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The guiding logics and principles for designing emergent transdisciplinary research processes: learning experiences and reflections from a transdisciplinary urban case study in Enkanini informal settlement, South Africa


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Transdisciplinarity is not a new science per se, but a new methodology for doing science with society. A particular challenge in doing science with society is the engagement with non-academic actors to enable joint problem formulation, analysis and transformation. How this is achieved differs between contexts. The premise of this paper is that transdisciplinary research (TDR) methodologies designed for developed world contexts cannot merely be replicated and transferred to developing world contexts. Thus a new approach is needed for conducting TDR in contexts characterised by high levels of complexity, conflict and social fluidity. To that end, this paper introduces a new approach to TDR titled emergent transdisciplinary design research (ETDR). A core element of this approach is that the research process is designed as it unfolds, that is, it transforms as it emerges from and within the fluid context. The ETDR outlined in this paper emerged through a case study in the informal settlement (slum) of Enkanini in Stellenbosch, South Africa. This case study demonstrates the context from and within which the ETDR approach and identifies a set of guiding logics that can be used to guide ETDR approaches in other contexts. The study demonstrates that the new logics and guiding principles were not simply derived from the TDR literature, but rather emerged from constant interacting dynamics between theory and practice. Learning how to co-design the research process through co-producing transformative knowledge and then implementing strategic interventions to bring about incremental social change is key to theory development in ways that are informed by local contextual dynamics. There are, however, risks when undertaking such TDR processes such as under-valuing disciplinary knowledge, transferring risks onto a society, and suppressing ‘truth-to-power’.
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The guiding logics and principles for designing emergent
transdisciplinary research processes: learning experiences
and reflections from a transdisciplinary urban case study in Enkanini
informal settlement, South Africa
John van Breda
·Mark Swilling
Received: 27 June 2018 / Accepted: 29 June 2018
©Springer Japan KK, part of Springer Nature 2018
Transdisciplinarity is not a new science per se, but a new methodology for doing science with society. A particular
challenge in doing science with society is the engagement with non-academic actors to enable joint problem formulation,
analysis and transformation. How this is achieved differs between contexts. The premise of this paper is that transdisci-
plinary research (TDR) methodologies designed for developed world contexts cannot merely be replicated and transferred
to developing world contexts. Thus a new approach is needed for conducting TDR in contexts characterised by high levels
of complexity, conflict and social fluidity. To that end, this paper introduces a new approach to TDR titled emergent
transdisciplinary design research (ETDR). A core element of this approach is that the research process is designed as it
unfolds, that is, it transforms as it emerges from and within the fluid context. The ETDR outlined in this paper emerged
through a case study in the informal settlement (slum) of Enkanini in Stellenbosch, South Africa. This case study
demonstrates the context from and within which the ETDR approach and identifies a set of guiding logics that can be used
to guide ETDR approaches in other contexts. The study demonstrates that the new logics and guiding principles were not
simply derived from the TDR literature, but rather emerged from constant interacting dynamics between theory and
practice. Learning how to co-design the research process through co-producing transformative knowledge and then
implementing strategic interventions to bring about incremental social change is key to theory development in ways that
are informed by local contextual dynamics. There are, however, risks when undertaking such TDR processes such as
under-valuing disciplinary knowledge, transferring risks onto a society, and suppressing ‘truth-to-power’.
Keywords Interdisciplinary research · Transdisciplinary research · Emergent design · Multi-track transdisciplinary
processes · Boundary objects · Social transformation and innovation · Transformative knowledge co-production
Finding integrated sustainable solutions to the challenges
that many African societies face today cannot be approa-
ched only from single disciplines. Mono-disciplinary
analysis does not help us understand and grapple with
emerging complex socio-ecological challenges. The
application of single discipline knowledge produces partial
solutions, but not the long-term, integrated and sustainable
solutions needed.
An emerging body of literature argues that contempo-
rary socio-ecological challenges warrant transdisciplinary
responses that embrace what is referred to as knowledge
co-production between science and society. This literally
Handled by Alexandros Gasparatos, University of Tokyo, Japan.
&John van Breda;
Mark Swilling
Centre for Complex Systems in Transition, School of Public
Leadership, Stellenbosch University Stias Stables, 19
Jonkershoekweg, Stellenbosch 7600, South Africa
School of Public Leadership, Stellenbosch University, Private
Bag X1, Matieland 7602, South Africa
Sustainability Institute, Stellenbosch University, Lynedoch,
7603 Stellenbosch, South Africa
Sustainability Science
refers to a process that requires researchers to engage and
collaborate with practitioners to co-generate knowledge to
address problems that emerge in real-world situations. The
concept of transdisciplinary research (TDR), which has
emerged over the last two decades, is not a new science per
se, but rather a new way of doing science, i.e., doing
“science with society”, rather than “science for society”
(Becker 2012; Bergmann et al. 2013; Gibbons et al. 1994;
Hadorn and Pohl 2008a; Jahn 2008; Jahn et al. 2012; Lang
et al. 2012; Nowotny et al. 2001; Scholz 2011; Seidl et al.
Transdisciplinary research is not somehow ‘new’, as
reflected in the literature cited in the preceding paragraph.
It builds on a much longer tradition of ‘interdisciplinary’
research that has, in turn, spurned a backlash from within
North American academia in “defense of disciplines” (see
Jacobs 2013). More well known as “Mode 2” research
(Gibbons et al. 1994; Nowotny et al. 2001) this tradition
has always been interested in the social contextualisation of
knowledge production (Rip 2011). The Max Planck Insti-
tute in Germany has since the 1970s sought to establish the
socio-political determinants of knowledge power and the
way ‘scienticism’ masks these knowledge-power relations
(Bohme et al. 1973). More recently, in innovation studies,
this kind of Mode 2 thinking has resulted in the more
conservative literature on the dynamics of the “triple helix”
between Universities, government and business (Etzkowitz
and Leyesdorff 2000).
In the African context, Chilisa’s seminal work has been
making a case for integrating “indigenous knowledge”
systems into a wider conception of “post-colonial research”
(Chilisa 2011). In their introduction to a special Issue of
Interdisciplinary Science Reviews,Gross and Stauffacher
(2014) reflect on this tradition to “problem-solving sci-
ence” by examining the scientific oeuvre of Germany’s
largest research programme, namely the Helmhotz Asso-
ciation. Accepting that this field is maturing, they focus on
how natural and social scientists collaborate to generate
new empirical problem-solving research. In contrast to
Gross and Stauffacher (2014) positive view of the maturing
of this field, Jacobs (2013) views that this fashionable trend
towards greater interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary
research is in reality a false promise that could potentially
undermine the scientific endeavour which has been so
successful precisely because of the proliferation of disci-
plines. This critical perspective will be discussed further in
the penultimate section of the paper. What matters for the
purpose of this paper, is that except for few exceptions such
as Chilisa (Chilisa 2011), Mode 2 research has emerged
largely in the global North (Gibbons et al. 1994; Nowotny
et al. 2001), where well-endowed research institutions can
choose to engage with formalised, legitimate, and
institutionalised stakeholders largely around the challenges
of late industrial modernity.
A key challenge to successfully conduct “science with
society” is to develop solution-oriented or transformative
TDR approaches capable of not only explaining and
understanding the complex societal challenges currently
being faced in the world, but also of changing or trans-
forming these challenges (Miller et al. 2014; Scholz 2011;
Seidl et al. 2013; Stauffacher et al. 2006; Wiek and Lang
2016). However, how such transformative TDR approaches
can be achieved differs considerably from context to con-
text. This is because of the significant differences that exist,
for example, between the social and material conditions of
the developed and the developing world.
Developing transformative TDR approaches in and for
developing world contexts, as in Africa, cannot be done on
the basis of merely uncritically replicating and transferring
the ideal–typical approaches developed in the developed
world to the developing world. This is because such TDR
approaches were conceived and implemented in and for a
very different set of social and material conditions preva-
lent in the developed North. Some of the key academic
institutions at the forefront of such TDR approaches
include amongst others, the USYS TdLab (ETH, Zurich),
the Institute for Socio-Ecological Research (ISOE, Frank-
furt), and the Athena Institute (Free University of
Although transformative in orientation, these textbook
examples of TDR approaches seem to have in common the
fundamental assumption that formal stakeholder engage-
ment is the primary means of decision-making and com-
munication. In other words such TDR approaches assume
that certain social conditions are in place for this, where
formal or legitimated societal stakeholders can engage on
equal footing with scientists or experts from academia. In
these contexts formal and highly institutionalised TDR
processes seek to find real-world solutions to complex
sustainability challenges (Scholz et al. 2009; Scholz 2011;
Seidl et al. 2013; Stauffacher et al. 2006). However, the
effect produced by this approach is the’foregrounding’ and
‘backgrounding’ (Law 2004) of formality and informality,
However such characteristics are rarely encountered in
different parts of the global South. There is now a sub-
stantial body of literature that has demonstrated how
complex, heterogonous, hybridized and hodge-podged
many urban systems in the global South, especially in
Africa, have become In essence, unlike formalised regu-
lated urban systems, space and time have not been trans-
formed into predictable regulated routines of daily urban
life in the ‘untamed urbanisms’ of the global South (Allen
et al. 2015). This socio-cultural-economic heterogeneity
has, in turn, resulted in diverse hybridized formal and
Sustainability Science
informal service delivery systems that are appropriate for
fast-changing, rapidly expanding, and inherently unsta-
ble urbanization processes (Allen et al. 2015; Edensor and
Jayne 2012; McCarney and Stren 2003; Parnell and Old-
field 2014; Simone and Pieterse 2017; Simone 2004).
In this regard, Jaglin (2014)
develops a convincing
argument that in cities of the global South service provision
does not always reach the end user via the formal or con-
ventional network. She concludes that [I]n heterogeneous
cities, the diversity of service needs has been a vector for
innovation” (Jaglin 2014: 439). In other words urban
experimentation in these contexts is not a marginal niche
activity, but a defining feature of the way entire hybridized
urban service delivery systems work in practice. Experi-
mentation is implicit and emergent. It is not explicitly
intentional and purposive as is the case in a fixed formal
and well-regulated environment. This should not be how-
ever, comprehended with reference to the conventional
universal service delivery model, nor is it a temporary step/
phase along a developmental pathway towards the final
realization of this ideal. Instead, the various interconnected
hybridized service delivery configurations are a totally
different urban service delivery approach, which is here to
stay in fast-growing complex heterogeneous cities and
urban settlements of the global South (Allen et al. 2015;
Edensor and Jayne 2012; McCarney and Stren 2003; Par-
nell and Oldfield 2014; Simone and Pieterse 2017; Simone
2004).For example, ever-changing interdependent sets of
conventional, community-based, illegal and stand-alone
non-grid systems are commonly encountered in urban
energy sectors/systems of the global South (Fig. 1). In such
systems the co-dependence of formal and informal systems
within an evolving (and partially self-organising) experi-
mental urbanism would be almost impossible to regulate,
even if capacitated governance institutions were in place
(Jaglin 2014).
