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Ten Reflective Steps for Rendering Research Societally Relevant

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Today, there is an increasing need for researchers to demonstrate the practical value their research can generate for society. Over the past decade, experts in transdisciplinary research have developed numerous principles, methods, and tools for making research more societally relevant. If researchers are unfamiliar with transdisciplinary research, they may miss opportunities to adapt these principles and tools to their research projects. We are developing a 10-step approach for joint use by transdisciplinarity experts and researchers about how to best align their research projects with the requirements of transdisciplinarity. We have successfully applied this approach in numerous workshops, summer schools, and seminars at ETH Zurich and beyond. Ten questions guide discussions between transdisciplinarity experts and researchers around research issues, identify and review the societal problems addressed, identify relevant actors and disciplines, and clarify the purpose and form of the inter - action with them. The feedback we have obtained clearly indicates that the 10-step approach is a very useful tool: It provides a systematic procedure for thinking through ways to better link research to societal problem solving.
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While the goal of transdisciplinary research is to be relevant to society,
specific instructions for accomplishing this remain implicit.
We propose to improve this situation by means of a 10-step approach
aimed at stimulating explicit reflections around ways to
render research more societally relevant.
Ten Reflective Steps for Rendering
Research Societally Relevant
43
>
Ten Reflective Steps for Rendering Research
Societally Relevant
GAIA 26/1(2017): 43– 51
Abstract
Today, there is an increasing need for researchers to demonstrate
the practical value their research can generate for society. Over
the past decade, experts in transdisciplinary research have
developed numerous principles, methods, and tools for making
research more societally relevant. If researchers are unfamiliar
with transdisciplinary research, they may miss opportunities to
adapt these principles and tools to their research projects. We are
developing a 10-step approach for joint use by transdisciplinarity
experts and researchers about how to best align their research
projects with the requirements of transdisciplinarity. We have
successfully applied this approach in numerous workshops,
summer schools, and seminars at ETH Zurich and beyond.
Ten questions guide discussions between transdisciplinarity
experts and researchers around research issues, identify and
review the societal problems addressed, identify relevant actors
and disciplines, and clarify the purpose and form of the inter -
action with them. The feedback we have obtained clearly indicates
that the 10-step approach is a very useful tool: It provides a
systematic procedure for thinking through ways to better link
research to societal problem solving.
Keywords
10-step approach, actor involvement, functional-dynamic interaction,
interdisciplinarity, science-society interface, sustainability research,
teaching, thought styles, transdisciplinarity, wicked problems
https://doi.org/10 .14512/gaia.26.1.10
Christian Pohl, Pius Krütli,
Michael Stauffacher
Contact: Dr.Christian Pohl |Tel.: +41 44 6326310 |
E-Mail: christian.pohl@env.ethz.ch
Dr.Pius Krütli |E-Mail: pius.kruetli@usys.ethz.ch
Prof. Dr.Michael Stauffacher |E-Mail:
michael.stauffacher@usys.ethz.ch
How to Go Transdisciplinary
Ten years ago, when we were invited to present the transdisciplin -
ary (td) research approach in PhD schools or at conferences, ques-
tions mainly concerned the definition of transdisciplinarity and
how it differs from interdisciplinarity or multidisciplinarity. A few
years later, the questions had changed and focused on how td re -
search should be conducted, and how to align other types of re-
search projects with the td approach. This shift of interest required
a different kind of contribution, one that would act as a bridge be-
tween td research methods and other research projects. A num-
ber of publications provide general transdisciplinarity principles
and present case studies (Pohl and Hirsch Hadorn 2007, Hirsch
Hadorn et al. 2008, Carew and Wickson 2010, Lang et al. 2012),
or provide guidelines for research for sustainable development
(Wies mann and Hurni 2011, Pintér et al. 2012, Helming et al. 2016).
In addition, methods and tools have been proposed regard ing how
to address specific challenges of td research (Bergmann et al. 2012,
Gaziulusoy and Boyle 2013, Vogel et al. 2013). The online tool-
boxes described in GAIA’s series onToolkits for Transdisciplinarity
present such methods regularly (e.g., Bammer 2016). The prob-
lem with these abstract principles and practical tools is that re -
search ers who are not familiar with td research do not know how
to adapt or integrate them to their research project. How and by
whom could this integration and adaptation be accomplished?
