A closer collaboration between science and society is widely viewed as one of the important conditions of the implementation of  sustainable development. When working in close collaboration with stakeholders and decision makers, and when answering social demands  academics have found that they were encouraged  to work beyond the traditional partition in disciplines, and also beyond the traditional methods of interdisciplinarity, thus contributing to the development of "transdisciplinarity".


In this paper we will use the word transdisciplinarity in this practical, concrete sense: it is meant here as an approach for research and education that is a product of the evolution of interdisciplinarity, applied research and action research goals, processes and methods; it is therefore a collaboration between academics of different disciplines with active partners from outside the academic world.


We investigate the motivations for this kind of close collaboration by referring to the more general theme of science-society relations, we give a few examples in order to  initiate  a discussion on "best practices", and discuss obstacles and methodologies.


We conclude that transdisciplinarity can be viewed also as part of the larger field  of understanding and managing complex socio-economic and ecological  systems –issues at the heart of sustainable development-, and we will therefore also  relate to some of the literature in this area.











Although research related to sustainable development is mainly justified by social and political needs, caused  themselves mainly by environmental problems, the impact of research activities on society ,  where decisions are taken and directions for the future are set,  very often remains small. This is because "decision makers” usually are not much aware of the results of scientific research, but also because researchers very often go into purely academic and abstract considerations, who are then very difficult to connect to the realities and the constraints of the day-to-day world.


This concern of establishing a better contact between science and society[1] is of course not particularly original, nor new, nor restricted to the field of sustainable development. There have been in the past spectacular successes in science-society relations: the conquest of the moon, the Manhattan project, the still ongoing fight against AIDS etc. But these successes usually concern big projects with a strong component of natural/technical sciences, and with rather short time horizons. It has proven more difficult to establish a fruitful collaboration in long term problems with a large socio-economic  content, like the ones occurring in sustainable development or the ones related to environment. Recently the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Physical Society both initiated a vast rethinking of the relationship between Science and Society [2]. They both came to the conclusion that one needs to formulate a new contract between science and society (Pielke and Byerly (1998); Lubchenko (1998)). The very basic ingredient of this new contract is to establish, above and beyond the classical (linear/reservoir) scenario (basic science -> reservoir of knowledge -> applied science->technological development -> applications ), new interfaces between science and society that may help to steer (part of ) research in directions more immediately useful. This calls for new ways of collaboration between science and society (di Castri, 1989) . This need is particularly urgent in developing countries that don't have the resources to copy the large scientific projects of the industrialised world (Goldemberg, 1998) .


In sustainable development , the  new Social Contract for Science  would need in particular (Lubchenko (1998)) "more effective bridges between policy, management and science". This would require "interdisciplinary scientists [to  acquire] the skills and savvy to work at the policy-science and management-science interface".  It would also require more integration, both as a tool for analysis and as way of guiding a process, and one way of confronting the problem of complexity would be to define the different levels at which integration should take place (Schnurr 1998).  The European Union delegation to the CSD6 plenary session made the following recommendation: " Every possible effort should be made to improve the processes of generating, sharing and utilising science for sustainable development. This will include  a commitment to overcome the communication gaps within the scientific community and between scientists, policy makers and the general public....". "New processes and institutions are needed for quality assurance in science and technology applications. The old conception of a largely one-way traffic of information from the experts to the public... is being replaced by a more reciprocal partnership.." (ESEE, 1998). Also,


Transdisciplinarity is often  meant as a kind of ‘perfected’ interdisciplinarity (Mittelstrass, 1995;  Cazenave and Nicolescu,1994; Klein, 1996), in which the identity of the individual disciplines disappear, in favour of a new kind of knowledge. This concept implies both a transcendental meaning (beyond academic disciplines) and a dynamic  transfer between the different disciplines. This concept goes back to prestigious thinkers like J. Piaget, E. Jantsch, E. Morin and A. Lichnerowicz[3] (see also (World Congress, 1994)).


