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)

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Uwe Schneidewind (biography)

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Karoline Augenstein (biography)

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Matthias Wanner (biography)

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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):
http://www.oekom.de/…Schneidewind__Supplement_Cases.pdf (PDF 180KB)

References:
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.

Using Ostrom’s social-ecological systems framework to set context for transdisciplinary research: A case study

Community member post by Maria Helena Guimarães

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Maria Helena Guimarães (biography)

How can Elinor Ostrom’s social-ecological systems framework help transdisciplinary research? I propose that this framework can provide an understanding of the system in which the transdisciplinary research problem is being co-defined.

Understanding the system is a first step and is necessary for adequate problem framing, engagement of participants, connecting knowledge and structuring the collaboration between researchers and non-academics. It leads to a holistic understanding of the problem or question to be dealt with. It allows the problem framing to start with a fair representation of the issues, values and interests that can influence the research outcomes. It also identifies critical gaps as our case study below illustrates. Continue reading

How is transformative knowledge ‘co-produced’?

Community member post by Andy Stirling, Adrian Ely and Fiona Marshall

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Andy Stirling (biography)

It’s often said that knowledge to tackle big problems in the world – food, water, climate, energy, biodiversity, disease and war – has to be ‘co-produced’. Tackling these problems is not just about solving ‘grand challenges’ with big solutions, it’s also about grappling with the underlying causal social and political drivers. But what does co-production actually mean, and how can it help to create knowledge that leads to real transformation?

Here’s how we at the Social, Technological and Environmental Pathways to Sustainability (STEPS) Centre approach this challenge of co-production. Continue reading

CoNavigator: Hands-on interdisciplinary problem solving

Community member post by Katrine Lindvig, Line Hillersdal and David Earle

How can we resolve the stark disparity between theoretical knowledge about interdisciplinary approaches and practical applications? How can we get from written guidelines to actual practices, especially taking into account the contextual nature of knowledge production; not least when the collaborating partners come from different disciplinary fields with diverse expectations and concerns?

For the past few years, we have been developing ways in which academic theory and physical interactions can be combined. The result is CoNavigator – a hands-on, 3-dimensional and gamified tool which can be used:

  • for learning purposes in educational settings
  • as a fast-tracking tool for interdisciplinary problem solving.

CoNavigator is a tool which allows groups to collaborate on a 3-dimensional visualisation of the interdisciplinary topography of a given field or theme. It addresses the contextual and local circumstances and the unique combinations of members in collaborative teams. CoNavigator is therefore short for both Context Navigation and Collaboration Navigation. The process of applying the tool takes around 3 hours.

Using CoNavigator

CoNavigator is composed of writable tiles and cubes to enable rapid, collaborative visualisation, as shown in the first figure below. The tactile nature of the tool is designed to encourage collaboration and negotiation over a series of defined steps.

Making the Tacit Visible and Tangible

Each participant makes a personal tool swatch. By explaining their skills to a person with a completely different background, the participant is forced to re-evaluate, re-formulate, and translate skills in a way that increases their own disciplinary awareness. Each competency that is identified is written onto a separate tool swatch.

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Katrine Lindvig (biography)

line-hillersdal
Line Hillersdal (biography)

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David Earle (biography)

Continue reading

Two lessons for early involvement of stakeholders in research

Community member post by Obasanjo Oyedele, Martin Atela and Ayo Ojebode

Obasanjo Oyedele (biography)

A fundamental principle for conducting research that is easily put to use by stakeholders is to involve them in the research process as early as possible. But how can the inertia and lack of interest that stakeholders often have at this stage be overcome?

We provide two lessons from our experience of involving stakeholders as early as the research launch. Continue reading

A new boundary object to promote researcher engagement with policy makers / Un nuevo objeto frontera para promover la colaboración de los investigadores con los tomadores de decisiones

Community member post by María D. López Rodríguez

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María D. López Rodríguez (biography)

A Spanish version of this post is available

Can boundary objects be designed to help researchers and decision makers to interact more effectively? How can the socio-political setting – which will affect decisions made – be reflected in the boundary objects?

Here I describe a new context-specific boundary object to promote decision making based on scientific evidence. But first I provide a brief introduction to boundary objects.

What is a ‘boundary object’?

In transdisciplinary research, employing a ‘boundary object’ is a widely used method to facilitate communication and understanding among stakeholder groups with different epistemologies. Boundary objects are abstract tools adaptable to different perspectives and across knowledge domains to serve as a means of symbolic communication. Continue reading