Today’s researchers face intractable, wicked problems — like climate change and global inequity — that are too broad to solve with traditional disciplinary research techniques. Transdisciplinary (TD) research practices have come to the fore over the last decade as a response to such problems. In TD research, participants from inside and outside academia work together to co-design research, integrate different knowledge types and co-produce outcomes that respond to real-world challenges.
TD research requires some different skills to disciplinary research and learning these skills can be challenging. The traditional pathway to an academic career, via graduate research, sees students working on individual research projects with limited time and resources to facilitate the broad stakeholder participation and cross-disciplinary exploration that characterises TD research. When they do reach out to other disciplines, the lack of a shared research challenge that is sufficiently relevant to multiple students often stymies collaboration.
Transdisciplinary Learning Labs
In 2016, I set out to test one possible way of helping research students and their supervisors to learn TD research skills through experience. My project piloted a Transdisciplinary Learning Lab (TDLL) that responded to two hypotheses about learning how to do TD research:
- The best way to learn how to do TD research is through experiential learning, working directly with stakeholders and collaborators from other disciplines on real problems
- While we know from experience that TD research typically takes a lot of time, it is possible to deliver a compressed, intense TD experience that supports rapid learning about TD practice.
Let’s cut to the chase. I still believe the first hypothesis, but my experience with the TDLL has made me think that there are no shortcuts to learning how to do TD research — it requires plenty of time and space to build trust between participants and support ongoing reflection.
The TDLL brought together 38 research students and 9 supervisors from diverse disciplines to collaborate over two days on a TD research inquiry into the topic of Sustainable Ultimo. All the students and supervisors were from the University of Technology Sydney, which is based in the inner Sydney suburb of Ultimo. The topic was chosen as one that we felt all participants could connect to, given that they spend at least some of their time in Ultimo and are familiar with the local context. Over the two days, participants engaged in facilitated, team-based activities designed to mimic, in a compressed format, the process of an actual TD research project. This kind of intensive experience has proven effective in other applications, such as design labs and social innovation labs.
Stakeholders were also brought into the process through a stakeholder forum during the first day, in which nine local stakeholders shared their research challenges with participants. In response, the TDLL participants successfully worked together in four teams to develop, implement and present four distinct ‘mini research projects’ on the topic of Sustainable Ultimo. In feedback, participants valued the engagement with researchers from other disciplines and learned from their exposure to stakeholders and different disciplinary perspectives.
Evaluating the TDLL
So, what went wrong? Despite positive previous experiences with intensive design labs, innovation labs and futures labs, it was not possible to effectively compress learning about TD research practice into a 2-day lab format. The intensive format did not give participants enough time to form relationships, build trust, find common ground and agree on a research problem. Specific limitations related to the lab format are outlined below.
First, the logistical choice to pre-define the lab topic as Sustainable Ultimo made it more difficult for participants to integrate their research interests and potentially contributed to poor attendance by registered participants and a high dropout rate. Of 50 registered participants, only half attended most of the two days. TD research is challenging and if you are going to put the effort in to cross disciplinary boundaries, you need to be passionate about the topic.
Second, the limited stakeholder involvement meant that participants were not able to work iteratively with stakeholders to generate research projects. Participants became unsure whether their research projects would actually help stakeholders, and were unable to check with them. Some participants also felt the stakeholder mix was missing important perspectives, such as social, community and public amenity. These limitations reflected the practicalities of asking stakeholders to give up their time to participate. In a longer-term engagement, where the topic is of clear interest to a stakeholder, there is time to work together more iteratively and build trusting relationships.
Third, I assumed participants would already have some of the skills that are crucial to TD research, such as communication across disciplines, facilitation, negotiation and integration. This was not always the case, which indicates that some formal training in such skills would be valuable before throwing participants into a real TD research project.
Finally, it takes time to draw out different values, disciplinary language and interests and the TDLL format did not allow sufficient time for doing this. Several participants argued for a less outcome-directed approach, where researchers can take the time for more open exploration of their diverse research interests and find common ground. I completely agree.
What we learnt
While the TDLL approach turned out to have many limitations, it did help to crystallise what a more appropriate approach to learning about TD research practice might look like. Instead of borrowing from intensive lab processes, TD learning may be better served by borrowing from incubator programs.
In such an approach, participants could sign up for a ‘TD Incubator’ that would run over the course of a semester, or even a year. There would be an initial focus on building knowledge and skills for doing TD research. Then the Incubator would move into a matchmaking process, in which participants would engage with each other and external stakeholders in an open, exploratory process to find shared research interests that they could develop into a project. They would then go on to implement this project over the course of the Incubator, supported by coaching from experts in TD research. If you are interested in working to develop such a program, I would love to hear from you.
What is abundantly clear from this experience is that there may not be any shortcuts to learning how to do TD research. TD research requires trusting relationships and navigation of different knowledge perspectives, and that simply takes time. Ideally, graduate researchers will increasingly find themselves in cross-disciplinary environments where they can pick up these skills through experience. Failing that, TD incubator programmes may be able to better prepare emerging researchers for this new mode of research practice.