This kind of thinking is naturally  also very close to the principles of "Participatory Research" (PR), or "Participatory Action Research"  (PAR) , whose origins are largely in the developing world (Sclove,1997). It is also linked in its origins to Action Research (AR) with which it also  shares the lack of precision in the definition. Globally Action Research aims at change through a reciprocal transformation of action and of discourse (Morin 1992) and for  Desroches (1982),  it is a research in which the traditional “authors” of research and the social “actors” are reciprocally involved:   “actors” in research and “authors” in action. Among the various definitions one encounters, it remains some confusion as whether AR is an approach, a process, a set of methods….etc.. and the same is true of the definitions of Transdisciplinarity.


Transdisciplinarity is also sometimes defined as the transfer of ideas and methods from one discipline to another (Arber, 1993). In that sense, transdisciplinarity is to be considered in general as a tool or prerequisite to interdisciplinarity. The multiplicity of meanings of the word transdisciplinarity is perhaps connected to the ambiguity of the prefix "trans" which  can mean in particular: across or over (like in "transatlantic”); beyond(like in "transuranic”, or "transcendental"); transfering (like in "transportation”); changing.(like in "transmutation”).


In practice, the need for transdisciplinarity is often invoked in connection with important societal problems, and it has turned out that a close collaboration of academics with stakeholders from society on a problem involving different disciplines in a complex way was one of the methods that has led to a true transdisciplinary "attitude" from the academic participants. In this context, one has evolved the concept of “transdisciplinary research process” (Defila et al 1996), or "Mode 2" knowledge production process. (Gibbons,M. et al ,1994)  .


 We can then define a  transdisciplinary research process  as  research which  is not developed “for” but “with” the main constituencies concerned with the field of research. These stakeholders are involved from the beginning, and all along, with the research effort .  The main advantage of the transdisciplinary process is that, unlike in the traditional approach, "where results are communicated through institutional channels, the results are communicated to those who have participated ... and so, in a sense, the diffusion of the results is initially accomplished in the process of their production” (Gibbons,M. et al ,1994) .


 Although transdisciplinarity in this sense can be considered as a slightly restrictive and specialised concept, it has proved useful, and it is the definition that we shall use in this paper, without losing sight that it is just one of the ways to realise this perfect "problem driven" transdisciplinarity to which many authors refer.


The power of this concept of transdisciplinarity , which is very well adapted to complex socio-economic-ecological problems like the ones connected to sustainable development and to the integration of policies in different areas, is that it moves collaboration between science and society from the realm of ethics (one "should" collaborate more and better) to the realm of methodology (what are the rules of transdisciplinarity, the best practices, the evaluation criteria  and so on). This concept of transdisciplinarity also allows to draw analogies with the problems and obstacles of interdisciplinarity, which have been discussed since a long time.


Many people in various countries strive to go in the direction of better collaboration between science and society, and often  confront the same kind of problems about methodology, evaluation and so on. In Switzerland, the necessity of a closer collaboration between science and society has been emphasised  in particular within the Priority Programme Environment (Haberli, 1995; Minsch, 1995; Roux, 1995). The same is true in Canada with  the Canadian Program on Global Change.


We try in this paper to make a synthesis of all these aspects, but we are well aware that much conceptual and practical progress has to be made until transdisciplinary research is mature and accepted. This paper must therefore be considered as a kind of "Progress Report’. We first discuss in general the problematics of the relation between the academic world and society (Section II), then present some concrete applications of transdisciplinarity (Section III), present some obstacles to transdisciplinarity (Section IV), briefly discuss methodological problems (Section V) and finally draw  some conclusions.





The concept of transdisciplinarity is  related to the more general problem of the relations between the academic world and society, or between science and society. We live today in the legacy of Vannevar Bush’s report (V. Bush, 1946), which essentially supported the linear /reservoir  model of the relation between science and society: in order for science to contribute to the needs of society, one has primarily to finance in a sufficient amount basic research in the relevant fields. The results of basic research will then constitute a reservoir of knowledge, which will trickle down through applied research and development to society's needs.