Institutional hybridity is the logical response to this
contextual heterogeneity. This hybridity is the emergent
outcome of an endless multiplicity of experiments in daily
life that constantly change and recompose (Allen et al.
2015; Edensor and Jayne 2012; McCarney and Stren 2003;
Parnell and Oldfield 2014; Simone and Pieterse 2017;
Simone 2004).
What has been productive about many instances of self-
constructed urbanisation is the experimental way in which
the things that were built could be translated into each
other in many different ways, i.e., what some have called
urban assemblages (McFarlane 2011). Housing, work,
sociability, caretaking, service provisioning, and livelihood
were all connected to each other in ever-shifting assem-
blages. The character of the self-construction was a space
Fig. 1 Example of a delivery configuration related to household access to energy. (Source: Jaglin 2014)
According to Jaglin (2014: 438) service provision in southern cities
is “a combination made up of a networked infrastructure, deficient in
varying degrees and offering a rational service, and of private sector
commercial initiatives, whether individual or collective, formal or
informal, which are usually illegal in respect of the exclusive
contracts of operators officially responsible for the service. These
services fill the gaps in the conventional service and, depending on
the type of urban area, target either the well-off clientele or poor
clientele excluded from the main networks because of lack of
resources, geographical remoteness or illegal status. These delivery
configurations have one thing in common: the conventional network
does not always reach the end user.”
Sustainability Science
where the many could become one, and the one many in a
back and forth movement that ensured that there were a
sufficient number of different ideas and ways of doing
things. (Simone and Pieterse 2017). But at the same time,
such differences did not rule out people paying attention to
each other, and, as a result, making them an integral part of
the stories they would weave out of their own lives (Si-
mone and Pieterse 2017).
Considering the above, some communities in cities of
the global South often have limited formal leadership to
engage with, and mainly informal social actors and their
equally informal social networks. Failing to recognise and
work with the reality of informality on the ground will
simply result in stasis, literally meaning that it is often
impossible to get any form of transformative TDR process
off the ground. Therefore, acknowledging and working
with informality is a fundamental pre-condition for initi-
ating and developing context-relevant transformative TDR
approaches in developing world contexts. This is because
the ability to engage with informal social-actor networks
on the ground is as important, if not more, than setting up
and dealing with formal stakeholder forums and processes.
It is against this background that this paper introduces
Emergent Transdisciplinary Design Research (ETDR)
using the case of the Enkanini informal settlement in
Stellenbosch, South Africa. Based on a particular concep-
tion of the African urban challenge, we use the case of a
solution-oriented transdisciplinary research in the Enkanini
informal settlement to develop the ETDR approach. The
Enkanini study is presented as a context-relevant approach
for undertaking transformative transdisciplinary case study
research in developing countries, which necessitates a
different transdisciplinary research orientation and
approach to those used in the global North. Overall, this
paper integrates reflections on the outcome of a decade-
long exploration of how to translate the transdisciplinary
research approach into an African context, with special
reference to the urban challenge in Africa. This research
was coordinated by the Centre for Complex Systems in
Transition in Stellenbosch University. A core element of
this approach is that the research process is designed as it
unfolds (Carew and Wickson 2010; Wickson et al. 2006),
or to put it more poetically, through ‘making the road by
walking it’ (Machado 2003; Machado and Trueblood
The primary aim of this paper is methodological, and in
particular to make explicit as systematically as possible the
logics and principles that emerged and guided the ETDR
during the Enkanini transdisciplinary case study research
(2011–2016). This paper, read together with the work by
Chilisa (2011) cited above, should be read as a contribution
to the discussion about how to operationalise transdisci-
plinary research in an African context. This paper is about
what Mode 2 or transdisciplinary research means in a less
formalised global South context where researchers may not
be able to access institutionalised stakeholders to act as
research partners. To be sure, it would have been very
difficult, if not impossible, to have tried to do this research,
with a TDR approach that only knows how to deal with
formal legitimated stakeholder processes. Thus the selected
TDR approach needs to acknowledge the extremely fluid
situation of informal human settlements to make ends meet
and escape the stronghold of endemic poverty, which is a
daily struggle that is being played out in a complex net-
work of informal social relationships and institutions.
Research approach
In essence, the reported TDCS used a conceptual frame-
work that drew from a diverse literature, including:
complexity theory (Boulton et al. 2015; Cilliers 1998;
Juarrero 2002; Mingers 2014; Snowden and Boone
2007; Vester 2007)
emergent design theory (Cavallo 2000; Hasan 2006;
Hesse-Biber 2010; Hesse-Biber and Leavy 2010; Jonas
2007; Sanders and Stappers 2008)
assemblage theory (DeLanda 2006; Farı
´as and Bender
2012; Harman 2008; Latour 2007; McFarlane 2011)
learning theory (Argyris 2002; Kolb 2014; Medema
et al. 2014; Corcoran and Wals 2012; Taylor and
Cranton 2012; Tosey et al. 2012; Wals and Rodela
narrative theory (Czarniawska 2004; Edelman 2006;
Heinen and Sommer 2009; Kurtz 2014; Snowden 1999;
Klein et al. 2011; Snowden 2010; Van Dijk 1976;
Herman et al. 2010).
A key insight drawn from integrating this diverse body
of literature for developing a context-sensitive transfor-
mative TDR approach is to link the notion of human
agency in social-actor networks to the broader notion of
complex systems change. In our understanding this means
that, when complex systems change, social actors do not
only make sense of what is happening in order to adapt, but
they also, act to change their context. Context, therefore,
matters (Latour 2007).
In our view, the existing literature on TDR has not as yet
generated an adequate set of context-relevant guiding
logics and principles. Without this there is no methodology
that can be used for navigating transformative TDR pro-
cesses in and under fluid social conditions like those
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observed and experienced in urban contexts of the global
South. In this regard, as seen through the lens of the
Enkanini case study, there are three problems that our
research aims to respond to.
The first problem is that the existing principles for
designing TDR tend to be too general and not sufficient for
the purposes of dealing with the challenges of emergent
design (see, Introduction), particularly when facing highly
volatile circumstances in developing world contexts. This
does not mean that there is anything ‘wrong’ per se with
the design principles currently existing. It is rather a
question of not going far enough in terms of actually
anticipating and dealing with the reality of emergence.
Such an example are the four principles of: (a) reducing
complexity, (b) effectiveness through contextualisation,
(c) integration through open encounters and (d) reflexivity
through recursiveness (Hadorn and Pohl 2008b; Pohl and
Hadorn 2007). It is not that these principles are completely
without any merit, and that they should therefore be dis-
carded. However, these principles are not in (and of)
themselves adequate for designing and conducting emer-
gent transformative TDR processes in and under the type
of dynamic circumstances encountered in urban contexts of
the global South such as Enkanini. For this, deriving a
different set of guiding logics and principles is essential,
and is thus the main focus of this paper.
The second problem relates to how TDR principles are
formulated. This has two aspects. First is the static way in
which certain principles have been formulated in more
empirically oriented transdisciplinary case study research
when dealing with real-world problems (e.g., large-scale
industrial contamination). Second is the fundamental pre-
conditions set for using and fulfilling these same principles.
A case in point here is the following set of principles
proposed by Foley et al.: (a) trust and willingness to col-
laborate (dealing with the problem of mistrust), (b) mo-
mentum (dealing with the problem of inertia), and
(c) symmetrical power relations (dealing with the problem
of power asymmetry) (Foley et al. 2017).
Related to the first aspect is the non-performative
manner in which these principles have been formulated,
since two of the principles are without any verbs. The
purpose behind such principles is that they should be
capable of igniting and guiding certain actions and deci-
sion-making, especially when working in and under the
fluid social and material type of conditions as encountered
in many contexts of the global South such as Enkanini. The
way the above principles have been formulated (and pre-
sented here) certainly fall short of this performativity
aspect of principles.
Related to the second aspect is the authors’ perception
that there is often a fundamental ‘flaw’ or ‘mismatch’
between the ideal and reality of multi-stakeholder TDR
processes, primarily because of the exclusion of certain
stakeholder groups. Consequently, the remedy proposed for
overcoming this apparent disparity can only be achieved
when there is absolutely no exclusion, and when all the
relevant stakeholder groups have been treated ‘equally’ and
‘fairly’ in terms of all these principles (Foley et al. 2017).
However, experiences and challenges from urban contexts
of the global South can be very different to this normative
approach, since it was more a case of pre-stakeholder
engagement. In other words such cases reflect a situation of
initiating a TDR process with no stakeholder groups within
the community that could either be included or excluded
(because there were none) in the TDR process. The TDR
process in Enkanini had thus to be built on trust, willing-
ness to work together and deal with huge social and edu-
cational inequalities on an individual shack-by-shack basis.
In the face of this challenge, the TDR team felt that the
existing TDR literature did not provide sufficient theoret-
ical insights and guidance for the task at hand. We needed
to draw on the different body of literature mentioned above
which, upon critical reflection, resulted in the guiding
logics and principles that resonated with the experiences of
the researchers in the field.
The third problem has to do with the tendency of con-
flating the notions of methodology and methods. This seems
to be prevalent in the more solution-oriented stream in the
TDR literature (Bergmann et al. 2013; Miller et al. 2014;
Scholz 2011;2013; Stauffacher et al. 2006; Wiek and Lang
2016). By using these two concepts rather interchangeably
this body of literature tends to reduce the discussion on
methodology to a systematic analysis of a certain body of
methods for doing solution-oriented TDR. In our view, this
is done at the cost of giving sufficient attention to the
development of principles necessary for designing and
steering emergent transformative TDR processes.
To remedy this situation (and avoid any confusion at
both the theoretical and practical levels) it is important to
return to the original Greek etymology of the two notions
of ‘methodology’ and ‘methods’. Methodology, comprises
of the three Greek words: ‘meta’ (μετά) signifying what is
‘beyond’ or ‘above’, ‘hodos’ (δός) denoting a journey and
‘logos’ (λόγος). When put together it refers more broadly
to the reasoning, logic or principles being used for tackling
a sustainability challenge. The word methods, on the other
hand, derives from only the two Greek words ‘meta’ and
‘hodos’, and omits the notion of ‘logos’. This means that,
although still performative in intent and purpose, methods
have a more instrumental meaning because they are about
acts of doing or performing certain techniques, steps or
procedures when using certain tools and instruments for
navigating a journey. However, methods on their own
cannot tell us for what they are or should be used, or
alternatively how they should be designed and used when
Sustainability Science
tackling a sustainability challenge, particularly when the
end state is not all that clear or when there are many dif-
ferent pathways of getting there. This, however, remains
the role and function of the reasoning, logic and principles
necessary not only for guiding the decision-making pro-
cesses when tackling sustainability challenges, but, even
more importantly, for informing the thinking and decision-
making that needs go into designing the steps, procedures
and tools needed for tackling sustainability challenges.
