‘Transdisciplinary research requires commitment’

Transdisciplinary research is a way of doing research in which researchers are working alongside stakeholders to tackle a societal issue. This mode of research is not without its challenges. We at Utrecht University want to learn from each other by sharing stories from those actively engaging in transdisciplinary research and how they went about their journeys. In this field story, we share the experiences of a transdisciplinary research collaborative called the Datawerkplaats. ‘One of the largest challenges that came to the forefront was that it remained a challenge for the developed instruments to be implemented and used within the local government organizations,” says Krista Ettlinger, a researcher involved in the project.

Martiene Branderhorst, City Manager from the municipality of Gouda, met Dr. Mirko Schaefer at a Utrecht Data School lecture. They discovered a shared personal mission: to connect practice and science. As a city manager, Branderhorst knows that datafication and digitalisation play an increasingly important role in government institutions. But how do you deal with this responsibly? What expertise and skills do employees need to guarantee data security? What is the state of ethical awareness in municipal and provincial organisations? Could the researchers be of any help to answer these questions?

What I have learned from this collaboration is that enthusiasm and passion from the stakeholders and the academics are crucial to the success of such a project

Martine Branderhorst, City Manager from the municipality of Gouda

With this initial connection, they asked Prof Albert Meijer to join them in shaping this idea. The trio combined Meijer’s background in public administration and public innovation, Schaefer’s background from the Utrecht Data School, and Branderhorst’s expertise as a practitioner. The collaboration they created would become the Datawerkplaats. Meijer clarifies: ‘The Datawerkplaats is a collaboration between the university and the public sector. It is not commissioned research. Both parties bring in knowledge: this is about mutual knowledge transfer and transdisciplinarity. The aim is to utilise academic research for application and calibrate our findings through interactions with practice.’

Added-value of collaboration

The collaboration grew quickly, and when Datawerkplaats was formally launched in January 2019, it included the municipalities of Woerden, Almere, and Gouda and the province of South Holland. Branderhorst explains: ‘The first step was to define the subjects we needed to focus on to tackle this issue. This step clearly showed the added value of working with academics. Academics are very good at finding the question behind the question. With their expertise, they know how to ask the right questions and clarify the problem before starting anything.’

Finding a product that would be meaningful to practice was vital. Branderhorst continues: ‘Our task, as stakeholders, was mainly to not lose sight of the practice. How do we develop something that we can actually use? That is why we decided not to produce reports but instruments. An example of such an instrument that we delivered is the Checklist Samen Data Delen (Checklist for Sharing Data Together). This formulates where you have to pay attention to when you share data with another party. In developing this instrument, the researchers first developed a theoretical framework that defined the subjects we had to pay attention to. On the basis of that framework, we started filling it in together, and the stakeholders were able to translate that into a practical instrument. This approach was applied throughout the whole project. A great example of how research connects with practice.’


When doing transdisciplinary research, there are challenges along the way. ‘One of the largest challenges that came to the forefront was that it remained a challenge for the knowledge developed as part of the transdisciplinary research to be implemented and used within the local government organisations themselves,’ says Krista Ettlinger, a researcher who evaluated the Datawerkplaats project. ‘I found that the government partners were closely involved with the academics in choosing and refining the areas and questions for research. Employees from those organisations were also closely involved in translating those research findings into the development of the instruments. The Datawerkplaats was very successful in involving scientists and practitioners equally in the research. The outcomes of this research, the instruments, were also seen positively by participants in the government organisations. However, even though the collaboration during the research went well and the instruments were popular with the participating organisations, they still weren’t being systematically used in the organisations,’ Ettlinger explains. ‘In a new round of the Datawerkplaats, I want to conduct research into how this implementation can be improved.’

Branderhorst adds: ‘What I have learned from this collaboration is that enthusiasm and passion from the stakeholders and the academics are crucial to the success of such a project. As a stakeholder, you cannot treat the researchers as a consultancy firm. To make it a success, it is important to do it together. Searching together for the common grounds and the knowledge gaps. To combine learning and reflection with practice requires commitment from both parties.’

The research continues

In the past months, Ettlinger has been researching how the implementation of the developed instruments in the participating government organisations can be improved. By adding a dedicated social learning process as an extra step to the transdisciplinary research process, Ettlinger hopes that the instruments will ‘land’ better in government organisations. Her initial findings are positive: ‘This extra learning process where you create additional knowledge around the instruments as well as adjust them for the specific organisation can help contribute to these instruments landing in these government organisations. Yet learning alone is not enough to guarantee the use of the instruments in these organisations. I’m finding that there may be some contextual factors related to the organisational environment. Examples of these factors are whether the instruments can be linked to the larger strategy of the organisation or whether they can be embedded in a specific program’s work process; these factors are likely to help or hinder this implementation process.’

The Datawerkplaats exemplifies the possibility of creating long-lasting, practically-oriented collaborations – bringing together multiple public sector organisations and researchers – in the process of genuine mutual learning. Tracking how these collaborations operate and how their products come to be implemented increases the chances of meaningful outcomes for all parties.