In 2011 two of the authors held a summer school on td re-
search at the TsamaHUB Centre of theUniversity of Stellenbosch
in South Africa. We were invited as transdisciplinarity experts to
help align PhD candidates’ and postdocs’ research projects with
the principles and practices of td research. We decided to organize
all: ETH Zurich |Department of Environmental Systems Science (D-USYS)|
Institute for Environmental Decisions |USYS TdLab |Universitätstr. 22 |
8092 Zurich |Switzerland
©2017 C.Pohl et al.; licensee oekom verlag. This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of
the Creative Commons AttributionLicense (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0),which permits
unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium,provided the original work is properly cited.
43_51_Pohl 09.03.17 19:29 Seite 43
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44 RESEARCH |FORSCHUNG Christian Pohl, Pius Krütli, Michael Stauffacher
the integration and adaptation tasks as a co-production of knowl-
edge by both the researchers and the transdisciplinarity experts.
The research question of each project was the starting point: first,
the researchers were asked to think about how their research
question related to the societal problem they wanted to help solve.
Second, they were to reflect about which disciplines and what so -
cietal actors should be involved to help embed the project in sci-
ence and society. To make the process interactive, we alternated
between short theo retical inputs and longer phases during which
participants related what they had just heard to their own research
projects. We provided the participants with flipchart sheets and
asked them to document their reflections about the steps we went
through.
In Stellenbosch, this process consisted of six steps and it took
a week. In the meantime, it consists of ten steps and we are able
to carry it out in one day. We have used the 10-step approach wide-
ly. It is part of the CCES (Competence Center Environment and
Sustainability) winter school Science Meets Practice (Stauffacher et
al. 2012) as well as of our Seminar on Transdisciplinary Research for
Sustainable Development at ETH Zurich. We have used it with td
research, with applied and (use-inspired) basic research projects,
with PhD students from natural science, social science and hu-
manities, as well as with researchers from international research
programmes. The 10-step approach goes beyond the above-men-
tioned tools and adds to approaches like Schiffer and Hauck’s Net-
Map (2010) in three respects: 1. it connects the analysis of how
a research question relates to a societal problem with reflections
about the disciplines and the societal actors that are or ought to
be involved, 2. it facilitates analyses not only of the societal actors
in terms of their power, interests, and expertise, but also of the re-
searchers from various disciplines, and 3. it provides a structure
for a joint reflection by transdisciplinarity experts and researchers
about their projects.
The presentation of the 10-step approach is structured as fol-
lows. First, we briefly outline our understanding of the td research
process. We then present for each step 1. how we introduce it, 2.
what we ask researchers to do, and 3. what we expect them to learn.
To conclude, we briefly review our previous experiences.
The Transdisciplinary Research Process
When we developed the 10-step approach we were guided by a
specific understanding of the td research process. This under -
stand ing was not stable, but evolved over the last de cade. Before
we start with the ten steps, we usually convey this un derstanding
to the participants and compare it to more linear concepts or mod -
els of the science-society linkage, such as technology transfer,
speaking truth to power (Wildavsky 1987, Jasanoff and Wynne
1998), or public understanding of science (Lewenstein 2002).
Building on the work of Bergmann, Jahn and colleagues (Berg -
mann et al. 2005, Jahn et al. 2012), we understand the td research
process as an attempt to link two processes of knowledge produc -
tion: 1. a societal process, in which actors try to understand and
tackle a particular societal issue, 2. a scientific process, in which
scientists design and conduct research on the societal issue. In
figure 1 this societal issue is sustainable development.
We reframed the societal process as the realm of “practice”,
emphasizing the rationality of relevance and workability (see fig-
ure 1, right side). The challenge of a td research process is to pro-
vide links between “science” and “practice”. This is necessary be -
cause researchers and practitioners typically perceive and handle
sustainability issues by different rationalities – in the words of
Ludwik Fleck (1979), by different “thought styles”.
The scientific thought style (see figure 1, left side) is driven by
questions about how things are and how they function, for exam-
ple, whether a statement about climate change is true and wheth -
er it is based on rigorous argumentation and evidence. Although
truth and rigor are key elements of research, disciplines might
have different perceptions of what they exactly mean, how closely
The transdisciplinary research process
connects scientific knowledge production and
societal problem handling (larger round arrows).
Often the two processes are not explicitly related
(smaller round arrows). The transdisciplinary
research process consists of the stages of framing
the problem, analyzing the problem, and exploring
the project’s impact. Projects run through the stages
in different orders (thin straight and angled arrows).
During these stages researchers of different disci-
plines collaborate and involve soci etal actors in a
joint research and learning experience. The intensity
of collaboration and involvement is functional-
dynamic, i.e., it varies depending on the purpose
of the specific stage (figure 4,p.50). Two rationali-
ties (thought styles)meet and have to be balanced
in this process: the thought style of science
searching for truth and the thought style of
practice interested in workability (based on
Bergmann et al. 2005, Pohl and Hirsch Hadorn
2007, Krütli et al. 2010, Jahn et al. 2012); see also
www.transdisciplinarity.ch/e/Transdisciplinarity.