The debate about the validity of this model and about the search for a "New contract between science and society" goes along the  following lines:


1) Firstly, the debate is not about the importance of basic research to society. Most people would  still agree that the essential service the university institution is rending to society is  basic (curiosity driven ) research and basic education of students.


2) Research since the second world war has brought a "dizzying array of new knowledge, economic opportunities, and products- ranging from laser surgery to genetic testing, from global positioning systems to prediction of El Nino events, from the discovery of new drugs derived from natural products to new information systems " (Lubchenko,1998)


3) The question is whether the "the enterprise that has met these past challenges " is prepared for all the challenges that lie in our future. The analysis of this issue leads to two related questions: what are the future challenges that face humanity in the future (and what are the requisites for solving them), and what is today the social contract between science and society (and whether it should be improved or modified).


4) Many are of the opinion that an important part of these future challenges are of a new nature, as they are concerned with very complex natural-societal phenomena (particularly in the field of environment and sustainable development), and that they go beyond a purely disciplinary analysis, even beyond a purely academic analysis, as they are concerned with providing "understanding for individuals and institutions to make informed policy decisions and to provide the basis for new technologies" in very complex situations (Lubchenko,1998).


5) Today's social contract between science and society consists essentially in three parts:


- society supports science because it has learned over the centuries that supporting free research brings rewards to society in the long term.  These rewards can be of a general cultural nature (the value of understanding the world around us), or lead to advances for the material well being of a large number of human beings;


- society also supports science because it expects something  useful in the short term in well specified areas (winning the war against AIDS, or cancer, or winning the cold war etc.).;


- in exchange of these benefits, the scientific community requires relative autonomy from political concerns (essentially because basic research must be "free").


This contract involves many ambiguities and even  contradictions (Pielke, 1998), and its value was for a long time that, in spite of these contradictions and ambiguities, there was enough overlap between the corporate interests of scientists and society's goals for the contract to be, on the whole, useful.


This contract is also a "distant contract", it is established at the highest policy level, and  its relevance for individual scientists is mostly through funding opportunities. Sometimes, scientific results come under direct public opinion's scrutiny, but  these are rare occurrences (genetic engineering, nuclear energy etc.).


The new contract is yet to be argued and defined, but it seems that it will include one  essential element: a closer contact between science and society about essential problems concerning society's future (in particular connected to sustainable development). This closer contact should involve


-a better understanding by scientists of society's needs;


-a more efficient communication by scientists of the results of scientific research that may  be relevant to society's needs.


6) The debate is therefore not about the value and importance of basic research, nor is it about forcing scientists in a narrow tunnel of "mandated" research, it is about improving the interfaces between science and society. It is about whether the university system should develop, in addition to its basic functioning mode, other complementary  interfacing modes which would help making research results better known to society's needs, and also attract the attention of researchers to some problems that perhaps would not directly stem from isolated (research driven) curiosity, but from external stimuli. And these interfacing modes should be in priority in fields that are essential to humanity's future, but are in great part ignored by the scientific community, mainly because of their complex and interdisciplinary nature.


A. A systemic view (for the case of sustainable development).


As emphasised, the new contract between science and society is still to be formulated and debated in more details, and, to this end, one must have a more concrete picture of where the problem lies, and in what sense one must go beyond the linear model cited above . In order to go  beyond this model some qualitative system analysis can prove useful. System analysis applies to complex situations, where  actors (or agents) are numerous  and interact with each other in many ways. The first step in system analysis (before any kind of quantitative analysis is attempted) is a qualitative identification of the agents and their interactions, and in particular the identification of the important communication lines and feedback loops which are neglected in simplistic linear models.