This conceptual distinction between methodology and
methods is reflected in the formulation of an appropriate set
of logics and principles that both emerged and guided the
research during the Enkanini TDCS.
It should be mentioned that that although the primary
focus of this paper is establishing the guiding logics and
principles of the ETDR approach, the actual Enkanini case
study can serve to demonstrate the context from and within
which the ETDR emerged. The context is critically
important to demonstrate that the new guiding logics and
principles were not derived solely from the literature, but
emerged from the constant and critical exchange between
theoretical reflection and on-the-ground experiences in the
Enkanini context. This reflects the key tenets of the
grounded theory. To this end, this paper adopts a single
case study or idiographic approach (Gerring 2006; Krohn
2008;2010; Yin 2009) as it allows for deeper immersion
into a particular context. This enables the elicitation of in-
depth insights and understandings, not only of the social
context, but also of the methodological logic and principles
that emerged and guided the Enkanini transdisciplinary
case study research process.
Finally, when working in a truly complex domain where
non-linear cause-effect relationships and unforeseen con-
sequences are the norm and researchers can never predict
in advance whether their research will produce social
change or transformative effects. (Juarrero 2002; Snowden
2005; Snowden and Boone 2007). Although this uncer-
tainty or unpredictability poses many practical challenges
for conducting and managing solution-oriented research
processes, it is by no means an obstacle for gaining a
deeper understanding of the causal dynamics of research
cases embedded in a real-world context. On the contrary,
making sense of and learning how to act in these emerg-
ing real-life situations in the present can be seen as the
generator of critical reflection and theory-building. Thus
the merger of research and innovation is the hallmark of
idiographic cases (Krohn 2010).
The Enkanini transdisciplinary research case
Enkanini (which means ‘taken by force’) is an informal
(slum) settlement in Stellenbosch, South Africa. It was
formed in 2006 when 47 families, who were renting
backyard shacks in the neighbouring Kayamandi settle-
ment, invaded the adjacent land owned by the Stellenbosch
Municipality. By 2011, when the TDR projects reported in
this paper began, about 1500 people occupied the settle-
ment in about 400 shacks. By 2015, about 8000 people, that
came from rural areas, surrounding farms and other urban
settlements, lived in Enkanini in about 2000 shacks. The
average age of residents is between 25–29 years, and nearly
half of them are women (Wessels 2015).
The crux of the Enkanini case is the inadequate provi-
sion of infrastructure services (e.g., energy, sanitation,
waste management) to this informal settlement by the local
government. The problems that have arisen due to the lack
of services include high levels of vermin (rats) invasions,
indoor air pollution due to paraffin and candle use, frequent
fires (111 fires in 2015), flash floods (840 since the estab-
lishment of Enkanini), and the associated increased health
risks due to the above.
It could take up to 8 years for Stellenbosch municipality
to rezone the land and formalise the settlement. Only when
this process is complete would the municipality begin to
consider installing formal services for all residents
assuming the financial and human capital exists. Even so,
the steep topography makes it difficult and expensive to
build service-delivery infrastructure.
In the meantime, Enkanini residents began to organise
themselves into informal structures to deal with the chal-
lenges of living in a completely under-serviced settlement.
However, no single group had a mandate to speak for all
residents of Enkanini. In fact, Enkanini has what are called
unlegitimated stakeholders, which, in contrast to legitimate
institutionalized stakeholders, are not recognized by the
local and national government.
In 2011, the transdisciplinary research group based at
Stellenbosch University approached individual residents
within Enkanini with the idea of working jointly with
residents to come up with solutions to the prevailing poor
living conditions and lack of energy provision. The initial
research aimed to answer what would the government’s
new policy of in situ upgrading of informal settlements
mean in practice for the average resident of Enkanini. After
many interviews with government officials and consultants
it became clear that the answer to this question was ‘wait’
for the service delivery grids to arrive.
This generated what eventually became the primary
research question: What can be done while people wait for
this service to arrive? To address the wider range of issues
that surfaced through this immersive process than origi-
nally anticipated (e.g., unsafe living conditions, lack of
waste disposal infrastructure) the original research scope
had to be expanded.
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Over the next 3 years, the TDR team in collaboration
with a loose network Enkanini residents, designed and
implemented three small-scale experiments in alternative
service delivery:
electricity (the iShack project);
waste treatment (the Bokashi project);
sanitation (the gravity-fed system project).
Under the leadership of Masters student Andreas Keller
(Keller 2012), the iShack project started in 2011. It
involved the co-design of an energy efficient shack, which
used solar energy panels to generate enough power for two
lights, an outside motion sensor and security light, and a
cell phone charger. In 2012, the Gates Foundation funded
the extension of the system to 100 households. This pro-
vided the basis for a successful application for funds from
the South African Government’s Green Fund (managed by
the Development Bank of Southern Africa). At the time of
writing (March 2018) there were more than a 1200 sub-
scribers (out of 2000 shacks) paying R150 for the service
per month. If they access the services just for lighting and a
cell phone charger, they get the service for free, with the
social enterprise compensated by a subsidy from the
municipality. The municipality, in turn, agreed after a
prolonged negotiation process to amend their policy so as
to contribute a subsidy for the non-grid connected informal
households that are part of the formal energy delivery
system provided by the iShack. Local residents are trained
to install and manage the iShack system, thus creating
formal jobs for 6 people. Specialised Solar Systems, the
company responsible for the technical design of the DC-
electricity solar home units, were able to modify the design
to enable the future switch over to AC-electricity systems
(if necessary or desired). Subsequently, this South African
company was replaced by B-Box, a UK company with
extraordinary innovation capacity.
The second small-scale socio-technological experiment
was the ‘Bokashi’ waste-treatment system project. Masters
student Vanessa von der Heyde (von der Heyde 2014), one
of the TDR team members, made contact with various
disciplinary experts from the field of organic waste treat-
ment, who in turn co-designed a context-relevant organic
waste treatment system for small groups of Enkanini resi-
dents (up to 20 participating households). Households
collected their organic household waste in buckets to which
‘effective microorganisms’ (Bokashi) were added and then
dropped the buckets off at the local church. From there, the
decomposed waste was used in local food gardens or sold
to the Agriprotein project (which uses black soldier flies to
process organic wastes) to produce animal and soil feed.
The third small-scale social experiment focused on
sanitation. The 8000-odd Enkanini residents have to share
80 communal toilets. Besides the obvious sanitary impli-
cations, the lack of adequate facilities contributes to inci-
dences of rape and assault. This immediate situation (a
complex environment of immediacy) provoked the initia-
tion of a dignified sustainable toilet system to manage solid
waste. Under the leadership of PhD student Lorraine
Ambole (Ambole 2016), the TDR team members respon-
ded to this need, and by following a deliberate co-design-
ing approach they implemented a gravity-fed flush toilet
sanitation intervention for 20 households. This small-scale
social change experiment was divided into four groups of
five shack-dwellers each, with each group connecting to an
anaerobic biogas digester that used human excrement to
produce gas for cooking purposes. Each household, in
return, paid a small fee to cover the maintenance, repair
and operating costs of the biogas digester.
Towards a guiding logics and principles of ETDR
One of the main ripple outcomes of the Enkanini project has
been a set of guiding logics and principles for conducting
what we have named Emergent Transdisciplinary Design
Research (ETDR). These guiding logics and principles
should be seen as cognitive facilitators of imaginative and
iterative decision-making processes. These processes are,
by definition, incrementalist in that they tend to get driven
forward by those who are best placed to ask ‘what is the
next step’ (Unger 1998;2007) during the unfolding of the
applied research processes. Rather than having to predict or
know too far in advance exactly what the consequences of
embarking on a particular vector or direction of change may
be, it is strategically and practically more important to
figure out the next step, and then see where that may lead to
within a rapidly changing context. In other words, the
guiding logics and principles of the ETDR approach pre-
sented below are not pre-determined or fixed principles, but
rather are a more formal articulation of what emerged
during the course of the Enkanini case study. Nevertheless,
they may be useful for guiding the way ETDR case studies
are conducted in future.
Figuring out the next research/implementation steps
means imagining and creating spaces for the ‘adjacent
possible’ (Snowden 2016; Unger 2007), ‘in-between’ or
‘third-paces’ (Vilsmaier and Lang 2015) where (radical)
experimentation (Unger 1998;2007;2014) can be explored
and promoted. This entails the consideration of many dif-
ferent social innovations and the implementation of new
social institutions and socio-technical alternatives in con-
textually appropriate ways.
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Another way of putting it is that the guiding logics and
principles create a cognitive framework for performing acts
of ‘side-casting’ (Snowden 2012) rather than, by way of
contrast, conducting the teleologically orientated ‘fore-
casting’ or ‘back-casting’ activities advocated in the
transdisciplinarity literature (Scholz et al. 2006; Scholz
2011; Wiek and Lang 2016). Whether planning forwards,
towards or backwards from the future, these teleological
approaches have in common the fact that the present is
always being approached from some or other idealised
future imaginary, because of its very limited connectivity
to the realities and complexities of the current situation. In
the ETDR approach outlined in this paper, however, the
role and function of the guiding logics and principles is to
nudge the research process towards discovering the evo-
lutionary potential of the present (Snowden 2015). In this
sense, the present is not a burning platform between past
and future, but rather where both meet in contested
uncertainties expressed in both a multiplicity of experi-
mentations and processes aimed at building up future
imaginaries (Swilling et al. 2018 in press).
Overall, five basic principles guided the TDR process in
an emergent and transformative direction: (a) perturbing
the system, (b) innovating through exaptation, (c) multi-
loop learning, (d) allowing for emergence, and (e) ab-
sorbing complexity. These principles should be seen as the
emergent outcome of an iterative process of critical
reflection on a specific empirical research experience. As
such, managed to perform the dual role of simultaneously
emerging and guiding the research process as it unfolded.
Perturbing the system
The principle of “perturbing the system” comes from
complex adaptive systems theory, which holds that systems
are self-organizing and self-adapting. Small changes in one
part of the system can effect bigger changes in other parts
of the system, thereby making possible wider systemic
change under certain conditions (Chu et al. 2003; Wright
and Meadows 2012). Sometimes this change has to be
kick-started by perturbing the system, pushing it into a
state of dis-order that can be done consciously by using
leverage. Indeed, while it is not possible to bring about
total system change in complex contexts, it is possible to
focus on strategic leverage points that catalyse change
processes that evolve and expand over time (Meadows
1999; Wright and Meadows 2012). These processes usually
consist of multiple, contextual, small-scale social experi-
ments over a period of time (Snowden 2010; Snowden and
Boone 2007). These small-scale or safe-to-fail social
experiments (that might or might not work) are imagined as
the co-construction of ‘something’ (Cavallo 2000) that acts
as a ‘boundary object’ (Star 2010; Star and Griesemer
1989) or ‘social attractor’ (Snowden 2010). They are sit-
uated at the intersection of particular socio-technical and/or
socio-ecological systems in need of broader systemic
change. They are very different to large-scale (and usually
high-risk) imposed ‘real-world experiments’.
