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

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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The university campus as a transdisciplinary living laboratory

By Dena Fam, Abby Mellick Lopes, Alexandra Crosby and Katie Ross

How can transdisciplinary educators help students reflexively understand their position in the field of research? Often this means giving students the opportunity to go beyond being observers of social reality to experience themselves as potential agents of change.

To enable this opportunity, we developed a model for a ‘Transdisciplinary Living Lab’ (Fam et al., forthcoming). This builds on the concept of a collaborative test bed of innovative approaches to a problem or situation occurring in a ‘living’ social environment where end-users are involved. For us, the social environment is the university campus. We involved two universities in developing this model – the University of Technology Sydney and Western Sydney University. We aimed to help students explore food waste management systems on campus and to consider where the interventions they designed were situated within global concerns, planetary boundaries and the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

The Transdisciplinary Living Lab was designed and delivered in three largely distinct, yet iterative phases, scaling from individual experiences to a global problem context. These phases of the living lab, which work to integrate personal and professional knowledge and practice, are also shown in the figure below:

1. Entering the living lab was the phase where students were introduced to collaborative teamwork processes, expectations of joint problem formulation and critical reflection on their own position within the system being explored: ‘digging where they stand’. This meant helping students consider their relationships with the food waste system as consumers of food and producers of waste, as well as their potential impact as designers of interventions in that system.

2. Transdisciplinary learning was the second phase where students were introduced to the concept of research as a process of system intervention, as well as skills for co-producing and integrating knowledge in collaboration with diverse partners in the food system. For the Transdisciplinary Living Lab at the University of Technology Sydney this meant listening to, questioning and collaborating with relevant stakeholders in the system to investigate historical and current approaches to the issue, and exploring precedents for dealing with food waste in other parts of the world. Central to this phase was ensuring the sharing of knowledge among the students as it was produced. This meant organising a publically accessible class blog that can be viewed at https://wealthfromwaste.wordpress.com/ and weekly debriefs and discussions on insights gained.

Dena Fam (biography)

Abby Mellick Lopes (biography)

Alexandra Crosby (biography)

Katie Ross (biography)

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Ten essentials for more impactful and integrated research on transformations

By Ioan Fazey

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Ioan Fazey (biography)

What can we learn when we bring together different insights from the rich and diverse traditions of action-oriented research? Will this help us more effectively understand and navigate our way through a world of change to ensure knowledge production contributes more directly to societal needs?

In a recent publication (Fazey et al., 2018), we explored the critical question of how to develop innovative, transformative solutions and knowledge about how to implement them. Addressing these questions requires much more engagement with more practical forms of knowledge, as well as learning from action and change in much more direct ways than currently occurs in academia. It is like learning to ride a bicycle, which can’t be done just by watching a powerpoint presentation, and which requires learning by “getting hands dirty” and by falling off and starting again.

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Overcoming a paradox? Preparing students for transdisciplinary environments

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Machiel Keestra (biography)

By Machiel Keestra

How can we adequately prepare and train students to navigate transdisciplinary environments? How can we develop hybrid spaces in our universities that are suitable for transdisciplinary education?

These questions were considered by a plenary panel, which I organised and chaired at the International Transdisciplinarity Conference 2017 at Leuphana University, Germany. Three major educational requirements were identified:

  • long-term collaborations with businesses, as well as non-governmental, governmental and community organisations
  • teaching particular dispositions and competencies
  • preparing students for intercultural endeavours.

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Productive multivocal analysis – Part 1: Avoiding the pitfalls of interdisciplinarity

By Kristine Lund

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Kristine Lund (biography)

Many voices are expressed when researchers from different backgrounds come together to work on a new project and it may sound like cacophony. All those voices are competing to be heard. In addition, researchers make different assumptions about people and data and if these assumptions are not brought to light, the project can reach an impasse later on and much time can be wasted.

So how can such multivocality be positive and productive, while avoiding trouble? How can multiple voices be harnessed to not only achieve the project’s goals, but also to make scientific progress?