FIGURE 1:
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45RESEARCH |FORSCHUNGChristian Pohl, Pius Krütli, Michael Stauffacher
they can be approximated, and what is seen as acceptable evi dence
for truth. In addition, disciplines rely on diverse ways of produc-
ing evidence, such as standardized controlled experiments, mod-
els fitted to historical data, mathematical proofs, series of inter-
views that are stopped if information reaches saturation, or argu -
ments that are true if they follow the rules of formal logic.
Society is designing solutions for a societal issue – like an en-
ergy or transport system – in the thought style of practice. Here
the question is not “Is it true?” but “Is it the right approach to the
issue at stake?” and “Does it work?”. Sub-groups of society will
answer these questions differently. Rittel (1971) calls such design
problems “wicked” or “ill-behaved”. They are wicked because:
“For design problems there is no criterion which would deter -
mine whether a solution is correct or false. These are meaning-
less labels which cannot be applied to solutions of design prob-
lems. Plans are judged as good, bad, reasonable, but never cor-
rect or false. And a plan that looks good to Mr. A may be most
objectionable to Mr. B.” (Rittel 1971,p. 19). >
Recently scholars in the field of sustainable development have
started to conceptualize societal issues as “wicked problems” in
Rittel’s sense (Brown et al. 2010, Pintér et al. 2012, Neßhöver et al.
2013, Gaziulusoy et al. 2016). For instance, Mr. A could regard
nuclear energy as a means against global warming, while Mrs. B
could be mostly concerned about the nuclear waste problem. Mr.
A and Mrs. B do not differ in their assessment of the solution be -
cause one is right and the other wrong, but because they value cer-
tain aspects of the solution differently. Both persons base their
assessment on their specific rationality or thought style.
The 10-Step Approach
The purpose of the 10-step approach is to critically review to what
degree and in what way(s) a research project is embedded in the
realms of science and practice. The steps are organized into three
main stages (see table 1):
Formulate a research question and classify research as
basic, applied, or transdisciplinary.
Distinguish between research question and societal
problem; make links between both.
Specify the societal problem identified in step 2 and
relate it to the policy cycle (problem framing/policy
development/implementation/evaluation; figure 2, p.46).
Identify knowledge needed by (primary)target group(s);
check whether the knowledge needed is what research
may provide.
Identify disciplines and societal actors to be involved in
the research project.
Clarify the role of societal actors and disciplines
vis-à-vis your own research (question); identify paths of
interaction (informing, consulting, co-producing).
Actor constellation: moderated role-play placing societal
actors and disciplines around a research question.
The closer the actors/disciplines are to the research
question, the more relevant they are for the research.
Clarify expectations and interests of the societal actors
and disciplines involved.
Design a plan on why to involve which societal actors
and disciplines at different stages of the research project.
Think about lessons learned from going through
steps 1 to 9.
This step helps the researchers to recognize that there are two different realms,
and that positioning one’s own research between them might cause tension.
This step makes the researchers reflect about what the societal problem actually
is, and if and how their own research contributes to solving a societal problem.
This step makes researchers aware that a societal problem is dynamic, that society
is heterogeneous, and that different groups may perceive problems differently.
It identifies the (primary)target group(s) the research should address.
This step makes the researchers reflect on different forms of knowledge their
project could provide, and compare it to the knowledge needed by their (primary)
target group(s).
This step specifies and extends steps 3 and 4 to the world of societal actors and
disciplinary researchers. It increases awareness of relevant expertise and decision
power available elsewhere.
This step helps the researchers to place their research in a broader context by
linking it to other disciplines and societal actors.
This step allows individuals and the group as a whole to reflect about the relevance
of specific societal actors and disciplines for an exemplary research question.
Researchers must substantiate why societal actors and other disciplines need to
be involved. This makes the vague notions of involvement and interaction
(see steps 5, 6)more explicit and concrete.
This step encourages reflections about who to involve/collaborate within one’s
research project depending on the desired societal impacts. It helps to understand
that collaboration is dynamic over time.
This step triggers a reflection on the nine steps and their potential impact on one’s
research work. It helps to identify potential weaknesses in the research project.
TABLE 1: Overview of the 10-step approach.