This critical
literature, discussed further in the penultimate section of
the paper, warns that erasing the boundaries between sci-
ence and society could result in serious harm to people and
nature when ‘real-world experiments’ go wrong.
“Perturbing the system” in the Enkanini context means
exploring and finding alternative, innovative means of
bringing about social change. One such way could be
through community representatives negotiating with gov-
ernment, (but this would assume that there is a readiness
and willingness on both sides to enter into such a dialogue).
In 2011 the Enkanini settlement was still illegal and there
was no duly elected representative body with which to
engage. According to Stellenbosch Municipality (SM),
residents of Enkanini were not ‘sufficiently mobilised’ and
therefore were not ‘ready’, as it were to be engaged with as
stakeholders. In SM’s view, Enkanini residents still had to
be ‘prepared’ for such engagement. In this regard, the
municipality involved Shack Dwellers International (SDI),
an international NGO, to establish the exact number of
residents and use this information to prioritise the basic
needs of Enkanini residents.
The TDR team discussed the possibilities of joining and
supporting the emerging SM-SDI stakeholder discussion
forum, but decided against it as the research process could
conceivably be locked into a 2–3-year process of formal
institutionalised stakeholder engagement before generating
any real-world solutions. In addition, the enumeration
process (e.g., counting exercise of numbers of shacks,
people, toilets, water taps) could itself exacerbate existing
tensions. Instead, the TDR team searched for an appro-
priate research strategy with the understanding that any
form of research conducted in a fluid social context, such
as Enkanini, also had to be transformative. This also
implied that the transdisciplinary research strategy would
itself be emerging and participative to ensure that it was
transformative. This strategy is distinctly different from
traditional mono- and/or interdisciplinary approaches that
most often formulate problem statements and research
questions based only on the literature, in isolation with the
tacit knowledge and real-life experiences of local com-
munities (Mintzberg and Lampel 1999; Mintzberg et al.
There were two important consequences to this decision.
First, the research team would need to focus on the
Such high experiments have been discussed in the well-established
literature that emerged after the Chernobyl disaster. For a review see
Gross & Hoffmann-Riem (2005).
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informal and individual relationships already formed in
Enkanini; as opposed to conducting a formal stakeholder
analysis to identify legitimated community leaders to col-
laborate with. Second, the research strategy would entail
designing the small-scale, socio-technical innovations with
individuals and small groups of shack dwellers. This
strategy would make it possible for some residents to gain
access to basic forms of electricity, waste and sanitation
services during the research process. These three elements
(i.e., working together in the present, with existing infor-
mal relationships, and generating workable innovations)
became the crux of the research strategy, supporting the
guiding principle of ‘perturbing the system’.
It is worth mentioning that the shaping and implemen-
tation of this transformative research strategy in Enkanini
took place in a high-risk and fluid social context. However,
despite the risks involved in pursuing this transformative
research strategy, the experience and knowledge gathered
by the TDR team during their early visits to residents’
homes (immersion) provided the subsequent (emergent)
rationale and motivation for continuing with this approach.
There are now more than 1000 connected iShack sys-
tems in Enkanini, indicating that (a) the intervention has
contributed significantly to social change, despite it not
achieving 100 percent uptake, and (b) the TDR team cer-
tainly has ‘earned’ its place in any more formal decision-
making regarding the future of the settlement. However,
this is not to be regarded as a permanent or final ‘solution’
to the problems of the community. Instead, a collaborative
effort that creates the foundations for further collaboration
to continuously and incrementally improve living condi-
tions in Enkanini, via experimentation, collective action
and negotiation.
Innovating through exaptation
The combination of two fundamental principles “innova-
tion” and “exaptation” (Snowden 2011), has played a key
role in guiding the Enkanini TDR process—which meant
going beyond ‘bricolage’ (Kincheloe and Berry 2004),
merely using something what is at hand, but rather using
the latter innovatively and creatively to serve different
purposes and functions than originally intended.
Using this principle has meant working simultaneously
with existing means and materials to solve existing prob-
lems, and using them as innovative solutions for new
problems (exaptation). In turn, the process needed to
demonstrate the possibility of unlocking the evolutionary
potential of the present without having undertaken the
traditional TDR practice of first establishing some norma-
tive ends (normally in the form of a shared vision and
values) and then finding the most effective and efficient
means with which to achieve these normative ends, and for
co-designing and implementing provisional safe-to-fail
experiments relatively quickly (Snowden 2010;2011).
Despite not participating in the enumeration and stake-
holder forum-building process driven by SM-SDI, the TDR
team acknowledged that the SM-SDI approach intersected
at various points with the TDR approach. This may be the
start of a more formal dialogue process between the
municipality and Enkanini residents. The TDR team pos-
ited that by focusing on implementing the iShack project,
and achieving more than 1000 connections by 2016, it
would have brought about a different set of social condi-
tions. This would have enabled residents to engage with the
municipality on a different level. Even if the DC-based
iShack system is later connected to the state-supplied AC-
grid, it is thought that the transformative social learning
(discussed in more detail in ‘Multi-loop learning’ sub-
section below) that occurred during the project, and the
experience of working together on basic service provision,
will have brought about a change in how the municipality
and residents interact in future negotiations.
Because the TDR literature does not provide guidance
on how to implement TDR processes with informal, unle-
gitimated stakeholders, the research team had to seek the-
oretical guidance from literature focused on bottom-up
approaches. To that end, useful concepts came from the
peace-building and conflict resolution literature, in partic-
ular Track 1 and Track 2 negotiation processes (Diamond
and McDonald 1996).
Track 1 approaches normally involve high-level gov-
ernment officials and leaders whose intent is to influence
power structures and improve power relations so that
negotiations and discourses can move forward. The
downside of Track 1 approaches is that if power suppresses
underlying issues, the sustainability of any agreements can
be compromised (Mapendere 2005).
Track 2 approaches are not a replacement for Track 1,
but rather a supplement to them. Their intent is to build
relationships and encourage new thinking that can inform
Track 1 negotiations. Often, Track 2 approaches are con-
ducted via unofficial channels, and can precede official
negotiations. In this sense they can lay the groundwork and
establish a certain level of trust between partners, thereby
de-escalating challenging situations. Essentially, Track 2
approaches build bridges, increase trust, correct misper-
ceptions and unfounded fears, and mitigate dehumanization
and entrenchment (Burgess and Burgess 1997). A down-
side to Track 2 is that participants rarely have the resources
to implement any agreement. Sometimes, the two tracks
occur simultaneously, called multi-track diplomacy (Bur-
gess and Burgess 1997; Mapendere 2005; Snodderly 2011).
Track 2 peace-building or conflict resolution efforts are
recognised for their affirmation that informal trust and
relationships can contribute to finding and implementing
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durable solutions in the more formal Track 1 negotiation
processes. These are normally conducted between legiti-
mated decision-makers representing the interests of their
constituencies/stakeholders (Davies and Kaufman 2003;
Diamond and McDonald 1996; Esterhuyse 2012). This
body of literature accepts that the connection and interac-
tion between Track 2 and Track 1 approaches is funda-
mental. This is because without building trust and
relationships as it happens in informal Track 2 processes, it
becomes very difficult (even impossible), to reach and
implement formal Track 1 negotiated agreements.
A Track 2 perspective made it possible to see a con-
nection between initiating the Enkanini TDR process and
contributing to a process of incremental social change. It
became apparent that taking this informal route of building
individual relationships of trust around the co-design and
implementation of small-scale social experiments could
potentially contribute to building a wider community cul-
ture of working together (Sennett 2012), and negotiating a
better future with government.
While, the innovation/exaptation principle guided the
TDR process, on reflection, the research process itself was
contributing to a Track 2-type social change process. This
was through embedding the TDR team within the Enkanini
context, and linking it through informal relationships to
residents and place.
Multi-loop transformative learning
The basic idea of “multi-loop learning” comes from
Bateson (1972), namely that learning is an iterative process
whereby people go through many loops of learning (see
Fig. 2for a graphic representation hereof). These comprise
three distinct levels: “learn”, “learn how to learn”, and
“learn how to learn how to learn”. In particular:
Level 1 signifies the acquisition of new technical
knowledge and skills.
Level 2 denotes the learning of learning, figuring out
how to share and transfer newly acquired knowledge to
others in order to do things more efficiently.
Level 3 involves gaining critical awareness of the
consequences and direction of the learning process and,
consequently, the need for changing the underlying
logic and principles driving the learning process.
Transformative learning happens at this level.
Co-producing systems, target and transformation
knowledge (Hadorn and Pohl 2008b; Pohl and Hadorn
2007) is fundamental to the ETDR approach and, in par-
ticular, the learning how to co-produce these three different
types of knowledge in the fluid, emerging informal settle-
ment context of Enkanini has been a major challenge. The
underlying ideas on multi-loop learning were particularly
useful (Bateson 1972;2002; Medema et al. 2014; Tosey
et al. 2012) in this regard of making sense of the contin-
uous flow of experiences, reflections, ideas, theorising and
actions in the context of Enkanini.
While all three levels of learning are necessary, trans-
formative learning occurs at Level 3 as the deeper strategic
insights and thinking into the learning process itself are
generated. Level 3 learning goes beyond cognitive and
intellectual skills as it involves the aesthetic and axiolog-
ical aspects of learning as well.
In Enkanini, the TDR team started effectively with a
first cycle of Level 3 learning by building relationships
through painting shacks and staying over for weekends
with individual shack dwellers (i.e., the aesthetic compo-
nent of Level 3 learning). These activities focused specif-
ically on establishing and building trust. The guiding
problem statement of what could be done in the present
while waiting for the state-funded grid solutions was both
broad and specific enough to allow researchers to connect
with individual families at the aesthetic level because
people were already beautifying their shacks. This meant
that the initial conversations taking place around shared
activities of painting and preparing meals together in
peoples’ homes were more narrative-oriented in that
researchers listened to real-life stories and histories; and
observed first-hand the innovations people were undertak-
ing to improve their current situation (innovation through
exaptation, see above). It was the (learning) experience of a
TDR member (Andreas Keller) living in a shack and
experiencing the daily challenges faced by shack dwellers
that gave rise to the real innovative idea of the iShack.