The systemic discussion of the interaction between science and society will be different depending on the fields of knowledge and the types of problems, so we will restrict it here to sustainable development issues.


The situation can be characterised by relating  the sources of knowledge to several sorts of "clients”: for example the bodies that govern oriented research programmes , these bodies themselves being in contact with other clients in society ,  both official bodies and the general public. Pictorially, the actors (researchers, , government, business, unions, NGOs,  the general public), will be represented by "nodes" and the interactions between them by oriented lines. In Figure 1, we have represented what may be viewed as the linear model for sustainable development: all lines go in just one directions, from the experts to the clients.


We may at this point take a specific example, relevant to sustainable development. It is well established that in order to protect the future climate of the earth, fossil fuel has to be used in a much more efficient way than today. The first studies on the potential of energy efficiency were published in the early seventies, in particular by the American Institute of Physics and by A.Lovins (AIP, 1975; Lovins, 1975). These studies have shown early that the potential for energy efficiency is quite large, and that  a substantial part of this potential is economically efficient. Very little of this potential has been realised in the 25 years since, and this is often attributed to the fact that obstacles to energy efficiency are not technical or economical, but psychological and social. Still the same kind of technico-economical studies keep being published (Weiszäcker, 1997) that still contain very little reference to what may be the central problem: implementation in the social and psychological realities of today's world.


The systemic representation of a complex situation is in fact a method for thinking about this situation and looking at Figure 1  leads immediately to a  number of qualitative observations and questions about the present state of things.


- Are the communication lines ( from the academics to the intermediate clients  and from intermediate clients to the final clients: policy makers, business etc.) efficient? In other words: do ideas generated in basic research, studies and oriented research reach the decision makers world and have an impact on policies and actions? If they don't, or don't in a sufficient way, what are the reasons? Lack of relevance? Psychological and political obstacles?


- Which are the non-linearities of the system? Where are the feed-back loops? Can these feed-back loops be improved?


When considering the fate of some ideas, like the ones concerning energy efficiency, one may perhaps say that they often only reach a minority of "believers", but don't have much impact on the majority, and therefore have little political impact. One may even say that some ideas have perhaps even a counter productive effect (like the proposal to increase the price of gasoline by a factor ten). There seems indeed to be an almost insuperable "wall" within society (and within  government), which is extremely difficult to pass, and that divides "believers” in sustainability  from "indifferent”, that go about their business as usual. Believers and indifferent (or non believers) can be found  in all sectors of society, and this leads to two changes in the systemic representation of Figure 1: firstly, we replace the dots representing agents by extended "bubbles", and, second, we draw the  insuperable  "wall" right in the middle of each bubble (see Figure 2).


In this picture, many good ideas or studies reach the believer side of the bubbles quite easily (f.i. in government agencies), and die there.


There are of course other walls in society, between the different sectors of society, f.i., or between generations. The main point is that one way of choice to deal with these walls is to   establish a dialogue across them , and academics must be a party in this dialogue, even  before studies are started, in order to define which questions are relevant to the economic, social and psychological needs of the times.


The university system , by its very nature, has not been, so far, really demand driven. It is mainly driven by its own production, free research. So, it is usually badly equipped to respond to society demands, except in very general and theoretical  terms. To improve the relation to demand, one must put (part of its) research in direct contact with the complexities of the situation depicted in Figure 2, and this can only be done by creating new modes of collaboration between science and society. These modes of collaboration face a difficult challenge, and they therefore need a strong institutional setting. This is the purpose of transdisciplinarity programs and strategic centres.


This situation is depicted in Fig. 3: right "around the insuperable wall”, one must create improved modes of collaboration between society and the academic world.




The best way to make progress in these concepts is to consider concrete examples of close collaboration between science and society (in the field of sustainable development). In this section we will collect examples in land management and urban planning, one of the most natural fields of application of these ideas, research programmes, Strategy Centres and the like, education and training , risk assessment and environmental assessments.