STEP
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
DESCRIPTION RATIONALE MIGHT LEAD
BACK TO STEP
MATCHING RESEARCH QUESTION AND SOCIETAL KNOWLEDGE DEMAND
1
1, 2
1, 2
5
5, 6
5, 6
IDENTIFYING DISCIPLINES AND SOCIETAL ACTORS AND PLANNING WHO TO INVOLVE, WHEN, AND HOW
REFLECTING ABOUT THE IMPACT
43_51_Pohl 09.03.17 19:29 Seite 45
2
1
46 Christian Pohl, Pius Krütli, Michael Stauffacher
1. The goal of steps 1 to 4 is to match the project’s research
questions with society’s current knowledge base and the
need for a solution to the problem.
2. The goal of steps 5 to 9 is to identify the most relevant
disci plines and societal actors, and to figure out how they
can be involved in the project.
3. Step 10 serves to emphasize the importance of reflecting about
the impact of the 10-step approach on the research project.
To trace how the participants implement the ten steps, and to cre-
ate a starting point for discussing and exchanging reflections, we
provide each participant with a flipchart and a pen. We ask the par-
ticipants to divide the flipchart into ten boxes. To obtain compar -
able flipcharts we ask them to do this by drawing an empty table
with five rows and two columns. We use one cell for every step,
starting with the top left cell. Timewise, the exercise usually takes
a working day (six to eight hours), depending on how much we
elaborate on the theoretical input, and how eager the participants
are to discuss.
Formulate Your Research Question(s)
Researchers frame sustainability issues through the thought style
of a particular discipline, of a particular societal group, or through
mixing several thought styles (Wuelser and Pohl 2016). To make
participants aware of their own and alternative framings, we dis-
cuss how problems are differently framed in basic, applied, and
transdisciplinary research according to the typology proposed by
Hirsch Hadorn et al. (2006). We furthermore introduce figure 1
and relate it to the three framings: basic research questions are usu-
ally framed in the scientific thought style, applied research ques-
tions are influenced by the thought style of practice, and td research
questions mix both thought styles.
Task
Participants are asked to formulate their research question(s) in a
short sentence. They also have to state whether they consider their
research question as basic, applied, or td and why they think so.
Learning Outcome
By formulating the research question(s), the participants anchor
the ten steps in their own research project. Considering whether
the question is framed as basic, applied, or td research helps to
position the project in the spectrum from science to practice.
Formulate the Societal Problem You Want to Help Solve
The second step asks participants to clearly separate their research
question from the societal problem they aim to help solve, and to
think about how the research question and the societal problem
are connected. Referring to figure 1, we show different paths of
how a research question can relate to a societal problem. The fol-
lowing example of basic science linking the left side in figure 1
with the right side may demonstrate this: your research might be
on 1. the light-reflection behavior of a particular cloud particle.
Your results might be taken up by a 2. climate modeller, who pro -
RESEARCH |FORSCHUNG
vides new insights for 3. the next IPPC assessment report. This
then will change 4. a formulation in the report’s summary for pol-
icy makers, which might influence 5. the design of the climate pol-
icy in your country.
Task
Participants are asked to document the societal problem they want
to help solve with their research. If they do not understand the
question, we explain that this is what they usually write in the sec-
tion societal relevance in a research proposal. Furthermore, we ask
them to clarify via what path their research will become societal-
ly relevant.
Learning Outcome
Learning outcomes differ depending on whether the research is
basic, td or applied. Participants conducting (use-inspired) basic
research usually describe a general societal problem. For example:
a specific gene modification in corn helps to fight world hunger;
and society or policy makers (as a fuzzy entity) are in charge of ad-
dressing world hunger. Asked to clarify the impact path, partici -
pants start to reflect more in detail about who could be interested
in the research. In the case of genetically modified corn it might
be a company interested in selling corn seeds. In that case the eco-
nomic thought style becomes important and research that was ori -
ginally framed from a basic science perspective might be reframed
to include aspects relevant from an applied perspective.
For participants considering their projects as applied or td, the
intended effect of step 2 is to distinguish between the research
question and the societal problem to be solved, or to specify both.
In td projects both often seem to be the same at first. Sometimes
participants realize in step 2 that what they formulated as research
question in step 1 was actually the societal problem, making them
reformulate the research question. Such iterations between the
steps happen often and we encourage them to allow for more in-
tense learning (see table 1, rightmost column).
Specify the Stage of the Policy Cycle
In step 3 participants develop a differentiated understanding of
GAIA 26/1(2017): 43– 51
A simple four-stage approach to the policy process. A policy pro-
cess and its outcome is the result of the continuous interplay of actors from the
public sector (triangle), the private sector (diamond), civil society (circle)and
academia (square)(
Wuelser et al. 2012, p.86).