The insights gained from this first cycle of Level 3
transformative learning were critically important in co-
generating target and transformation knowledge. Through
this process the TDR team could engage in developing and
sustaining realistic expectations of what could be practi-
cally achieved in the present, as opposed to approaching
the present from a normative and delayed point in the
future, mediated by the interests of a distanced represen-
tative decision-making body operating from a distance.
This learning “from” and “together” with the individuals in
Enkanini had a significant impact on the co-generation of
Level 1 and Level 2 learning, respectively.
The second cycle of transformative learning had its
origins in the first cycle of Level 1 learning. This confirmed
the entangled and interactive nature of the three levels
(Tosey et al. 2012). It was during the process of co-de-
signing, co-constructing and implementing the first few
iShacks that it occurred to the TDR team that scaling up the
initiative would entail going beyond the mere technical and
technological aspects of recycled building materials, PV-
panels and DC-electricity systems. New research questions
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emerged as it became clear that, in the absence of state
funding and support, the institutional arrangements for the
payment and maintenance of the iShack system would have
to come from the individual households themselves.
Besides the apparently simple questions of whether people
would be able and willing to pay for this, the more complex
question arose as how to organise and institutionalise this
in a social context that lacked a long and strong history of
working together (Sennett 2012).
The institutional arrangements to maintain and collect
payment for the system were co-designed with 20 shack
dwellers connected to the iShack. This illustrated a second
cycle of Level 3 learning, as it became apparent that what
was being designed was an integrated socio-technical
innovation. In other words, the design aesthetic was a
bridging tool.
This Level 3 experience then sparked a second cycle of
Level 1 and 3 learning related to how to integrate the social
and technical aspects of the iShack system and how to
replicate this socio-technical intervention in the rest of
Enkanini among residents who chose to join on a voluntary
In essence, this multi-loop learning process, which by no
means proceeds in linear fashion from Level 1, to Level 2
and 3, produced the ideas (including the combination of
renewable and sustainable technologies), the institutional
arrangements, and the practices for paying for and main-
taining the system. It is the real-life social laboratory of
Enkanini that made this iterative and multi-level learning
process possible.
Anticipating and allowing for emergence
The purpose of perturbing the system by implementing
multiple safe-to-fail social experiments is to create the
conditions necessary for longer-term solutions to emerge. It
is critical to nudge the TDR research process to avoid pre-
mature convergence and enable emergence to occur
(Snowden 2006; Snowden and Boone 2007; Snowden 2011).
The aforementioned leverage points are bifurcations,
where a process can split in different directions and sites of
instability, ripe with potential from which solutions can
emerge. Transdisciplinary researchers must allow for
solutions to begin morph into new entities, different to their
Fig. 2 Bateson’s levels of
learning arranged as recursive
hierarchy. (Source: Tosey et al.
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original purpose(s) (in line with the principle of exaptation
explained above). Transdisciplinary researchers must also
remain open to taking advantage of convergent moments to
source innovative funding options, necessitating thus
adaptability, creativity, and intuition.
The guiding principle of ‘allowing space for emergence’
has three important aspects. First there is an expectation
that the emergent property will be more than the sum total
of its parts. In this case, more than the combined results of
individual research activities and implementation of small-
scale interventions. One such emergent property is a newly
established culture of working together (Sennett 2012).
Although it could be premature to label this phenomenon
as an emergent property, new practices of working together
are increasingly visible in the Enkanini settlement.
The TDR process has catalysed bringing together indi-
vidual households in figuring out how to practically
improve their current situation in the present, moving far
beyond issues related to simply paying and maintaining the
iShack, sanitation, and waste systems. What is particularly
significant in the South African context is that this hap-
pened in the absence of any form of overt government
administration. It could be argued that this would not have
happened if only a top-down bureaucratic approach had
been adopted in the form of a Track 1 multi-stakeholder
approach (Burgess and Burgess 1997). Powerful stake-
holders, such as government, normally want to ‘own’ and
direct developmental processes, and so perpetuate or create
unequal power relations.
The TDR process allowed for emergence, which meant
that any practical ideas on what ought to be were worked
during the co-design and implementation phases. A situa-
tional ethics was allowed to emerge through the situation of
working together on what can be achieved in the present—
and not some idealised and deferred point in the future.
Situational ethics (contextualism) holds that each case is
unique, meaning that ethical decisions should follow flex-
ible guidelines rather than absolute rules or a priori prin-
ciples, as per Kant’s transcendental ethics (Kant 1996;
An illustration of this effect is that discussions and
decision-making regarding the implementation of each of
the three socio-technical innovations also entailed
addressing the challenge of fairness. Each small group of
shack dwellers had to anticipate the consequences of
potential default payees. These groups decided that
households with genuine reasons would be given the
opportunity to pay back arrears over a period of 3–
6 months. But to guard against people who joined the
system and then intentionally refused to make regular
payments, the groups volunteered to establish savings
accounts based on small, additional monthly payments to
recoup losses in this regard.
A second important aspect for the ETDR approach is
that having an idealised version of the future is not a
fundamental prerequisite for initiating TDR processes. It is
possible to start with practical, small-scale projects that
aim to change the present and allow for normative dis-
cussions of the future to emerge from this process. For
example in Enkanini we started with the iShack project and
then slowly but surely introduced the Bokashi solid-waste
and gravity-fed sanitation projects.
A third aspect was that by allowing for emergence
implied that culture of working together which is at its
infancy in Enkanini is not fixed or stable, so it cannot be
taken for granted. The attempts to establish the necessary
institutions to bolster a collaborative culture should there-
fore not be seen as a repetitive task, but rather as a task that
which repeats itself until the next time, which is always the
first time (Latour et al. 2012).
Trust is integral to building institutions and as it is not a
tradable commodity. It is something that must be built, and
rebuilt. This understanding has guided the work of the
TDR team in taking on the challenge of connecting each
group of shacks to the system, as if for the first time. The
results are apparent in more than 1000 households con-
nected to the system over the 4-year period, and the
establishment of a socially-robust system, which has
already stood the test of opposition from certain quarters in
the settlement.
Absorbing complexity
It is better to use a research approach that “absorbs com-
plexity” (i.e., make it work for you), rather than reducing it
when working in complex, real-world contexts (Snowden
2011). Attempts to overly structure the research process to
provide certainty in an uncertain environment are likely to
lead to premature convergence and hasty conclusions. This
requires researchers to retain some measure of cognitive
agility and be open to the unanticipated.
In the fluid social conditions of Enkanini, it is not pos-
sible to accept the reduction of complexity (Pohl and
Hadorn 2007) and the creation of conflict-free zones
(Scholz 2011) as guiding principles for transdisciplinary
research. The TDR research strategy encompassing per-
turbations of the system warrants an approach that “absorbs
complexity” by finding ways of working with and around
By the time we approached the people of Enkanini in their informal
social networks there had not been any shared experience amongst
them of having worked jointly on any such project (e.g., electricity,
water, waste). In other words, they were ‘un-mobilised’ following the
NGO sector discourse. So, this ‘culture’ (or shared experience) of
working together only emerged during our TDR process. As this was
not something we intentionally planned for, it is reasonable to claim
that it truly emerged during the TDR process.
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the power relations, which shape and are being shaped by
the emerging community. It requires a two-pronged strat-
egy of taking on powerful vested interests when required,
and not engaging at other times.
Opposition to this TDR process did not only emanate
from certain resident groups in Enkanini, but also from the
municipality, as expressed in heated emails in 2011. All
discussions and decisions made by the TDR team were
done in conjunction with individuals representing their
own interests and participating on a voluntary basis.
Taking this approach produced unexpected results. The
municipality eventually endorsed the project by extending
their indigent policy of basic free electricity to people off-
grid that generate their own electricity. It also led to a
group of residents actively mobilising against the project,
as they felt it prevented them from gaining access to the
municipal grid system. These unexpected (but unsurpris-
ing) responses added to the complexity of the unfolding
situation, and demanded that the research team worked
with complexity, as opposed to reducing it.
As articulated in the literature about absorbing com-
plexity, the key to this approach is trust (Tait and
Richardson 2010), which, in the context of Enkanini, must
be seen as an emergent outcome of the entangled (Hodder
2012) social and technical relationships that were
painstakingly assembled in and around all three small-scale
safe-to-fail socio-technical innovations. Trust in the overall
research project had to come from and be built both within
and outside the TDR team. First and foremost, this trust
had to be developed at the interpersonal level within the
TDR team, having to learn to work together and trust each
other’s work. Secondly, trust within the team also had to be
built in and around the renewable and sustainable tech-
nologies to be used in the three experimental projects. This
was achieved synergistically through all the teambuilding
activities that went into an iterative process of sourcing,
testing, piloting, monitoring and evaluating the first small-
scale versions of the iShack, Bokashi and gravity-fed
sanitation systems.
As the research process unfolded, trust-building was
achieved on a shack-by-shack basis, with every individual
shack-dwelling family who voluntarily opted to participate
in any one of the three small-scale projects. In short, in a
fluid social context such as Enkanini, trust should not be
seen and treated as a ‘resource’. It is better to imagine it as
an emergent outcome of the many entangled socio-tech-
nical relationships. Recognising this emergent character of
trust certainly was key to navigating the dynamic and
unequal power relations in the settlement as new stake-
holder groupings emerged within the community. In doing
so, learning how to absorb and work with complexity was
ultimately more important than trying to reduce or min-
imise it.
Reflections from the Enkanini ETDR process
The entire project described in this paper lasted between
2011 and 2016. Throughout its duration the TDR team had
to learn how to deal with the emergence of unforeseen
stakeholder alliances, both outside and within Enkanini.
The responsiveness of the TDR team to prove that they
were working on interim solutions, as opposed to imposing
their own agenda on the settlement, gave further legiti-
mation to the TDR process in the eyes of the community.
This in turn, enabled the further roll-out of the TDR
As the project was an unfolding one, decisions were
taken reflexively based on the contextual happenings in
Enkanini. As a result it was not possible to know upfront
how and what would need to be funded. The challenge of
this type of research is therefore not restricted to matters of
theory or navigating complex social and environmental
contexts (as discussed above), but to a large degree
depends on being able to fund interventions, change tasks
quickly, and scale up or dampen the small-scale experi-
ments as need arose. It thus became increasingly necessary
to develop a practical and strategic intuition as to when to
apply for funding and who to apply to. Sensing when to act
upon converging moments, and how to turn these into
opportunities to attract funders, has been fruitful to date.
Most of the researchers involved in this TDR process have
become invested in the project, and its unfolding process in
ways that go beyond purely financial matters.