A. Land management and urban planning.


Land management and urban planning present an almost ideal field for transdisciplinary collaboration. In fact a close collaboration with stakeholders seems to be almost unavoidable if one wants the results of studies to be applicable in reality. There surely exist very many examples of transdisciplinary process in land management and urban planning. We have selected three, which seem particularly interesting, the Lower Swansea Valley Project, because it played a pioneering role in this respect, the "Zentrum Zürich Nord" project, because it involves students in an exemplary way, and will in consequence be discussed below, and the "Wychwood project", because it focuses on the participation processes itself.


1. The Lower Swansea Valley Project


The Lower Swansea Valley (South Wales) was destroyed in the 1700’s and 1800’s by smelting industry which at those times was the biggest concentration of copper, lead, zinc and steel smelters in the world. In 1960 the Lower Swansea Valley, a once beautiful river valley was transformed by two centuries of use by industry into a barren wilderness three and a half miles long and a mile apart. So, the idea was put forward that the University College of Swansea, in partnership with the Ministry of Housing and local government, the Swansea Borough Council and other interests, should carry out a comprehensive survey of the area as a first step towards its reclamation.  So, a Working Group was set up, with representatives from the College Departments, the Borough Council, the Welsh Office and Industry, and a project was to establish the factors which inhibit the social and economic use of land in the Lower Swansea Valley and to suggest ways in which the area should be used in the future.


What is remarkable about the work done in the project (Hilton, 1967) is that it was appreciated quite early that a university research study could not on its own build up the momentum that was required to carry ideas  forward to practical action. So a special effort was made all along, first to involve industry and government officials, and also through local societies and schools, in conferences meeting in the neighbourhood, by means of exhibitions and through the press and television, to make contact with the public at large. The scientific work involved a rather large interdisciplinary team including planing experts, physicists, geochemists, hydrologists, ecologists, foresters, medical epidemiologists, sociologists, economists and traffic engineers. The work done is documented in a very good publication, that can so serve as a blueprint for the proper way of engaging and conducting that kind of study. This project is thus quite an interesting  example for transdisciplinarity process. Most of the recommendations made by the report were then implemented, and there is little doubt that the effort done to go out of standard university practice had much to do with this success.


2. Zentrum Zürich -Nord_Stadt in Aufbruch (the Zurich North Center in Revolution).


This  study  is a very good  example of transdisciplinarity in urban planing, but it is even more an example of the use of the transdisciplinary methods in education. It is therefore presented in details below (under D.).


3. The  Wychwood Project: Public participation in Landscape Management and Restoration: a Case Study of the Development of Community Focused Approaches to Biodiversity Conservation and Landscape Management.


                ( To be completed)


B. Research Programs.


1. The Priority Programme Environment in Switzerland.


The Priority Programme Environment in Switzerland was initiated in 1992 on a rather conventional basis: the goals were to


                - strengthen environmental research;


                - define priorities and networks;


                - promote interdisciplinarity;


                - reinforce collaboration with industry, administration and other stakeholders, and reinforce international collaboration;


Since 1996, the Programme focuses on five main themes (SPP, 1997): climate, biodiversity, society, soil and waste, and all these themes involve many researchers in several universities  grouped in "integrated projects", with increasing collaboration with stakeholders during the years.


Although the concept of  transdisciplinarity was used quite early in this programme , its meaning and importance  has evolved with time, and this reflects a profound evolution within the researchers community and the Expert Group that manages the program that "reinforcing  collaboration with industry, administration and other stakeholders" means a radical shift in  the way research programs should be defined and conducted.


In this sense, the Priority Programme Environment is a remarkable example of a "learning organisation", able to think collaboratively and constructively over the meaning of its own operation, and consequently able to  improve  it.


The Programme has become in recent years a very active supporter and think tank for reforming the way society relevant research is conceived and conducted[4].