FIGURE 2:
43_51_Pohl 09.03.17 19:29 Seite 46
5
4
3
47Christian Pohl, Pius Krütli, Michael Stauffacher
>
RESEARCH |FORSCHUNG
the societal problem identified in step 2. We introduce a four-stage
model of the “policy cycle” shown in figure 2. The policy cycle is
a simplified model – a heuristic device (deLeon 1999, p. 24) – of
a society’s process of formulating and implementing a policy. The
four most general stages in the policy cycle are: 1. problem fram-
ing, when society becomes aware of a problem and disputes what
the problem is about and for whom it is a problem at all; 2. policy
development, when discussions start regarding how the problem
should be addressed, and what the goal of addressing the problem
is; 3. policy implementation, when society discusses the policies or
measures to be taken, and implements them; and 4. policy evalua -
tion, when discussions start about how far the implemented poli-
cies help to handle the problem (Jann and Wegrich 2007, Wuelser
et al. 2012).
Task
Participants are asked to analyze the policy cycle of the societal
problem they identified in step 2 and to describe at what stage(s)
it actually is. We make them aware that “society” is a heteroge-
neous entity, and that it might be more fruitful to answer the
question separately for different sub-groups of society. Also, we
ask them to think about what knowledge each group needs, giv-
en the stage they are at.
Learning Outcome
Participants have to clarify where they think the societal problem
identified in step 2 is in the policy cycle. Furthermore, the insight
that the policy cycle might be at different stages for different sub-
groups of society helps them to specify which of the sub-groups
is/are their primary target group(s), as well as each group’s knowl-
edge demand.
Clarify the Form of Knowledge Required1
The goal of step 4 is that participants align the knowledge they pro-
duce with the knowledge required by their primary target group(s).
For that purpose, we introduce the three types of knowledge as
suggested by ProClim (1997):
knowledge about what is (systems knowledge),
knowledge about what should be (target knowledge),
knowledge about how we come from where we are to
where we should be (transformation knowledge).
We then go through the stages of the policy cycle and discuss the
relevance of each type of knowledge for each stage using climate
change as example. During 1. the stage of problem framing, sys-
tems knowledge is required to explain how humans change the
climate system. For policy development, stage 2, target knowledge
becomes important: should we mitigate climate change, should
we adapt to it? What is the long-term vision of sustainable devel -
opment, and who should decide on which path to follow? 3. Poli -
cy implementation requires transformation knowledge: what kind
of technical, political, educational, or economic measures should
be implemented to address climate change? Finally, for policy eval -
uation, stage 4, systems and target knowledge are required to check
whether the policy interventions changed the situation in the de -
sired direction. If needed, the policy cycle starts over again by exam -
ining and improving the original problem framing. Note that,
in general, all forms of knowledge are involved, but one of them
might be of particular relevance for the specific stage.
When going through the stages we explain that depending on
the type of knowledge different disciplines are required: (use-
inspired) basic social and natural sciences in the case of systems
knowledge, the humanities and all kind of assessment method-
ologies for target knowledge, and policy analysis, engineering, eco-
nomics, and behavioral sciences for transformation knowledge.
Task
Participants are asked to reformulate the research question(s) from
step 1 in three different ways: addressing systems, target, or trans-
formation knowledge. We provide the participants with the follow-
ing example:
How does migration affect the sustainable development of
rapidly growing cities? (systems knowledge)
How would a sustainable development of rapidly growing
cities affected by migration look like? (target knowledge)
What technical, legal, social, cultural, or other means could
hinder the negative – and promote the positive – impact of
migration on the sustainable development of rapidly
growing cities? (transformation knowledge)
We furthermore ask the participants to think about which of the
three research questions will answer the knowledge demand of
the target group(s) identified in step 3.
Learning Outcome
The first effect is that participants realize that their research pro-
vides a specific type of knowledge (typically systems knowledge,
according to our experiences), and that they could frame their
research question differently. Second, the comparison between the
knowledge their research provides and the knowledge demand of
target groups identified in step 3 fundamentally challenges the
framing of their research when both do not overlap. This is, for
in stance, the case when transformation knowledge would be
need ed, but the current focus is on systems knowledge.
Identify Relevant Disciplines and Societal Actors
In step 5 the participants explicitly name the disciplines and repre -
sen tatives of civil society, the private and the public sector they plan
to involve in their project. To start, we introduce Ludwik Fleck’s
theory of thought styles and thought collectives (Fleck 1979,2011),
and td research as a process of collective learning and exchange
between different thought collectives (Pohl 2011). Fleck’s thought
styles and thought collectives are helpful to realize that what at first
GAIA 26/1(2017): 43– 51
1 This step is described as the three types of knowledge tool in td-net’s
toolbox for co-producing knowledge: www.naturwissenschaften.ch/topics/
co-producing_knowledge/methods/three_types_of_knowledge_tool.
