we should not ignore interdisciplinarity’s critics

Rick Szostak (biography)

Community member post by Rick Szostak

A handful of recent books have made surprising and misguided critiques of interdisciplinarity. How should interdisciplinarians respond? It is tempting simply to ignore such works. As academics, we too often encounter publications that are sadly ignorant of relevant literatures. Yet it seems to me that there are a couple of key reasons not to ignore them.

First, there is clearly an audience for these works, or they would not be published. Continue reading