Read moreProductive multivocal analysis – Part 1: Avoiding the pitfalls of interdisciplinarity

The path perspective on modelling projects

By Tuomas J. Lahtinen, Joseph H. A. Guillaume, Raimo P. Hämäläinen

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Tuomas J. Lahtinen (biography)

How can we identify and evaluate decision forks in a modelling project; those points where a different decision might lead to a better model?

Although modellers often follow so called best practices, it is not uncommon that a project goes astray. Sometimes we become so embedded in the work that we do not take time to stop and think through options when decision points are reached.

Joseph H. A. Guillaume (biography)

One way of clarifying thinking about this phenomenon is to think of the path followed. The path is the sequence of steps actually taken in developing a model or in a problem solving case. A modelling process can typically be carried out in different ways, which generate different paths that can lead to different outcomes. That is, there can be path dependence in modelling.

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Raimo P. Hämäläinen (biography)

Recently, we have come to understand the importance of human behaviour in modelling and the fact that modellers are subject to biases. Behavioural phenomena naturally affect the problem solving path. For example, the problem solving team can become anchored to one approach and only look for refinements in the model that was initially chosen. Due to confirmation bias, modelers may selectively gather and use evidence in a way that supports their initial beliefs and assumptions. The availability heuristic is at play when modellers focus on phenomena that are easily imaginable or recalled. Moreover particularly in high interest cases strategic behaviour of the project team members can impact the path of the process.

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Transkillery! What skills are needed to be a boundary crosser?

By Dena Fam, Tanzi Smith and Dana Cordell

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Dena Fam (biography)

What skills and dispositions are required by researchers and practitioners in transdisciplinary research and practice in crossing boundaries, sectors and paradigms?

The insights here come from interviews with 14 internationally recognized transdisciplinary researchers and practitioners, chosen from a diverse range of research and practice-based perspectives.

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Tanzi Smith (biography)

Here we focus on:

1) skills for specific tasks such as facilitation of a meeting, crafting a well-written report, and communicating effectively across disciplines; and,

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Dana Cordell (biography)

2) dispositions, attitudes, orientations and temperaments of an effective researcher/practitioner, i.e., as a way of being.

Six categories of skills and dispositions

The core skills and dispositions of an exceptional transdisciplinary researcher/practitioner can be grouped into six categories, illustrated in the figure below.

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Values, confidence, and time: What researchers should consider when engaging with civil society organisations

By William L. Allen

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William L. Allen (biography)

When researchers want to engage or work with groups outside universities—especially civil society organisations—what should they consider as part of this process?

Civil society comprises organisations—large and small—that are outside of the public and private sectors. These include non-governmental organisations, charities, or voluntary groups.

Three lessons emerged from asking civil society organisations what they would tell academics who want to work with them:

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Pro-active learning to improve interdisciplinary processes

By Laura R. Meagher

Member of Board of Governors
Laura R. Meagher (biography)

I am a firm believer in looking at interdisciplinary collaboration and knowledge exchange – or impact generation – as processes. If you can see something as a process, you can learn about it. If you can learn about it, you can do it better!

I find that this approach helps people to feel enfranchised, to believe that it is possible for them to open up what might have seemed to be a static black box and achieve understanding of the dynamics of how nouns like ‘interdisciplinarity’ or ‘knowledge exchange’ or ‘research impact’ can actually come to be.

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Storytelling ethnography as a way of doing transdisciplinary research

By Jane Palmer

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Jane Palmer (biography)

Storytelling ethnography is a valuable tool if your research traverses several disciplines and aims for insights that transcend all of them. Stories not only integrate knowledge from diverse disciplines, but can also “change the way people act, the way they use available knowledge” (Griffiths 2007).

The special qualities of transdisciplinarity are:

  • its potential for integrative inquiry and emergent solutions,
  • its engagement with community and other non-academic knowledges, and
  • the breadth of its outcomes for researchers, participants and the wider community.

These are also qualities of what I call storytelling ethnography.

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