20 March 2018

Get to know the visiting experts on transdisciplinary sustainability research

Pathways to Sustainability builds on the rigor of Utrecht University’s excellent sustainability research to contribute to complex societal issues. In the field of sustainability this requires a transdisciplinary approach. Three visiting experts are currently bringing their expertise in transdisciplinary research to Utrecht. They support Utrecht University researchers and the four dedicated research hubs in building transdisciplinary practices in close cooperation with societal and industry partners. Get to know visiting experts Vanessa Timmer, Arnim Wiek and Katja Brundiers and contact them to turn your ambitions into a reality.

Vanessa Timmer

Dr. Vanessa Timmer is a Senior Research Fellow at Utrecht University with Pathways to Sustainability, the Urban Futures Studio, and the Copernicus Institute of Sustainable Development. Timmer is also the Executive Director of One Earth, a Canadian nonprofit ‘think and do’ tank focused on sustainable ways of living, working with cities including Vancouver as well as with the United Nations to chart a path forward.

Bridging research and practice

Dr. Timmer joins Utrecht University with great interest in collaborating with others with strong sustainability expertise. Her work explores how sustainability transforms daily lives and she asks how we can analyse, imagine and create sustainable ways of living, including through envisioning possible futures. As part of her contribution to Pathways to Sustainability, Timmer brings her experience in bridging research and practice, community building, systems approaches, and facilitative process design.

Collaborative approach

Timmer is already discovering the many ways in which Utrecht researchers are engaging across disciplines and with external stakeholders. “These collaborative approaches enable a richer capacity to perceive and interpret the world in complex ways and benefit from diverse ways of knowing. The aim is not to seek consensus but to engage in constructive dialogue allowing discordance and tensions while addressing power differences. Collaborative processes often lead us to find unlikely allies who we can work with in advancing our understanding and work. Of course, there remains a need for disciplines and fundamental research. Disciplinary investigation is invaluable as long as researchers adopt a self-reflexive recognition that each discipline is a partial position and perspective.”

Inquiry and experimentation

According to Timmer, “Utrecht is well-placed to continue innovating at the leading edge of sustainability action research through inquiry and experimentation. Our challenge is to become increasingly comfortable with both knowing and with inherent uncertainty.” Timmer emphasises that “the sustainability challenge requires capacities for systems thinking, interpersonal dialogue, openness, and flexibility. It asks us to adopt a learning stance and to critically engage with our assumptions.”

Imagining futures

Timmer identifies imagining futures as a key approach to foster these capacities and to advance sustainability. She is now part of the Urban Futures Studio that is actively experimenting with techniques of futuring. “Research and practice are greatly enhanced by clarifying where we could go by exploring possible alternatives. Our futures are not determined. As a civilisational challenge, sustainability is about exploring multiple possible pathways and supporting creative responses including through engaging with the arts. Although we need a scientific foundation to inform the ecological, social and economic consequences of our choices, the opportunity lies in dialoguing and collaborating together to imagine diverse desirable alternatives to our current unsustainable path. By drawing on our understanding, our creativity, and our intuition, we can actively take part in a deliberative exploration of pathways to sustainable futures. These future visions enable us to act in new ways to bring about a sustainability transition.”

Vanessa is in Utrecht from the periods of 19 March – 11 May, 10 June – early July, and 11 November – 12 November and for a number of months in 2019. Please feel welcome to be in touch with Vanessa about your interests, about work in sustainability and imagining futures, and about new ways of working that bridge research and practice and facilitate stakeholder engagement.

Arnim Wiek

Arnim Wiek is a Visiting Professor at Utrecht University in the field of transdisciplinary sustainability research. He is visiting Utrecht from the School of Sustainability at Arizona State University in the United States, where he is an Associate Professor of Sustainability Science.

Academic impact

Professor Wiek envisions a future of sustainability research that is different from current prevalent academic practice. He explains: “Today, sustainability researchers continue to be incentivised to follow the guideline of “academic impact first”, despite all attempts to counter this practice. As in any other discipline, what matters most are peer-reviewed publications, grants from the respective national science foundation, keynotes at academic conferences, and admission to prestigious academic societies. These metrics guide researchers’ pursuits and practices as well as adjudicate on their careers. The weaknesses of this system have been described over and over again, including by transdisciplinary scholars who prominently called for a “new social contract for science” 20 years ago (Lubchenco 1998). Nevertheless, so far, little has been achieved in changing the academic incentive and reward systems that drive our research and teaching practices.”

