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.

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

Lessons from “real-world laboratories” about transdisciplinary projects, transformative research and participation

Community member post by Antonietta Di Giulio and Rico Defila

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Antonietta Di Giulio (biography)
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Rico Defila (biography)

In Germany there has recently been a heated debate about the need for, and the justification of, so-called “transformative research”. At the same time, German funders are increasingly supporting research in “real-world laboratories” and these explicitly aim to bring about social change. We lead an accompanying research project (“Begleitforschung” in German) in a real-world laboratory program of research in Baden-Württemberg (see Schäpke et al., (2015) for more information). This has led us to reflect upon the relationship between transdisciplinary research and transformative research, and how this impacts on how we think about participation in research. We share some preliminary ideas here.
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Doing a transdisciplinary PhD? Four tips to convince the examiners about your data

Community member post by Jane Palmer, Dena Fam, Tanzi Smith and Jenny Kent

How can research writing best be crafted to present transdisciplinarity? How can doctoral candidates effectively communicate to examiners a clear understanding of ‘data’, what it is and how the thesis uses it convincingly?

The authors have all recently completed transdisciplinary doctorates in the field of sustainable futures and use this experience to highlight the challenges of crafting a convincing piece of research writing that also makes claims of transdisciplinarity (Palmer et al., 2018). We propose four strategies for working with data convincingly when undertaking transdisciplinary doctoral research.

1. Make the data visible and argue for the unique or special way in which the data will be used

Some of the comments received from our examiners reflected a sense of being provided with insufficient data, or that it was not convincing as data.

It is important that the nature of data for the purposes of the research is clearly defined, and presented in a way that demonstrates its value in the research process. Richer contextualization of the data can help to make clear its value. This can include drawing attention to the remoteness of the field location, the rare access gained to the participants, and/or the unusual or special qualities of the data that make an original contribution to knowledge.

In these and other cases, it may be important to explain how a particular kind of data can valuably inform an argument qualitatively without reference to minimum quantitative thresholds. This is particularly relevant where a transdisciplinary doctoral candidate is crossing between physical/natural science, humanities and social science disciplines.

2. Be creative and explore the possibilities enabled by a broad interpretation of ‘data’

The advantage conferred on the candidate in taking a transdisciplinary approach needs to be made evident to the examiners, especially where there may appear to have been an absorption of the ‘data’ in the wider synthesizing narratives that are typical of transdisciplinary writing.

Adopting more creative writing techniques may help the examiner both to see the data, and to see the research as valuable. Transdisciplinary doctoral candidates may, given the complex feat of communication this requires, find it useful to seek training in creative writing or science communication skills.

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Jane Palmer (biography)

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Dena Fam (biography)

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tanzi-smith
Tanzi Smith (biography)

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Jenny Kent (biography)

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Is it legitimate for transdisciplinary research to set out to change society?

Community member post by Antonietta Di Giulio and Rico Defila

antonietta-di-giulio
Antonietta Di Giulio (biography)
rico-defila
Rico Defila (biography)

An unspoken and unchallenged assumption underpinning much discourse about transdisciplinary research is that it must change society.

The assumption goes beyond whether research should contribute to change, or whether research impacts developments in society, or whether research should investigate societal problems and provide solutions, or anything similar – it is that research should actively and intentionally be transformative. This generally goes hand-in-hand with a deep conviction that researchers are entitled to actually change society according to what they believe to be right. For many this conviction allows researchers to impose their interventions and solutions on other societal actors by, if necessary, being manipulative. Continue reading

Non-certified experts, stakeholders, practitioners… What participants are called defines transdisciplinarity

Community member post by Antonietta Di Giulio and Rico Defila

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Rico Defila (biography)
antonietta-di-giulio
Antonietta Di Giulio (biography)

In an actor-oriented understanding of transdisciplinary research, there are basically two types of actors: those in the academic system who ensure scientific rigor and who are responsible for project outcomes, usually called ‘researchers’ – and ‘the others’. ‘The others’ lacks precision and even a superficial review of the literature reveals multiple ways of describing them. We highlight a selection of these below (the emphasis in the quotations is ours). Continue reading