Transdisciplinary co-creation increases the utilization of knowledge from sustainable development research

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  • Johanna Jacobi
  • Aymara Llanque
  • Stellah M. Mukhovi
  • Eliud Abucheli Birachi
  • Per Maximilian von Groote
  • René Eschen
  • I. Hilber-Schöb
  • D. I. Kiba
  • Emmanuel Frossard
  • Carmenza Robledo-Abad

Our study aimed at understanding the utilization of research knowledge generated in sustainable development research. Drawing on a sample of 54 recent research projects, we investigated how and by whom the knowledge was used, what changes were achieved, and how non-academic actors were involved. As a conceptual framework we combined a concept of “stages of knowledge utilization” with a spiral model that co-creates three forms of knowledge – systems knowledge, target knowledge, and transformation knowledge, and which spans from joint problem definition to concrete sustainability transformations. We analysed questionnaires from 94 academic and non-academic actors using cross-tabulation, chi-squared tests, and qualitative content analysis. The early involvement of non-academic actors from key groups such as local enterprises was positively related to the utilization of research knowledge, as was their involvement in diverse roles. However, only little of the research knowledge generated has so far resulted in changes in policy and practice, partly because sustainability transformations are larger societal processes. Utilization of research knowledge for sustainability transformations cannot be achieved without employing a transdisciplinary approach that brings together academic and non-academic actors in a setting that enables discussions on an even footing and the empowering of actors who are often not heard. In such settings, researchers are also part of the change rather than mere observers, an additional factor that came up in our participatory results validation activities and that requires further research. For more influence on policies and practice, research for development requires active participation of non-academic actors from the outset, when the project contents are defined.

Original languageEnglish
JournalEnvironmental Science and Policy
Pages (from-to)107-115
Number of pages9
Publication statusPublished - 01.03.2022

Bibliographical note

This study was funded by the Swiss Program for Research on Global Issues for Development (r4d program) within the synthesis project on “Utilization of research knowledge for sustainability transformations”. The authors thank all participating respondents. We also thank Claudia Rutte and two anonymous reviewers for their thoughtful comments, and Tina Hirschbuehl for language editing.

Much progress has been made in conceptualizing transdisciplinarity (TD), providing TD theories and concepts for sustainability transformation and contribution to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). However, the lack of larger data sets undermines empirical verification. This study therefore set out to investigate the experiences of 54 research for development projects from the 10-year Swiss Program for Research on Global Issues for Development (r4d program). The r4d program included five thematic modules (ecosystems, food security, social conflict, employment, public health) and one thematically open module. The projects shared strategic, scientific, and development objectives as set by the funding agencies, the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation and the Swiss National Science Foundation. Projects were asked to use a transdisciplinary approach, which was, however, not further defined. Our overall aim was to analyse the research activities and processes leading to the widespread utilization of co-created knowledge by a broad range of actors. Our guiding hypothesis was that there is a positive relationship between the utilization of research knowledge (and associated changes in science, policy, and practice) and a transdisciplinary project process. Specifically, we aimed to answer the following research questions:

    Research areas

  • Co-creation, Knowledge utilization, Sustainability, Transdisciplinarity, Transformation
  • Transdisciplinary studies