By seeing the research process as a discovery of the
evolutionary potential of the present and experimental
explorations in the in-between spaces adjacent to what
already exists in the present, the ETDR approach takes a
different route to other approaches in the teleologically-
oriented transdisciplinary literature. This teleological
approach requires setting up purpose-constructed ‘conflict-
free zones’ to conduct formal stakeholder engagement
processes (Scholz et al. 2006;2009; Scholz 2011). This
amounts, in practice, to the creation of some protected
communicative spaces within which rational-scientific
discussions can take place between the participants. The
purpose would then be to find the most efficient and
effective means for achieving certain mutually-agreed
upon ends.
The emergent kind of research process experienced and
observed in the context of the Enkanini case needs some
human energy for fuelling the imagination and experi-
mentation (Unger 1998;2007;2014) with the real possi-
bilities of the ‘adjacent possible’ in the ‘in-between’
spaces. This can be generated by the participants’
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conflicting needs and interests, values and norms, and
experiences and perceptions. Learning how to work with
the messiness of the current situation and harnessing this
energy by figuring out how people are drawn and come
together because of (rather in spite of or in the absence of)
their differences, is critical for our methodological task of
developing some appropriate guiding logics and principles
of the ETDR approach. In this regard, it is important that
these design principles are anticipatory both in their ori-
entation and execution (Poli 2009;2010a,b). In other
words, these design principles must be capable of antici-
pating and working with uncertainty, emergence and
unexpected circumstances, as and when it happens during
the unfolding research process.
As already mentioned, when working in a truly complex
environment of unknown unknowns, where non-linear
cause-effect relationships and unforeseen consequences are
the order of the day (Snowden 2005; Snowden and Boone
2007), it is not possible to predict in advance whether or
what social change outcomes might come out of a partic-
ular research intervention. Needless to say that this is also
true of any intentional transformative TDR intervention.
The mere fact of engaging stakeholders is not an automatic
guarantee that the decision-making and planning that nor-
mally happens in workshop settings will necessarily be
translated into practical and sustainable solutions on the
ground. This is especially true if these discussions have
taken place only with the so-called “legitimated leaders” or
representatives of the concerned groups, rather than the less
formalised networks of concerned individuals. For this
reason, the TDR team initiated the research process with no
specific, pre-formulated, ideas on what specific type of
social change should be expected from the specific research
intervention. Of course, a range of known options came up
during the discussions, ranging from state-driven upgrad-
ing of services to permanent neglect, with community-
driven incrementalism laying somewhere between these
extremes. There were literally too many unknowns, par-
ticularly who and what was happening at the informal level
of the Enkanini informal human settlement. Therefore, as
already indicated above, the TDR team could only start the
research process with a very open-minded transformative
orientation. This was captured in the broad, research
question of ‘what can be done incrementally in the present,
whilst waiting for the Government to arrive with its more
macro grid-solutions. To be sure, what exactly could be
achieved in the present (given the social, material and
geographical conditions and limitations of the Enkanini
informal settlement), was not at all clear at the start of the
process. It was only something that could be explored
incrementally in the present, as the research process
unfolded on a daily basis.
In such a volatile context what has been achieved today,
can easily be overturned by a completely different set of
circumstances and occurrences tomorrow. This only makes
common sense that the transformative TDR process could
not be designed and guided by an inductive or deductive
hypothesis-proving or truth-seeking type of logic. This is
because there are no hypotheses to be proven or disproven,
even when it comes to what can or cannot be achieved with
an incrementalism theory of social change. It was therefore
clear from the onset that a very different type of explo-
rative logic was needed for steering the research process
incrementally in a broadly-speaking transformative direc-
tion, without having a clear-cut point of departure and
point of arrival built into the transformative research pro-
cess. It was in this context that the abductive logic became
the driving logic of the TDR team. At first, it was used
intuitively and subsequently, as the research process
unfolded, more explicitly. As participating researchers
started reflecting more critically on their research experi-
ences and the type of reasoning informing their decision-
making incrementally steered the research process in a
transformative direction.
Turning to the literature on abductive logic intuitively
also made a tremendous amount of sense, particularly upon
(re)discovering the ground-breaking work of pragmatist
philosopher C.S. Peirce (1974). This way of thinking has
become known as the logic of hunches, of making con-
nections between things on their plausibility (Snowden
2011). In this regard, what resonated strongly with both the
experiences and reflections of the research team was the
central notion that in the abductive mode of reasoning
people “draw a (best guess) conclusion from an array of
seemingly disparate and unconnected facts and observa-
tions” (Patokorpi 2006: 71). From this perspective of
making connections and seeing patterns emerging in a
context of disconnect and with no history or shared expe-
rience, coming and working together on any matters of
concern in this particular settlement played a significant
role in how the research team saw and understood the
effects of their own research actions and how to plot the
way forward (making the road by walking it). Particularly
significant in this regard were the initial observations of
some incremental changes in the patterns of the behaviours
of the first individual shack-dwellers slowly but surely—
five households at a time—beginning to move in the
direction of coming together to figuring out how the iShack
system should be implemented, maintained and paid for.
In summary, the abductive logic was something that
may be described as the emergent outcome of an iterative
and reflexive process. This was between the practical
experience of working in an explorative manner, on the one
hand, and engaging critically with the relevant literature,
on the other hand. It was not something that was taken from
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the literature and somehow applied to the practical situa-
tion of the Enkanini informal settlement. On the contrary, it
was based on a more grounded theory or bottom-up way.
At first, intuitively working in an abductive way by
experimenting with a small-scale safe-to-fail (Snowden
2011) experiments in co-designing and building the first
iShack and then observing changes in peoples’ perceptions
and behaviour in response to this, before moving on to
building more iShacks and retrofitting existing shacks. It
was only when some changes in perceptions and behaviour
started to emerge that the critical engagement with and
integration of the insights provided by the literature on
abductive reasoning became really meaningful. This
entailed the development of a deeper abductive under-
standing at the theoretical level of connections and insights
from the experiences of Enkanini residents about the
slowly expanding iShack system, and then feeding these
insights back into plotting the next few steps of the
unfolding research process. Continuously asking the
question ‘what are the next steps’ (Unger 1998) became an
important maxim of the research team capturing the
abductive way of engaging with the individual shack-
dwellers in Enkanini. It also served as a continuous
reminder to the research team that the TDR process was
conducted in a context with no (facilitated) shared vision of
the future from the residents of Enkanini. Rather it was a
matter of working in the present and figuring things out as
events unfolded. On critical reflection, it became increas-
ingly clear that it would have been impossible to try and do
this type of transformative transdisciplinary research with
an inductive or deductive hypothesis-testing logic. This is
because even the ‘incrementalism’ theory of change does
not lend itself to hypothesis-building and testing, but rather
favours experimentation as a means of uncovering alter-
natives that are very different to what can be found in a
particular context (Unger 1998). Tentative conclusions
could only be drawn in an abductive manner through the
actual experiences gained from the processes of experi-
mentation within the highly fluid social context of
On the limits to transdisciplinary research
and experimentation
For those who are interested in exploring and applying
transdisciplinary research approaches, there are three major
criticisms that need to be acknowledged and addressed in
some way: (a) what Jacobs (2013) calls the “anti-disci-
plinarity” of those who favour inter- or trans-disciplinary
approaches; (b) the dangers of real-world experimentation
in light of the precautionary principle; and (c), the muz-
zling of the critical role of science as the bearer of truth to
On anti-disicplinarity, Jacobs (2013) is correct in
pointing that those who favour interdisciplinary research
tend to undervalue disciplinary research. He contends that
the interdisciplinarians have significantly over-stated the
‘silo-isation’ of disciplines, and largely ignored the non-
institutionalised manner in which disciplinary researchers
actually collaborate in practice. Interdisciplinarians do this
to justify the massive increase in funding for the institu-
tionalisation of interdisciplinary research. However there
might be a paradoxical situation of interdisciplinary spe-
cialisation expressed in the rise of a new generation of
interdisciplinary institutions with specialist research agen-
das (Jacobs 2013). Instead of institutionalising interdisci-
plinarity, the disciplines should be reinforced and
collaboration between disciplines incentivised. According
to Jacobs (2013) the institutionalisation of interdisci-
plinarity, he argues, will result in the replication of the
same problem that is seemingly being solved, i.e., exces-
sive specialisation and competition between increasingly
large specialised interdisciplinary programmes. However it
should be pointed that Jacobs (2013) argument focuses on
interdisciplinary research in North American contexts, and
not on collaborations with society, which is what trans-
disciplinary research emphasizes. However, there cannot
be inter- or trans-disciplinary research without strong basic
disciplines. In the Enkanini case, researchers from different
disciplines (e.g., architecture, engineering, ecological
design, economics, finance and anthropology etc.) were
intimately involved in the co-design of the three small-
scale socio-technical experiments and found a way to
collaborate based on mutual respect and a shared research
We should emphasize that the preamble to the Sus-
tainable Development Goals (SDGs) calls for a “trans-
formed world”. In other words, there is widespread
recognition that the polycrisis (Morin and Kern 1999)
human societies face requires nothing less than a large-
scale structural transformation. However, when it comes to
articulating a theory of change, the emphasis is on learning,
dialogue, social innovation and experimentation rather than
the state-centric seizures of power that preoccupied the
revolutionaries of the 19th and 20th century. There is a
widespread belief that science must support this theory of
change, but as Gross and Hoffmann-Riem (2005) point out,
there is a significant body of literature that strongly warns
against a naı
¨ve attempt to erase the distinction between
science and society in the name of social change. This
practice goes against the precautionary principle and can
disguise the process of transferring responsibility for seri-
ous risks from the scientists (who normally manage
experiments in a laboratory), to society in general in top-
down ways without ensuring that society is informed
enough to make decisions about the associated risks. For
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Gross and Hoffmann-Riem (2005) the solution is to make
sure that stakeholders are fully engaged in large-scale real-
world experiments. In short, they fall back on processes we
have pointed out as not always viable in many African
urban contexts, but may well be needed. It might be better
to accept that experimentation is going to perturb and fail,
and that the resulting conflicts may well be how we learn
and change from this failure. But this does not resolve the
problem of the responsibility that science has for the
experiments that it initiates within society.
Finally, during the course of the Enkanini case study it
became clear that there is a price to be paid for collabo-
rative work in unequal and conflict-ridden situations. In
order to ‘co-produce’ productively problem-solving
knowledge with stakeholders (including government
agencies), it was no longer possible to openly criticize
those responsible for reproducing injustice (including the
Municipality and local politicians). What this implies is
that research that depends on the facilitation of consensual
problem-solving dialogue can result in the suppression of
the traditional role of the critical researcher as talking
‘truth-to-power’ (Hadorn and Pohl 2008b). However, this
is not a permanent condition, as after completion, the write-
up of the research as a thesis and/or published article can,
of course, include a critical analysis. However, the chances
are high that this will trigger a negative reaction amongst
stakeholders (if the material is actually read). Either way,
social processes can become epistemologically constraint
as to what can and cannot be articulated at different
moments during the research process.