2. Forschungsschwerpunkt "Kulturlandschaft" in Austria (research program on sustainable development of landscapes and regions in Austria).


The program was started in 1992 in Austria, with the following general goals: reduce the flows of man produced material fluxes, optimisation of the relationship between biological diversity and quality of life, recognition, evolution of the cultural environment, etc. (Smoliner, 1998)These goals led to the following  research fields:

- indicators of sustainability

- basic factors of biodiversity and quality of life (maintenance??) (il manque quelque chose….)

- multifunctionnality and conflicts of interest etc.


The programme was conceived in a purely transdisciplinary way: it was developed and defined right from the beginning as an active collaboration with actors and stakeholders, in order to keep away from the traditional linear model (see above). The following theses helped define and organise the program:


                - one needs less research "for" society, and more research "with" society.


                - one needs to open up the research policy from the conceptualisation to the application of          results, and this must happen beyond the traditional "consultation" of experts from industry and government in some general phases of the program.


-          this process should lead to some "least cost science", in the sense that research is optimised right from the beginning towards the solution of concrete problems.



3         The Canadian Global Change Program (CGCP)


The Canadian Global Change Program was founded in 1985 by the Royal Society of Canada to


-          bring together researchers from a wide variety of disciplines to plan interdisciplinary research


-          assess the significance of the research in the policy context


-          communicate the implications to target audiences including researchers, the educational community, decision-makers and the general public.


It also had the  mandate to emphasise closer links between natural scientists and social scientists; its success in this area has been demonstrated in the reports of many of its expert panels. Although the notion of transdisciplinarity as presented here was not explicit in the activities of the CGCP, at all levels (from the board to specific working groups) it did include members from the academic community, officers from various levels of governments (federal and provincials) and from the private sector. It must be said however that most of the non academic members were very close to research in their structures, or were researchers themselves, which made the living together easier.


Despite a high level of credibility the CGCP saw his budget radically cut by ten fold and is being reorganised not on the basis of an independent secretariat, but through a research centre located at the University of Victoria.



4         The UQAM-CSN-FTQ Agreement


In 1982, the University of Quebec in Montreal (UQAM) signed an agreement with the two major workers unions in Quebec to develop socially driven research programs that would be of direct interests for the workers. Having a formal agreement gave an institutional perspective in a type of collaboration which is usually based on a single individual or research group. It also gave a formal framework for the ex ante and ex post evaluation of  projects. A large number of projects took place in the domain of occupational health. This provided a clear example of the limits of a disciplinary approach as problems in this field are complex and are expressed in an a-disciplinary way by those who are affected. Interdisciplinary teams were developed to take this complexity into account. Through the years, the role of the workers evolved taking an increasing part, not only in the identification of the problem but also in the research process (REF sur le protocole et son bilan a venir).


C.  Transdisciplinary institutions: Strategy Centres , action centres, science shops.


It took many years to understand that interdisciplinarity needs special institutional settings. It is not enough to ask that "different disciplines should collaborate closely", one must also fund, protect, officially support this kind of activities. The same must hold true for transdisciplinarity. The reason for this fact is that inter- or transdisciplinarity require special knowledge and skills about project leadership, programme management, contacts, networking, organisation of proper dialogue capabilities and so on. It would not only be unpractical  to expect scientists to all become experts in all these activities, it would also be wrong. The principle job of the majority of scientists is to produce “good science” , not to spend time in exploring these new methodologies. The job of preparing, defining, co-ordinating, managing inter- or transdisciplinary projects must be taken over in special institutional settings in which scientists from traditional institutions can intervene.


The examples of "institutionalised" transdisciplinarity are relatively rare, beyond special research programs (like the ones discussed above).


