28 May 2019

Interview with Visiting Professor John Robinson

How do we work well with societal partners for sustainability?

Connecting researchers with societal stakeholders is key to achieving a more sustainable society. But how do you work well with external partners? Dr Vanessa Timmer interviews transdisciplinarity expert Prof. John Robinson. He is the 2019 Visiting Professor of transdisciplinary sustainability research as part of Pathways to Sustainability.

Portrait of John Robinson
John Robinson

John Robinson is known to our community as the opening keynote at the 2018 Pathways to Sustainability conference. He is a Professor at the University of Toronto and a leading expert in the field of sustainability, including normalizing sustainability through engaging the external community in problem-driven research and processes of change. At Utrecht University he builds on the work of visiting transdisciplinarity experts Arnim Wiek and Katja Brundiers in 2018.

Is sustainability a knowledge deficit problem?

“No, we have decades of research in multiple fields showing that providing information on its own has little or no effect on behaviour. Educating policy-makers and the public on issues like climate change may be desirable in principle but will not move us in a more sustainable direction. Instead, I think we need to recognise, and address, the degree to which our ecological, economic and technical systems are embedded in social and cultural processes, and change the institutional rules and social norms that shape how we collectively act and behave.”

Why is transdisciplinarity important for achieving a sustainable society?

“Engaging stakeholders is often critical for addressing problems because we can’t understand or solve societal challenges without their knowledge and action. It is also more likely that research ideas are adopted by stakeholders when we engage with them directly and build trust over time. There is a long history of participatory practice and extensive academic literature that lends rigor to this approach.”

Don’t ask the partner to join your research project but look for ways that could help both their and your agenda
John Robinson
Visiting Professor of transdisciplinary sustainability research

How do we engage with those outside the university?

“To do transdisciplinary research, you have to be driven by a desire to address societal problems through research and you need to be interested in engaging with stakeholders in order to address these problems. We can work with partners to varying degrees. We can be co-defining, co-designing, co-producing, or even co-implementing a project - that is the most deeply engaged version of transdisciplinarity, one that can lead to actual co-production of knowledge.”

“A guiding principle for our transdisciplinary work is no net increase in burden for stakeholders and mutual benefit. That means that we start by asking what stakeholders need. The partnership should then be (co-)designed in such a way that it contributes directly to the pre-existing agendas of partners and researchers. Don’t ask the partner to join your research project but look for ways that some joint activities could help both their and your agenda.”

Pathways to Sustainability conference 2019
Workshop with John Robinson at the 2019 Pathways to Sustainability conference

What should we keep in mind in order to engage effectively?

“It’s very important to recognise that real partnerships take time to develop. We have to spend considerable time visiting and meeting them, and learning from them. This means moving away from viewing stakeholders as data sources and as audiences for the results of our work.”

“Some researchers are uncomfortable with the loss of control over the agenda and process. The conventional reward system of promotion and tenure is not aligned with such goals and products. There can be quite different timelines for academics and partners. And funding bodies are not always set up to evaluate this transdisciplinary work effectively.”

“But we have to remember that there are also huge benefits. Transdisciplinary work gives you strong relationships with partners, access to their knowledge and expertise, the opportunity to test theory from the literature, and a strong connection to real world issues. We have the opportunity to contribute to societal issues and change processes.”

Why would external stakeholders be interested in engaging with researchers?

“There are a number of things researchers offer to stakeholders. We can add a research layer to their work, including explicating the state of the art of expert understanding of the issue in question, or by undertaking evaluation of the societal effects of their work. We can also support connectivity among busy stakeholders by finding who is doing related work and making the links. And we can build capacity by offering training.”

Transdisciplinary research can be seen as protecting fundamental science
John Robinson

If the university is increasingly engaged with stakeholders and problem-oriented research, what about fundamental science?

“Transdisciplinary research can be seen as protecting curiosity-based or fundamental science. Society and research funding bodies are increasingly asking the university to engage directly with the wicked problems it faces. But we shouldn’t ask a high energy physicist or a medieval historian to produce results that are immediately societally relevant, or to develop partnerships with societal stakeholders. They should continue to do their curiosity-driven research. Instead, transdisciplinary researchers and those in traditionally applied fields such as engineering or business do respond to those demands, forming an outer ring of scholars who engage with stakeholders and societal problems. Such scholars serve as a bridge between university and society. And, this, in turn, often leads to new, unexpected questions for fundamental research. They value and often make use of fundamental research, and act as a buffer zone that protects traditional researchers from the changing expectations of society about the university.”

You have been interacting with us and the Pathways to Sustainability community for two years. What do you recommend in terms of our ambition?

Hub: Pathways to Sustainability

“I recommend shaping the Pathways to Sustainability programme to respond to the transformative nature of the sustainability challenges. This is a significant shift in terms of the role of universities and the way in which we engage with real-world problems. It is about responding to society’s wicked problems including sustainability.”

“Transformational changes are already happening at lightning speed. But there is no guarantee that these will happen in sustainable ways. The question thus becomes how do we steer these changes in a sustainable direction. It is not about creating change anymore but about steering it. What are the levers that will inflect or influence such transformative changes? Can we build sustainability into fast-moving societal processes? This approach is very consistent with the idea of pathways underlying the Pathways to Sustainability programme. The focus of the programme could therefore be on contributing to steering societal processes in sustainable directions.”