The ETDR approach illustrates what can be achieved at the
practical, strategic and methodological levels of conduct-
ing contextual, and solution-orientated TDR. This
approach makes a compelling case for the possibility of
generating and steering the research process using guiding
principles that emerge through the process itself via the
reflexive and critical learning and the integration of various
theoretical frameworks. This has implications for the
methodological aspects of emergent TDR processes that
need to navigate through the tricky terrain of practical and
theoretical challenges.
This study further illustrates that it is possible to link
transdisciplinary knowledge co-production to a process of
incremental social change, in a way that not only interprets
and explains context, but also, at times, contributes to
changing it. It does this by following a Track 2 research
strategy of focusing on the informal and what can be
achieved in the present. By working at the micro-level, and
by building individual epistemic relationships with
individual social actors, the TDR team has facilitated a
bottom-up process of connectivity. This has led to the
emergence of small, collaborative networks or epistemic
communities. These communities are, through the TDR
process, empowered with practical knowledge that they can
use to negotiate a better future for themselves.
The Enkanini TDR project has further demonstrated the
appropriateness of incrementalism as a social change
strategy in a fluid and complex environment, as it lends
itself to integration with transformative (social change)
research approaches. It is possible to bring about social
change by creating an environment that is conducive for
collaboration through connecting various research activi-
ties and innovations at the micro-level with individuals and
networks. It is not the individual activities that lead to
social change, rather, through the linkages created, some-
thing that is more than the sum of the parts emerges. This is
illustrated by individuals recounting how they started to
extend the connections made during the socio-technical
interventions beyond these (and onto other) areas of
immediate concern. Incremental social change also hap-
pens when the practical knowledge gained during the
various socio-technical innovations is transferred to other
areas and issues of the community, thus warranting dif-
ferent modes of collaboration.
ETDR is appropriate in contexts characterised by a
combination of high levels of social inequality, fluidity,
informality and experimentation as part and parcel of the
fabric of social life. These conditions may very well be
present in certain isolated pockets of society in the devel-
oped countries of the global North, but certainly not to the
same extent or scale as is developing countries.
What emerged from this dynamic interchange between
theory and praxis in the Enkanini case study has been a
synthesis of the ideas, concepts, logics and principles found
in complexity thinking, systems thinking, transformative
learning, and assemblage and narrative theories. These
informed the development of the guiding logics (abductive
reasoning) and principles that have been discussed
throughout this paper: (a) perturbing the system, (b) inno-
vation through exaptation, (c) multi-loop learning, (d) al-
lowing for emergence, and (e) absorbing complexity. At
the same time we raise three fundamental critical questions
about the entire endeavour of conceptualizing and imple-
menting TDR approaches. These include the unproductive
tendency to reduce the significance of disciplines, the
dangers of unwittingly transferring responsibility for risk
from the laboratory to society, and the ethical implications
of compromising the obligation to talk ‘truth-to-power’
when faced with injustice.
In short, this is our best shot at making sense—both
theoretically and practically—of our experience of exper-
imenting with TDR in a particular context of an informal
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settlement in South Africa. We certainly hope to engage
with others to deepen their and our praxis. In doing so, we
would like to avoid the assumption that it is possible to
arrive (either deductively or inductively) at a generic set of
logics and principles applicable to all contexts. Rather,
what would emerge is a body of concepts that can be drawn
in different ways, depending on what researchers in dif-
ferent contexts may find useful to address in the questions
that emerge from the vicissitudes of change.
In summary, any TDR process hoping to bring about
social change in this dynamic environment simply has to
acknowledge and work with what is happening on the
ground. The methodological challenge is to come up with
some guiding logics and principles capable of navigating
transformative TDR processes. These processes are
embedded in emergent contexts where informality is a
stronger social force than what may pertain in most formal
institutional engagements and decision-making processes
that tend to be about the context in question rather than
embedded within this context.
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... Habermas, 1981;Pereira et al., 2018b) does not automatically lead, and could even stand in contrast, to creating transforma-tive change. Creating such change arguably requires transdisciplinary initiatives to both work with and against systemic power relations (e.g., Van Breda and Swilling, 2019). This also begs reflection and reconsideration of how such inclusive transdisciplinary experimentation can, or cannot, aim for catalyzing transformative change through their interventions. ...
... In experimentation processes (also see Sengers et al., 2019) there is a key focus on developing common visions of (potential) futures and associated transition (policy) pathways (e.g., Oomen et al., 2021;Hebinck et al., 2018); developing, facilitating, implementing and/or scaling transformative (social) innovations (e.g., Loorbach, 2007;Lam et al., 2020a); and facilitating social learning and reflection between participating actors (e.g., Reed, 2008). Labs can be considered to have a 'dual functionality': on the one hand, Labs are part of, and embedded in, systems they aim to transform (bringing along the complexity of having to work both with and against systemic power relations, see also Van Breda and Swilling, 2019); while at the same time Labs can be considered 'demarcated safe-spaces' that are shielded from (the undesirable political dynamics of) systems (e.g., Pereira et al., 2018a). Hence, Labs have semi-permeable boundaries (Kok et al., 2021b). ...
... Governing the politics of translocal experimentation was challenging as it required FITF4FOOD2030 to be attentive to, and respond to, empowering and disempowering dynamics not only in different 'localities' but also across (governance) scales. Transformative programs thus both need to draw upon as well as redirect systemic power relations (Avelino and Rotmans, 2009;Van Breda and Swilling, 2019). It brings along a responsibility for programs (through their 'local experiments') to serve as empowering instruments that include marginalized stakeholders and ensure meaningful deliberation. ...
... The research output was strategically incorporated into the petition to benefit waste governance in Nigerian and European contexts. The Nigerian government is designing an extended producer responsibility (EPR) (UNEP, 2019). And the European Parliament acknowledges their problem with shipping waste internationally in its revised CE action plan with ambitions to improve (European Commission, 2020a). ...
... Existing technologies dictate the capacity and quality of e-waste recycling (Awasthi et al., 2016;van Yken et al., 2021). However, lack of financial resources means limited access to technology-one of the reasons why the global south does not have a sound waste management system (Aremu, 2020;UNEP, 2015). Hickel (2018) (Terada, 2012;Wilson et al., 2006). ...
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Used European electric and electronic equipment (UEEE) has multiple use cycles in various countries, including Nigeria. Although the EU‐Nigeria e‐waste trade is illegal under EU and Nigerian law, previous research shows that some imported equipment is only fit for disposal. Imported UEEE has a short lifespan. Such European e‐waste exports imported to Nigeria have sustainability and circularity implications for both places and raise questions about justice and equity. Using a transdisciplinary approach, we identify existing practices and challenges in Nigeria and co‐create actionable solutions towards a sustainable, circular and fairness‐driven UEEE and e‐waste value chain. We find current extended producer responsibility (EPR) does not focus on the entire global value chain, is linear, and lacks transparency, accountability, and consideration for spatial equity. To overcome these shortcomings, we propose ultimate producer responsibility (UPR). UPR aids sustainability and circularity transition while paying attention to justice and equity. The research adds global and social dimensions to the European circular economy (CE), otherwise primarily focused on national material cycles.
... Both dominant political ideologies of the cold war divide shared an enthusiasm for material progress and spectacular projects. Th e fact that such large-scale eff orts oft en failed dramatically as well as engendered opposition and inspired counter movements like appropriate technology and community development only underscores the point (Immerwahr 2015;Morefi eld 2019;Scott 1998;Turner 2006). Th e modernising approach appeared big, bold and comprehensive, potentially universal in scope. ...
... Aft er engaging with residents, the team launched a trio of projects to address waste, sanitation and energy. All involved microscale, experimental technical systems: a Bokashi compost centre, a set of grey water fl ush toilets connected to an anaerobic digester and a solar multigrid system implemented at the household level that became known as the iShack (Swilling et al 2011;van Breda and Swilling 2019). Th e researchers also established a model structure to serve as the Enkanini Research Centre, built with an eye towards the use of effi cient, reclaimed materials that would provide a more sustainable and comfortable form of shelter. ...
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How modest can a utopia be? I approach this question with reference to the iShack, a solar electrification project in South Africa designed as an incremental upgrade for shack dwellers in informal settlements. Designed to provide basic energy for lighting and charging, the system also promises health and safety benefits by reducing the use of kerosene. Its promoters envision it as a bridge solution while people wait for better housing or municipal services. By offering an imperfect, stopgap form of enhancement, the venture exposes utopian expectations about progress, provoking critical anxieties about attenuated and unequal futures. At the same time, it bares the ecological limits of conventional infrastructure, the continuing inadequacies of state provision and the complex techno-politics of hope. French Abstract: Jusqu’à quel point une utopie peut-elle être modeste? J’aborde cette question en me référant à l’iShack, un projet d’électrifi cation solaire en Afrique du Sud conçu comme une mise à niveau progressive pour les habitants des cabanes dans les quartiers informels. Conçu pour fournir une énergie de base pour l’éclairage et la recharge, le système promet également des avantages en matière de santé et de sécurité en réduisant l’utilisation du kérosène. Ses promoteurs l’envisagent comme une solution de transition en attendant que les personnes concernées obtiennent un meilleur logement ou l’accès à des services municipaux. En offrant une forme imparfaite et provisoire d’amélioration, l’entreprise met à nu les attentes utopiques en matière de progrès, provoquant des angoisses critiques quant à des avenirs atténués et inégaux. En même temps, elle révèle les limites écologiques des infrastructures conventionnelles, les insuffi sances persistantes des services publics et la technopolitique complexe de l’espoir.
... To build onto knowledge and generate new theoretical insights into how competencies shape individual ability to engage in interdisciplinary teamwork for knowledge integration in sustainability, we applied an exploratory research design based on abductive reasoning. This approach involved a continuous process of moving back and forth between data and theory to produce a new framework (Kovács and Spens 2005;Van Breda and Swilling 2019). This iterative process is further explained in the data analysis section below. ...
... Instead, we set out to develop a novel framework to contribute to the under-theorized topic of understanding interdisciplinary competencies. We followed an abductive reasoning approach, in which we analysed theory and empirical data through recursive iteration and continuous comparison (Le Gall and Langley 2015;Ridder 2017;Van Breda and Swilling 2019). In contrast to purely inductive approaches, we started with pre-existing conceptual ideas from substantive literature on interdisciplinary collaboration. ...