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8
7
6
GAIA 26/1(2017): 43– 51
48 RESEARCH |FORSCHUNG Christian Pohl, Pius Krütli, Michael Stauffacher
looks like a problem of language and understanding is in fact a
mismatch between disciplinary or professional assumptions
about how reality should be framed and what the relevant or ir-
relevant aspects are.
Task
Participants are asked to write down the six to ten most impor-
tant societal actors and/or disciplines for their project. We remind
them that disciplines and societal actors can be relevant for sever-
al reasons such as their interest, power, or expertise regarding the
issue at stake or the project (Reed et al. 2009, Wuelser et al. 2012).
Learning Outcome
Participants become more explicitly aware of who they consider
the most important societal and scientific actors for their project.
Asking for the six to ten most important societal actors and/or dis-
ciplines forces the participants to prioritize. Furthermore, a total
of six to ten is a workable number of disciplines and societal ac-
tors, also for the remaining steps.
Position Disciplines and Societal Actors in Relation to the
Research Question
In step 6 participants make the importance of each societal actor
and discipline for their research explicit and describe how they
plan to interact with them. To specify the interaction with disci-
plines and societal actors, we introduce Rowe and Frewer’s (2005)
distinction of three types of public engagement. Based on the di -
rection of information flow, Rowe and Frewer proposed the fol-
lowing types (each symbolized with a different arrow):
to inform (k),
to consult (v),
to coproduce knowledge (vk )2.
Task
Participants place the research questions in the middle of cell 6
of their flipchart. They position the disciplines and societal actors
identified in step 5 around the research question. The closer the
societal actors and disciplines come to the research question, the
more relevant they are for the research. And the closer they come
to each other, the more they have in common in relation to the
research. Once all disciplines and actors are placed, participants
are asked to specify the dominant flow of information for each
of them. They connect the actors and disciplines to the research
question, selecting one of the three arrows introduced above.
Learning Outcome
The step reveals the participants’ current mental picture of the
most important societal actors and disciplines. Furthermore, the
arrows show the intended flow of information, to, or from the dis -
ciplines and actors, or the co-production of knowledge.
Carry out an Actor Constellation3
In step 7 the group critically reflects one participant’s mental pic-
ture of the most important actors and disciplines as developed in
step 6: we ask for a volunteer willing to present his/her results
during a 30-minute role-play session involving about ten partici -
pants (figure 3).
Task
1. The volunteer names her/his research question and all disci -
plines and societal actors identified in step 5. The moderator
asks another participant to note each of them on a card. Each
of these roles is then assigned to one of the participants.
2. Those playing a role may ask the volunteer questions about
the discipline or actor they represent.
3. The volunteer places the participant representing the research
question in the middle of the room, and each participant rep -
resenting a discipline or societal actor around it, according to
what s/he has prepared in step 6. The volunteer explains the
reasons for the positions assigned to each discipline and actor.
4. Once all the representatives placed, each participant looks for
missing societal actors and disciplines. Additionally, the repre-
sentatives comment on their own positions. The constellation
usually changes as a consequence of the evolving discussion.
Learning Outcome
A first clarification takes place when those who play a role are asked
whether they know whom they represent (see above, number 2).
Typically, this triggers a process of role clarification. For instance,
someone might first be designated “the government” and then it
becomes obvious that two actors, rather than one, were implicit-
ly assigned this role: the governmental agencies of environment
and of energy, for instance.
The second clarification happens when all actors are placed
and start to argue about where they were placed. A first effect is,
when looking around to see who is involved, that missing socie -
tal actors or disciplines are detected. A second effect is that partic -
ipants start to argue about who is more important for the re-
search and should thus move closer to the research question. A
third effect is that actors start asking what benefits (or harms) they
would derive from the collaboration. This is because volunteers
tend to place actors and disciplines as means to an end, where-
as those who play a role reflect on their own reasons of being in -
volved.
Clarify Disciplines’ and Societal Actors’ Expected Contributions
Step 8 serves to clarify the researchers’ expectations concerning
the interaction with societal actors and disciplines. Referring to
Krütli et al. (2010, p.863) we introduce the following key questions
that should be answered in order to design an adapted interaction
format for a project: who initiates the interaction? Who partici-
pates? Why participation? Regarding which issues and when? By
2 Rowe and Frewer (2005)call the third type “public participation”.
3 This step is described as actor constellation in td-net’s toolbox for
co-producing knowledge: www.naturalsciences.ch/topics/co-producing_
knowledge/methods/actor_constellation_final. The term “actor” includes
both societal actors and disciplines (scientific actors).
