Event summary: Working with Communities Towards a Sustainable Future – Co-Creating a Successful Transdisciplinary Project

Participants listen to a conversation at a recent symposium in Tokyo on designing successful transdisciplinary research projects. Photo: Hideyuki Mohri
A recent event in Tokyo examined how researchers can design projects in collaboration with experts outside of academia, including government officials, business leaders and citizens. The best way to promote such transdisciplinary research is by doing, one participant said.

On 29 May 2017, Future Earth, The University of Tokyo – Integrated Research Systems for Sustainability Science (IR3S) and Demos Helsinki jointly organised a seminar on “Working with Communities Towards a Sustainable Future – Co-Creating a Successful Transdisciplinary Project” at The University of Tokyo in Japan.

Fumiko Kasuga, Director of Future Earth’s Global Hub in Tokyo, opened the seminar by welcoming participants and providing updates on Future Earth activities. Following the opening remarks, Iina Koskinen of Demos Helsinki gave a keynote presentation. She introduced the concept of transdisciplinary research and three main principles that she says are important for designing transdisciplinary research:

  1. To produce knowledge through transformation and change;
  2. To involve community knowledge by bringing together various research disciplines and people outside of academia, such as leaders in local government, business, civil society and more;
  3. To co-create research emphasising solutions, benefits and how to promote transformation and change.

Iina Koskinen delivers the keynote address at a symposium held at The University of Tokyo. Photo: Hideyuki Mohri

One of the ways to promote transdisciplinary research is by doing, Koskinen said. Demos Helsinki conducts a three-year project called “From Failand to Winland.” The key scientific objectives of the project are to study in an interdisciplinary manner critical questions related to food and energy security and resilient planning and policy-making processes in Finland. The project also seeks to establish an integrative methodological ecosystem combining cutting-edge analytical research methods with integrative approaches. In addition, the project has adopted three key societal objectives. They are to develop:

  1. a systemic view on critical water, food and energy security challenges in Finland, including their regional and global linkages;
  2. enhanced capability to prepare Finland to overcome food- and energy-related threats;
  3. increased dialogue between key actors on Finland’s internal and external security threats.

Through the project, Demos Helsinki collaborates with eight research institutions with support from the Strategic Research Council of the Academy of Finland. The project also made use of both qualitative and quantitative approaches to gathering data. Project leaders divided participants into three main groups: knowledge users (like scientists), gatekeepers (like government officials) and influencers (like citizens or representatives from non-governmental organisations).

Koskinen emphasized that energy, food and water are the basis for the functioning of our society. Many security strategies examine them individually, but their interdependencies and global, regional and local pressures have been neglected. This negligence threatens Finland’s security and may lead to collapse of Finnish society. Winland aims to prevent this collapse by improving the understanding of these interdependencies and providing policy recommendations to support a resilient Finnish society.

Kensuke Fukushi, a professor at IR3S, gave presentation on “Co-designing Sustainable Cities – A Case Study in Indonesia.” He spoke about a a project called “Climate Change Adaptation Initiative in Indonesia,” which is supported by the Ministry of Environment, Japan. The project seeks to accomplish following objectives:

  • Develop climate change impact assessments in two regions of Indonesia: North Sumatra and East Java;
  • Provide adaptation scenario options for communities;
  • Contribute to the development of a platform for regional climate change adaptation planning at the province-level.

The project will work to provide scientific evidence that can inform the development of the assessments and adaptation strategies. It will also strive to co-design and co-develop assessments with local stakeholders, including governments, to build capacity among these leaders.

Fukushi also described the future plans for the project. They include:

  • Collaboration with Ministry of National Development Planning (BAPPENAS) for the Indonesia National Action Plan on Climate Change Adaptation (RAN-API);
  • Capacity development of local researchers and government officials;
  • Development of guidelines for impact assessments and adaptation options;
  • Establishment of an information platform to share information between Japan and Indonesia on climate change adaptation.

Yaw Agyeman, a researcher at IR3S, presented a project on “Enhancing Resilience to Climate and Ecosystem Changes in Semi-Arid Africa: An Integrated Approach (CECAR-Africa).” It was initiated in 2010 and successfully completed in 2016 with financial support from the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) and Japan Science and Technology Agency (JST). The project is also part of the Science and Technology Research Partnership for Sustainable Development (SATREPS) programme, which fosters international research on pressing global issues by researchers in Japan and developing countries.

CECAR-Africa sought to contribute to filling gaps in assessments of resilience with a special focus on flood- and drought-prone rural communities and households in the semi-arid landscapes of Northern Ghana. The project was composed of a transdisciplinary team of researchers from institutions based in Japan, including The University of Tokyo, United Nations University Institute for the Advanced Study of Sustainability and Kyoto University. Several institutions based in Ghana participated, as well, including the University for Development Studies, United Nations University Institute for Natural Resources in Africa, University of Ghana and Ghana Meteorological Agency

Binaya Mishra of United Nations University. Photo: Hideyuki Mohri

Binaya Mishra of the United Nations University Institute for the Advanced Study of Sustainability gave a presentation on how to cope with adverse impacts of future climate change, particularly on sustainable urban storm water capture measures in Tokyo. Multiple stakeholders were involved in the process of developing a countermeasure against these adverse impacts, he said.

Ikebe Yasushi, Principal Investigator of Science Communication at the National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation (Miraikan), shared his views that science communication has a duty to inform people about science, create dialog about the future and foster basic skills. According to the presentation, there are several ways to create dialog. They include encouraging:

  • Small group communication in exhibition galleries, such as generating interactive communication by asking groups of visitors questions to stimulate their curiosity;
  • Small and brief group discussions;
  • Larger group discussions with scientists, engineers and sociologists.

Miraikan science also conducts an exercise called “World Wide Views”, which is a global citizen consultation initiative that provides citizen voices to the work of  the United Nations. This process results in a policy report to the UN. Moreover, Miraikan has established a network with eight stakeholder groups, such as schools, researchers, media and volunteer organisations, industry and government offices. Yasushi concluded that a dialog is the key to change people’s thinking and behaviour, but macroscopic dialog is a challenge for many citizen participants.

After these case study presentations, organisers held a group discussion with participants. This discussion focused on the main challenges to designing a transdisciplinary project. Comments from the participants included:

  • Collecting data;
  • Needing a good coordinator when you form a team;
  • Building a consensus among the community;
  • Supporting a strong understanding of research findings among multidisciplinary participants;
  • Communicating research outputs, time management, bureaucracy of local institutions;
  • Including social viewpoints, not just those from the natural sciences, in evaluations;
  • Balancing different research components (e.g, as a hydrologist, I might think that modeling should be given more emphasis than other types of research).