Developing a Common Transdisciplinary Research Approach for Innovative Solutions to Food-Energy-Water Challenges
June 12, 2020

By Stellenbosch University

Food, water, and energy are all fundamental resources for communities to thrive.  Megatrends such as demographic and economic growth, changing user practices and rapid urbanisation continue to increase the demand for food, energy, and water globally. This is a crucially important endeavour in Cape Town which faces a triple exposure to interrelated food, energy, and water crises. Addressing challenges related to these sectors for sustainable futures is key.

Tackling food, energy, water (FEW) challenges is complex as these sectors are locally and internationally connected. At a local level, including cities and rural areas, it is difficult to anticipate whether solutions to one sector in the FWE-nexus are sustainable across all three sectors, both at the local and an international level. Research is needed to better inform sustainable solutions for FEW nexus related challenges.

A collaborative Sustainable Urbanisation Global Initiative (SUGI) research project entitled “Globally and Locally-sustainable Food-Water-Energy Innovation in Urban Living Labs (GLOCULL)” aims to develop a novel approach to produce innovative solutions to food-water-energy (FEW) challenges that are both locally and globally sustainable, through transdisciplinary research methodology. The main question addressed by the study is “how can you do globally and locally sustainable FWE innovation?  The research is carried out through experiments in Urban Living Labs in seven countries (Austria, Brazil, Germany Netherlands, South-Africa, Sweden and the United States of America).

The research is carried out by a consortium of seven universities in their respective urban living labs in partnership with social actors. The consortium consists of researchers from: Maastricht Institute of Sustainability-Maastricht University, Lund University Centre for Sustainability Studies- Lund University, School of Public Health- University of Sao Paulo, BOKU – University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences Vienna, Arizona State University, Centre for Complex Systems in Transitions-Stellenbosch University, and Institute for sustainable development and Learning – Leuphana University of Lüneburg. The GLOCULL project is co-financed by the following national funding agencies: NWO (Netherlands), FFG (Austria), FAPESP (Brazil), BMBF (Germany), FORMAS SWEA (Sweden), NSF (USA) and START International (USA/funded Stellenbosch University, South Africa).

Geographic Location of the GLOCULL Project Research Team

Each research partner conducts their research in their respective countries in partnership with local social actors through transdisciplinary research methods. Transdisciplinary research method is at the core of the project with the underlying assumption that co-creation between academia and society is likely to reveal more sustainable FEW innovations. Research partners see transdisciplinary research in the urban living labs as a way to explicitly deal with the complex and normative nature of sustainability challenges, rather than trying to simplify it.

A great trial for the research team has been developing a common transdisciplinary methodology to be applied across the seven urban living labs. Given the geographical location of the research partners, local context, and the different nature of social actors in each living urban living labs, the research team met in Stellenbosch University in South Africa in the early phase of the project to jointly develop a common methodological approach which concerns both the transdisciplinary and action-research approaches in local urban living labs and for cross-case analysis.

GLOCULL Project Consortium Transdisciplinary Research Workshop in South Africa

In developing a common transdisciplinary methodology for all seven urban living labs where the research is carried, the GLOCULL research project partners considered the following interactions:

  • FWE nexus
    • What are the interactions between the three resources in the innovations?
    • What are the feedbacks?
  • Global-local interactions
    •  What are the global impacts of the local ULL?
    • Is there a transfer of the problem from one place to the other or to a different level?

As an output of the gathering, research partners jointly developed an evaluative scheme as a common transdisciplinary research methodology.

Initially, the evaluative scheme developed for sustainability FEW transition experiments distinguished in a logical way between four themes, each with four-five constructs:

  • inputs in the experiments,
  • process of the experiment (learning, interaction between stakeholders),
  • outputs (direct results and the outcomes, the change in the system), and
  • outcomes.

From a transdisciplinary research perspective, there was a need for GLOCULL project partners to elaborate on how the research will be conducted with local social partners in each lab including the nature of the relationships with whom the co-production of knowledge will take place. During the course of the project, the research partners recognised the need to have better understanding of the different contexts in seven of the urban living labs, including the history, social and economic dynamics, and inequalities. The contextual setup for each country is considered key in especially understanding how transdisciplinary research is carried out in the global north countries versus the global south countries. Two additional themes were then added to address the contextual context of the urban living labs located in seven different countries. These are settings and general profile. The final version of evaluative scheme developed consists of six themes (setting, general profile, inputs, process, outputs, and outcomes) consisting of 5-7 constructs each. The evaluative scheme is meant to function as a learning tool to be used in the Urban Living Labs, but also as a way to describe and evaluative different living labs.

GLOCULL research partners visit Stellenbosch University’s Urban Living Lab, Ikhaya Garden, in Cape Town, South Africa, as part of developing a common transdisciplinary approach.

While the GLOCULL research team successfully developed a common transdisciplinary research approach for different urban living labs experimenting with FEW nexus, challenges with applying a common transdisciplinary approach continue to persist. The greatest being that there is a significant difference between urban living labs in the global south compared to those in the global north. These differences have an impact on how co-creation of knowledge between local research teams and social partners unfold and ultimately types of FEW solutions. Significant differences include local and national socio-economic dynamics that determine access to food, energy, and water resources as well as the governance of these resources. These differences ultimately influence the process of knowledge co-creation between local researchers and social partners.

Beyond the relationship between local researchers and social partners, the process of developing a common transdisciplinary approach has also brought to light that an international team of researchers have different understanding of transdisciplinary. Unpacking the differences and creating a common understanding is crucial.

Inter-regional group of GLOCULL research team developing a common transdisciplinary research approach.
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