43_51_Pohl 09.03.17 19:29 Seite 48
10
9
GAIA 26/1(2017): 43– 51
49RESEARCH |FORSCHUNGChristian Pohl, Pius Krütli, Michael Stauffacher
which method(s)? In addition, we introduce Fiorino’s (1990) dis-
tinction between three reasons for interaction:
substantive (i.e., those to be involved have relevant expertise),
normative (i. e., the democratic principle requires that
those affected have a say),
instrumental (i. e., by interaction one hopes for more
legitimized decisions).
Task
We ask participants to review the most important disciplines and
societal actors positioned in step 6, and for each discipline and ac-
tor to specify if interaction is wanted for substantive, normative,
and/or instrumental reasons.
Learning Outcome
The step helps in clarifying who should be involved and why. In
addition, participants may learn about which scientific or soci-
etal actor carries essential knowledge for the project, who might
have power to impact relevant societal decisions, or who might
lose by certain societal decisions and thus needs to be involved.
Plan the Functional-dynamic Interaction
The aim of step 9 is to develop a detailed plan for whom to involve
and how. We introduce the functional-dynamic approach to par -
tic ipation as proposed by Stauffacher et al. (2008) and Krütli et al.
(2010): no process of a complex decision problem requires a sin-
gle level of interaction only; it will rather span different levels at
different points in time. Therefore, the intensity of interaction be -
tween scientific and societal actors depends on the phase, goals,
and content of the process and its context. And the various inter -
action intensities reflect the dynamic involvement of the differ-
ent groups addressed.
Task
We ask participants to define about ten essential project steps for
their research project and then decide for each step what societal
actors or disciplinary experts they need or want to interact with
and in what way (inform, consult, coproduce). We ask them to
sketch the dynamics of this interaction across time (simi larly to
figure 4, p.50).We suggest they use distinct lines for different ac-
tors and disciplines if the interactions follow different dynamics.
Learning Outcome
A nuanced understanding of the interaction with other disciplines
and societal actors emerges: participants start thinking and talk-
ing in detail about each of their essential project steps and the po-
tential or need for interacting. This helps to identify possible flaws
in the project set-up retrospectively or to plan interaction for sub-
sequent project steps. Set-up flaws may include a lack of interac -
tion at the start of the project when aiming at a shared problem
understanding, or too intense and demanding interaction with a
too diverse set of disciplines or actors during intensive data anal -
yses or during the paper-writing period. A too intense or broad
participation can be rooted in the frequently found belief “the
more participation the better”. Step 9 seriously challenges this be-
lieve and replaces it by a more reflected understanding. In addi -
tion, a more efficient and effective set-up for future interaction
becomes obvious.
Think about Main Lessons Learned
The aim of the last step is to reflect about how steps 1 to 9 might
influence the research project.
Task
Inspired by the most significant change technique (Davies and
Dart 2005)4, we ask participants to think about how the process
of working through steps 1 to 9 might change the focus or the pro-
cedure of their research. They have to prepare a short statement
(one minute max) to share the main insights gained. If time and
meeting space allow, this can best be organized as a poster ses-
sion, so that a lively exchange develops within the group about
what everybody learned, and what impact this would have on their
on-going and future research.
Learning Outcome
A first effect is that participants realize how different the individ -
ual learning insights triggered by the 10-step approach are. A sec-
ond effect is that we, as the providers, compare our in tended learn-
ing outcomes with the benefits that the participants derive from
the ten steps, helping us to further develop the approach. >
Carrying out an actor constellation in Stellenbosch, South Africa.
The volunteer (dark blue shirt)and the moderator (light blue shirt)are in the
center, the research question(how to improve livelihoods in informal settle-
ments?, grey shirt)is facing the moderator. Around the research question there
are two circles of relevant (starting with the women left of the moderator)and
less relevant (starting with the man right of the volunteer)societal actors and
disciplines. The other participants observe and comment on the exercise.
FIGURE 3:
© Michael Stauffacher
4 This method is described as the most significant change tool in td-net’s
toolbox for co-producing knowledge: www.naturalsciences.ch/topics/
co-producing_knowledge/methods/most_significant_change.
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50 RESEARCH |FORSCHUNG Christian Pohl, Pius Krütli, Michael Stauffacher
with step 2, when describing the societal problem. Those par-
ticipants usually argue that they do basic research and are not
interested in societal relevance. In such cases the approach
might not be useful. However, basic researchers who are curi -
ous about the possible relevance of their research to societal
problem solving find the ten steps valuable.