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Global sustainability challenges transcend disciplines and, therefore, demand interdisciplinary approaches that are characterized by cross-disciplinary collaboration and integration across disciplines. In accordance with this need for interdisciplinary approaches, sustainability professionals have been reported to require interdisciplinary competencies. Although the necessity of interdisciplinary competencies is generally agreed upon, and there has been extensive research to understand competencies for interdisciplinarity, there is still no comprehensive understanding of how individual competencies shape the ability to integrate knowledge across disciplines. Therefore, based on empirical research and literature review, we propose a novel framework to understand competencies for interdisciplinarity. The empirical data were collected through written reflection and interviews with 19 students in the context of an interdisciplinary master’s course. We describe four typical behaviours—naïve, assertive, accommodating, and integrative. Based on these behavioural typologies, we define two sets of competencies that collaborators require to engage in interdisciplinary knowledge integration: Epistemic Stability (ES) and Epistemic Adaptability (EA). ES competencies are the competencies to contribute one’s own academic knowledge, such as theoretical and methodological grounding in one’s own field and confidence, and EA competencies are the competencies to engage with academic knowledge contributed by others, such as curiosity, openness and communicative skills. Our findings show that interdisciplinary knowledge integration requires ES and EA competencies. Our framework for interdisciplinary competencies offers insights for revising and designing more interventions to prepare (future) professionals for interdisciplinary work on sustainability issues, providing insights on criteria for assessment, management, and training.
... Governing the politics of translocal experimentation was challenging as it required FITF4FOOD2030 to be attentive to, and respond to, empowering and disempowering dynamics not only in different 'localities' but also across (governance) scales. Transformative programs thus both need to draw upon as well as redirect systemic power relations (Avelino and Rotmans, 2009;Van Breda and Swilling, 2019). It brings along a responsibility for programs (through their 'local experiments') to serve as empowering instruments that include marginalized stakeholders and ensure meaningful deliberation. ...
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Transition experiments are important instruments to foster sustainability transitions. Transition scholars increasingly suggest investigating how multiple local experiments can become connected across spatial scales, and how transformative dynamics of multiple connected experiments can be facilitated and governed. In this paper we analyze the different types of translocal dynamics involved in simultaneously governing multiple experiments in multi-sited transition programs, by empirically exploring the FIT4FOOD2030 program (2017-2020) that supported 25 transition experiments. Then, we present four overarching challenges in governing translocal experimentation: (1) finding synergies between diverging local needs and program ambitions; (2) navigating the cross-scale political dynamics in multi-sited transition programs; (3) moving beyond output-oriented evaluation frameworks in order to capture transformative efforts of short-term programs; and (4) expanding the boundaries of programs by linking to ongoing policy developments in highly complex multi-level governance settings. We hope our work can inform transition governance efforts in fostering transformative translocal dynamics toward sustainability.
... Given the characteristics of "Africa's urban revolution, " we explore the extent to which distinguishing approaches to transdisciplinarity are emerging. There is an emerging evidence base in the literature on knowledge co-production partnerships in African contexts (Brown-Luthango, 2012;Anderson et al., 2013;Breda van and Swilling, 2019); the relationship between knowledge co-production and innovation development for urban change Ambole et al., 2019;Buyana et al., 2019;Buyana, 2020); as well as contributions on different models for delivering transdisciplinary research (Patel et al., 2015;Perry et al., 2018;Culwick et al., 2019). Notwithstanding these and other contributions on transdisciplinary approaches in African cities, little is understood about the relationship between locally based knowledge partnerships and their potential to contribute to global policy imperatives. ...
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The central role of science and robust data sets as a means for advancing sustainable development has gained traction across science and policy communities globally. Furthermore, strengthening the science-policy interface in ways that link scientific knowledge production and societal problem solving requires both inter-disciplinary collaborations, as well as collaboration between researchers and extra-scientific actors. The paucity of data and understanding of the distinctive dynamics shaping Africa's urban transition provide an increasing impetus for engaging alternate and inclusive knowledge partnerships. Whilst the number of knowledge collaborations across African cities is increasing steadily, critical engagement with the practice of transdisciplinary approaches and the potential these alternate knowledge configurations might have for steering Africa's urban future(s) is limited. Drawing on the application of transdisciplinary approaches across 11 projects from the Leading Integrated Research for Agenda 2030 in Africa (LIRA 2030 Africa) programme on Advancing the implementation of SDG 11 in cities in Africa, this paper provides insights into the role of transdisciplinary approaches in bridging between local projects and global agendas. Evidence from the LIRA programme illustrates a positive relationship between carefully and purposefully constituted project teams who engage deeply with local contexts and the relevance of the resulting interventions. The common but differentiated experiences across the LIRA projects make it clear that the future of African urbanism is not singular but differentiated according to different local contexts. These projects simultaneously address the conceptual and service delivery deficits in local areas, whilst highlighting blind spots in global policy agendas that are misaligned to the complexity of African cities. The significance of transdisciplinary approaches that link the “what” to the “how” of urban change, is found to be critical in data poor post-colonial contexts, which are urgently in need of evidence-based policy reform shaping the reconfiguration of service delivery mechanisms. Finally, the significance of transdisciplinary research by early career scholars in and of Africa serves to shift the political economy of research on Africa, contributing to the transformative potential of urban experimentation in bridging between the global and the local.
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With a focus on the ocean, we collaborated across social, ecological and legal disciplines to respond to the United Nations call for transformation in the ‘2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development’ by developing a set of 13 principles for transformative ocean governance. These principles can be used to help chart a course of action that responds to the many calls to reform current ocean-use practices based on economic growth models that have perpetuated inequities and fuelled conflict and environmental decline. We use a rigorous, iterative and transparent consensus building approach to define the principles, which we recommend are applied as a comprehensive set to transform unsustainable ocean governance practices and guide future initiatives. We show that the relationships between the principles can be supporting, neutral or sometimes conflicting, and discuss how best to manage these relationships in the pursuit of meaningful transformation.
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Unlabelled: Transdisciplinary research (TDR) has been developed to generate knowledge that effectively fosters the capabilities of various societal actors to realize sustainability transformations. The development of TDR theories, principles, and methods has been largely governed by researchers from the global North and has reflected their contextual conditions. To enable more context-sensitive TDR framing, we sought to identify which contextual characteristics affect the design and implementation of TDR in six case studies in Asia, Latin America, and Africa, and what this means for TDR as a scientific approach. To this end, we distinguished four TDR process elements and identified several associated context dimensions that appeared to influence them. Our analysis showed that contextual characteristics prevalent in many Southern research sites-such as highly volatile socio-political situations and relatively weak support infrastructure-can make TDR a challenging endeavour. However, we also observed a high degree of variation in the contextual characteristics of our sites in the global South, including regarding group deliberation, research freedom, and dominant perceptions of the appropriate relationship between science, society, and policy. We argue that TDR in these contexts requires pragmatic adaptations as well as more fundamental reflection on underlying epistemological concepts around what it means to conduct "good science", as certain contextual characteristics may influence core epistemological values of TDR. Supplementary information: The online version contains supplementary material available at 10.1007/s11625-022-01201-3.
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The co-creation of knowledge through a process of mutual learning between scientists and societal actors is an important avenue to advance science and resolve complex problems in society. While the value and principles for such transdisciplinary water research have been well established, the power and empowerment dimensions continue to pose a challenge, even more so in international processes that bring together participants from the Global North and Global South. We build on earlier research to combine known phases, activities, and principles for transdisciplinary water research with a negotiated approach to stakeholder empowerment. Combining these elements, we unpack the power and empowerment dimension in transdisciplinary research for peri-urban groundwater management in the Ganges Delta. Our case experiences show that a negotiated approach offers a useful and needed complement to existing transdisciplinary guidelines. Based on the results, we identify responses to the power and empowerment challenges, which add to existing strategies for transdisciplinary research. A resulting overarching recommendation is to engage with power and politics more explicitly and to do so already from the inception of transdisciplinary activities as a key input for problem framing and research agenda setting.
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The ongoing social and ecological crises create urgency in academia and elsewhere to devise actionable problem‐solving knowledge to tackle sustainability challenges. Transdisciplinary research (TDR) represents a problem‐solving methodology for sustainability problems. TDR requires researchers to get out in the real world and engage with other societal actors to jointly produce such problem‐solving knowledge for research to have a societal impact. This radical process of doing “science with society” instead of “science for society” is becoming more urgent and relevant. However, a transdisciplinary (TD) researcher faces challenges: often, institutions have limited readiness for facilitating TDR, a researcher has to juggle the roles of an academic and changemaker simultaneously and needs new ways of doing science. The research process requires enough manoeuvring space to incorporate reflexivity, adaptiveness, and emergence based on the research context. The research uses case studies, interviews, reflections, and document analysis from two finished and one ongoing TDR PhDs in sustainability science and connects them with the TD literature. Based on previous and ongoing TDR by early‐stage researchers (ESRs), this article identifies and discusses six TDR challenges ESRs in sustainability sciences might face.
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Research undertaken by outsiders into issues of concern to Aboriginal communities frequently ignores community culture and the knowledge embedded within Aboriginal communities. Methodologies are adopted which perpetuate the colonialist mindset of non-indigenous Australians leading to failed solutions to Aboriginal problems. This paper describes an Aboriginal-led community-based research project, exploring the role of Aboriginal Australians in caring for, and transforming, their own communities. It focuses on the roles that Information Systems can play when providing an accessible platform for Aboriginal voices. The authors conducted an in-depth case study of one Aboriginal Community Controlled Organisation (ACCO), the Illawarra Koori Men’s Support Group (IKMSG). The research consisted of a social network analysis (SNA) of the inter-organisational links of the IKMSG; interviews and focus groups with members of the IKMSG and the co-design of their first website. The prominence of the IKMSG in the SNA maps suggests that its work in the community is highly respected and that the model produced by this research can act as a guide for success in other ACCOs. The findings have been used to develop a theoretical model of Aboriginal community engagement and intervention. This model can enable authentic outcomes to projects which address Aboriginal concerns and support the conduct of community-led research in Aboriginal communities.
The future is urban. Global problems and their solutions will of necessity draw from and speak to the urban realities of the next centuries. The urban world is already a southern world and even though, as we have seen from the contributions in this Handbook, this delineation of ‘the southern’ is far from fixed, a collective repositioning of perspective in urban studies is currently underway. How we read cities and where we place them in a global lexicon is inevitably going to morph with the changes that are already evident within and between cities and towns. For now, however, a southern framing on global urban challenges is imperative if we are to have any intellectual and practical integrity or impact. Southern urbanism is thus a political construct, devised to shift assumptions and alter the locus of intellectual power, just as notions of planetary urbanism remind us of the global system of cities and the interconnectedness of all human and natural systems (Hodson and Marvin 2010; Madden 2012). In this final section of the book we consider the big forces that have brought us to where we are today, and which must configure our collective (re)engagement with the urban condition now and in the future. © 2014 Selection and editorial matter: Susan Parnell and Sophie Oldfield.
Analytical RutsWhat does the Standard Deviation of an IRR Series Measure?Plains, Foothills, and MountainsExplaining IRR VolatilityVolatility of the MultipleThe Time-Weighted ComparisonConclusion