The necessity of bridging the gap between research and its practical applications through the establishment of appropriate institutional settings is particularly well expressed in the Annual Report 1996 of the German Advisory Council on Global Change (World in transition, 1997). It proposes the creation of a "Strategy Centre on Global Change" . "Possible responsibilities and fields of activity for such an institution" would be:


"Researchers on all subjects relevant to the particular problem and potential research users, i.e. decision makers and actors at the various levels of society, must contribute jointly to a multidimensional, interdisciplinary analysis of the problems as well as to the formulation of appropriate research questions.


On the user side, the formal and specific requirements to be met by problem-solving global change research and its expected research results must be formulated."


Such an institution would necessarily build on a large base  of competent scientists, hence the importance of going beyond in-house capabilities and establishing appropriate networks.


We would like to define the mandate of a Strategy Centre in the following way:


The mandate of a Strategy Centre is to be an interface: it must bring together researchers, actors  and decision makers into a continuing collaboration in order to:


                - contribute jointly to the analysis of the problems;


                - bring to the attention of decision makers and social actors potentially interesting ideas from the world of research and discuss the potential applicability and relevance of these ideas;


                - discuss possible future research and training orientations for the academic community from the needs of decision makers and social actors


A Strategy Centre must, at least partially, be "process oriented", rather than "research oriented". This is because ideally, to be policy relevant, it must work  on a time scale (about one year) that is much shorter than the time needed to develop a research programme. This means that a Strategy Centre must rely primarily on an external  network of experts. Still a Strategy Centre must be more that an organisational outfit. There must be, at the core of its operation, a scientifically very competent driving force. This very fundamental dilemma has been solved in different ways by different institutions.


This kind of idea can also be applied on a specific problem, for a limited span of time. This was called "Action Centre " in a recent report by the Swiss Science Council ( 1998) . A first experience in this form is being conducted by the Priority Programme Environment and the  Swiss Agency for the Environment, Forests and Landscape on  the "Role of behavioural and social sciences and the humanities in research on sustainable development".


1. Strategy Centres


As the idea of Strategy Centre is quite new,  only a few examples have been identified.


a. National Centre for Environmental Decision-Making Process (NCDER)


The National Centre for Environmental Decision-Making Research  (NCEDR)  produces scientific and  operational advances of direct use to sub national environmental decision makers. It engages environmental decision makers with researchers to develop and communicate processes and information that help solve or avoid problems associated with environmental decisions. NCEDR held its first Conference on Environmental Decision making  in May 1998. The goals were

1) to explore how practitioners can better use existing knowledge and experience in decision making

2) identify knowledge gaps, research needs , and more effective approaches to research

3) discuss new mind sets that may be necessary and how to support changes  in mind by both decision makers and their stakeholders (NCEDR, 1996) [5].



b. the International Academy of the Environment.


The International Academy of the Environment was established in 1991 in Geneva by the Swiss Confederation and the government of Geneva in order to create an institutionalised link between science and decision making in the environmental dimension of sustainable development. More specifically its mission was to:


                - provide decision makers with the basic knowledge and management principles that will              enable them to take decisions compatible with sustainable development;


                - examine, through collaboration between experts and decision makers, new management           solutions that will satisfy the requirements of sustainable development.


 The Academy  realised its mandate through four types of activities: policy dialogues, training, synthesis research and information  (Giovannini). The experience was ended by a rather conservative evaluation, that steered back the Academy towards a traditional "research driven" institution and it was finally closed down in June 1999.


c. The International Institute for Environment and Development  (IIED)


IIED is an independent organisation based in London, which promotes sustainable patterns of world development through collaborative research, policy studies, consensus building and public information. With a focus on issues of equity and justice, and the rights and needs of poor people, the Institute works in an interdisciplinary way, addressing the connections between economic development, the environment and human needs[6].


d. The science policy support group (SPSG)


Although the SPSG is not directly related to sustainable development, we cite it here because it is an interesting structure. It was set up in 1986, and its aims are to promote the application of science, technology, and innovation studies to policy, practice, and management in Europe. SPSG works as a virtual organisation, managing research programmes and networks of academics in a range of institutions. Its current programmes include


                - the Public Understanding of Science ;


                - Science City;


                - The Credit Network;


                - the Paris Programme[7].