Should supervisors, societal actors and funders participate in the
ten steps? Up until now we most frequently applied the 10-step
approach with the researchers who actually conducted the re -
search. This is because researchers might not yet be clear on
whom to involve in what role. As a side effect, the reflection
on what disciplines and societal actors to involve is more free
and less influenced by the requirements of funders, supervi -
sors, or specific societal actors. However, in a transdisciplinary
mind-set the project should be further developed in collabora -
tion with those concerned. How to deliberate between space
for free thinking and involvement of disciplines and societal
actors from early on, is a question to be explored.
The 10-step approach provides guidance for systematically think-
ing through how research can be better linked to societal problem
solving. However, it should not be seen as a fixed procedure. We
invite those who use it to add further steps if indicated (for in-
stance to discuss the stage of problem framing in different disci -
plines), to explore alternative methods in individual steps, or to
walk through the steps in an alternative order.
We would like to thank all the participants for being active and
committed in the ten steps. The current form is nearly as much
influenced by their feedback as by our ideas. Furthermore,
we would like to thank two anonymous reviewers, and in particular
Kjell Törnblom and Astrid Bjoernsen for critically reviewing and
improving the manuscript.
Conclusion
In addition to the feedback we receive throughout the ten steps,
we regularly evaluate the significance of the approach as an ele -
ment of the CCES winter school Science Meets Practice. Based on
these sources of feedback we conclude the following:
The 10-step approach provides a structure for systematic thinking
about how research can be linked to societal problem solv ing. Such
a structured reflection is new to most researchers. The ten steps
were always evaluated as one of the most valuable and insight-
ful parts of the winter school.
Which particular steps are considered most valuable is not predict -
able. Every time we go through step 10, we are surprised by the
variety of steps that the participants think are the most rele-
vant. It seems likely that the value of each step depends on the
specific context of a given project – whether it follows a basic,
applied, or td approach, whether it mixes several forms of
knowledge, and how far the researcher’s td thinking is devel-
oped.
The 10-step approach can be used during different stages of a proj-
ect. When designing the ten steps, we thought the approach
would be particularly helpful during the early stages of a proj-
ect, when research questions are being framed. However, we
have learned from our participants that it can also be used to
critically rethink a project near its end, and to design a follow-
up project in a way that is more aligned with the td approach.
We also face challenges and open questions with the 10-step ap-
proach:
Basic researchers who are not interested in societal problem solving
see no benefit in the ten steps. A small number of participants
does not perform the approach enthusiastically. This starts
Functional-dynamic approach to collaboration in a hypothetical project. The intensity of involvement of societal actors(light green dotted line)and
of the collaboration between disciplines (dark green dotted line)varies over the transdisciplinary research process. It depends on the stage, goals, and content
of the process as well as its context (further developed based on Stauffacher et al. 2008 and Krütli et al. 2010).
FIGURE 4:
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51RESEARCH |FORSCHUNGChristian Pohl, Pius Krütli, Michael Stauffacher
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Submitted October 17,2016; revised version accepted February 16, 2017.
Pius Krütli
Born 1958 in Horw, Switzerland. Doctoral degree at
ETH Zurich in 2010. Since 2013 co-director of the
Trans disciplinarity Lab of the Department of Environmental
Systems Science (USYS TdLab)at ETH Zurich. Research
interests: decision-making processes with a special
focus on procedural justice; methods and practice of transdisciplinary
(research)processes; justice related to the allocation of scarce resources.
Christian Pohl
Born 1966 in Windisch, Switzerland. 1999 doctoral degree
at ETH Zurich, 2013 habilitation at the University of Bern.
2003 to 2016 co-director of td-net of the Swiss Academies
of Arts and Sciences. Since 2013 co-director of the Trans-
disciplinarity Lab of the Department of Environmental
Systems Science (USYS TdLab)at ETH Zurich. Research interest: theory and
practice of transdisciplinary research as a means for sustainable development.
Michael Stauffacher
Born 1965 in Solothurn, Switzerland. 2006 doctoral degree
in sociology. Since 2015 Titularprofessor(Adjunct Professor)
at ETH Zurich. Since 2013 co-director of the Transdisci -
plinarity Lab of the Department of Environmental Systems
Science (USYS TdLab)at ETH Zurich. Research interests:
contested energy infrastructures, urban development, field experiments,
transdisciplinary research. Member of GAIA’s Scientific Advisory Board.
43_51_Pohl 09.03.17 19:29 Seite 51
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