Real-world sustainability impact first

“Transdisciplinary collaborations with positive impacts towards sustainability are more present in rhetoric than in academic reality. My hope is that this will change in the future. I plea for a new guideline that puts real-world sustainability impact first. With this new orientation, we would finally act on the urgency of the sustainability challenges we inform the world about. Researchers would be guided by pragmatic opportunities that let them partner with agents of change, produce actionable knowledge, seek funding for real-world experimentation and implementation, be deeply involved in implementation and scaling, and publish results quickly and first in accessible media outlets. This would not mean that researchers become implementers; they would continue to create and review knowledge claims – but always with an eye on real-world sustainability impact as the primary objective.”

Transdisciplinary collaboration

“This type of transdisciplinary collaboration would, most likely, push most of us out of our comfort zone. That’s okay; we can learn and adapt. And this new practice is exciting. It would call for a degree of flexibility and creativity that is measured against positive real-world impact and not against the blessing of the inner circle of colleagues, as is the case with peer review. Esther Duflo from MIT’s Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab puts it this way: “Systematic creative experimentation, in the tradition of research and development, is required to devise innovative solutions. This often requires the policy-maker and the […] scientist to break down the distinction between designer and evaluator, beginning their collaboration with the conception and design of the intervention. Such collaborations are more likely in standing partnerships. Here, the […] scientist is free to contribute all of his/her theoretical and empirical knowledge, while the policymaker, free from the threat of political penalties that normally attends failed projects in high-stakes policy environments, can systematically try out innovative ideas, even those that seem unlikely initially to succeed” (Duflo & Takavarasha 2010, p. 331).”

Knowledge production

“Knowledge production is key for the success of collaborative sustainability problem solving, and researchers are therefore crucial contributors. Yet, their orientation would be significantly different from current practices – real-world, positive change towards sustainability would become the main reference point. We need to dare to get our academic work measured against net positive sustainability. Such a vision can help charting and walking the “pathways to sustainability” that Utrecht University is committed to. And I very much look forward to building this future together with all the knowledgeable and dedicated people here in Utrecht.”

References

Duflo, E., & Takavarasha, K. (2010). Social science and policy design. In: UNESCO (2010). Knowledge Divides: World Social Science Report 2010. UNESCO, Paris. pp. 330-332. p. 331

Lubchenco, J. (1998). Entering the century of the environment: a new social contract for science. Science, vol. 279, no. 5350, pp. 491-497

Arnim Wiek is in Utrecht in the periods of 5-16 February, 9-20 April, and 4-15 June 2018. He is also a Guest Professor at Leuphana University of Lüneburg in Germany, where he is co-directing the Arizona State University-Leuphana dual-degree program in Global Sustainability Science. Please feel free to contact Arnim for informal conversations, project reviews, and for support on transdisciplinary cooperation.

Katja Brundiers

Dr. Katja Brundiers is a Visiting Researcher on transdisciplinary research methods. She is in Utrecht from Arizona State University in the United States, where she is an Assistant Research Professor at the School of Sustainability.

Connecting roots and seeds

“Many people at Utrecht University are currently shaping the future of transdisciplinary sustainability research”, observes Brundiers. She argues that the potential for transdisciplinary sustainability research lies in “recognising the roots and seeds already held by people across the university, connecting them, and growing them”.

Aspiration

Brundiers looks forward to collaborating with researchers and teachers around shared aspirations and approaches. “In my teaching, I especially look forward to exploring how to enhance transdisciplinary experiences by using games as well as real-world project-based learning to support the transformation towards sustainability.” The focus of Brundiers’ research is on leveraging natural disaster as an opportunity for the transition towards sustainability. “Across all four hubs and broader in the university, I’ve seen solutions that have the potential to be a sustainability lever after a disaster. These solutions range from technical solutions (e.g., novel water infrastructures), to institutional (e.g., co-provision of services), entrepreneurial (e.g., energy partnerships), and methodological solutions (e.g., experimentation). I would like to explore to what extend these very solutions can be transferred to disaster-affected locations to support their recovery and sustainability transitions.”

Generating impact together

Brundiers also finds it “exciting to see that there is increasing interest in shifting the focus of transdisciplinary research from refining theoretical approaches to generating outcomes and impacts. This might offer the opportunity for research collaborations as part of the Global Consortium on Sustainability Outcomes. It may also lead to more peer-reviewed articles describing the outcomes and impacts of transdisciplinary research, adding to a currently small body of work.”

Katja Brundiers is visiting Utrecht from 5-16 February, 9-20 April, and 4-15 June 2018. She is also a Visiting Professor at Leuphana University of Lüneburg between March and June 2018. Please feel free to contact her for support on transdisciplinary cooperation and transdisciplinary research methods.