2 . Science shops.


A science shop is an organisation that  conducts, co-ordinates, and summarises research on social and technological issues in response to specific questions posed by community groups, public interest organisations, local governments and workers. This kind of organisation evolved first in the Netherlands, and then was extended to other countries, including Denmark, Austria, Germany, Norway the UK and the Czech Republic[8].


D. Transdisciplinarity in  education and training.


If one accepts the tenet that sustainable development will require a high level of co-operation between the different sectors of society, then one must urgently build transdisciplinarity into the education process, especially at the engineering school and university levels. We have identified one example of this type of collaboration.



1 . Zentrum Zürich -Nord_Stadt in Aufbruch (the Zurich North Center in Revolution).


The Zurich North Centre is momentarily the largest re-use project of an industrial area in Switzerland- 5000 apartments and 12'000 working places are planned. The area under planning consists of 64 hectares, the industrial area is to be restructured into a town quarter with urban life quality. The case study , organised by the Polytechnic School of Zurich (ETHZ) is a study and research project with the participation in 1996 of 126 students, 25 assistants and 150 people outside of the polytechnic.


The authors of the study understood right from the beginning  that urban planning cannot be a scientific study in the usual sense: it must rely on close contact and collaboration with experts from the "outside world", and they must invent new ways of producing knowledge.


The fact that the case study was integrated in a formal curriculum in a university level institution led the initiators of the study to think carefully about the methodological problems connected with a transdisciplinary research project. They thus produced a careful description of the case study as knowledge production process, including the theory, the methodology and the organisation.


The theory includes a certain number of basic principles: the importance of preserving the essential complexities of the problem (resistance to reductionism), the analysis of the past time evolution of the situations, the integration of the knowledge of all parties. The methodology relies on interdisciplinary methods, on system analysis, on scenario construction, on multicriteria decision theories and so on. Finally great care must be given to organisational problems, in order for the different actors to have a well defined task and a recognisable integration in the project as a whole.


We will come back  to these methodological problems in general in a later section.


E. Risk Assessment.


Risk assessment is usually practised in an "expert" linear mode. Even if the opinions of stakeholders are collected, these are usually an input to the final analysis by experts.  More precisely, scientists research a problem and then formally assess the risk the problem poses to the public. Agencies are then supposed to consult all interested parties, and to consider social, political and other factors before introducing regulations. This mode of operation is however perhaps on the verge of change (Understanding risks, 1996). In the new proposed approach, consultation and deliberation should take place at the outset, and thus represent a true transdisciplinary process in the sense considered in this paper.



F. Environmental Impact Assessments and Integrated Environmental Assessment.


Environmental Impact Assessment and Integrated Environmental Assessment are not fully transdisciplinary in the way they are usually practised today. In these methodologies, the opinion of stakeholders is often rather used as an input for the final assessment by experts. But the line is a little fuzzy here, because different authors give slightly different definitions to these methodologies, so, in a sense, one can say that these methodologies are often "on the verge" of true transdisciplinarity, and they are therefore cited in this context. The tendency is now to encourage participation of the affected and interested parties at the scoping stage, when the terms of reference of the studies are being defined. Being involved at a very early stage, the stakeholders are more easily part of the whole process. For this reason, they may easily undergo the same transformation as risk analysis as discussed above (for a review, see Bailey,1996).





The analysis of the obstacles to transdisciplinarity starts with some of the classical difficulties in interdisciplinarity, which we cite here briefly:


- the difficulty of understanding complex systems. Almost always, inter or transdisciplinarity  are important when the object of the analysis is complex: the functioning of the brain, or the implementation of an energy efficiency policy and so on. Since the rise of modern science however, the method of partitioning and specialising the fields of enquiry, initially proposed by F. Bacon, has met with spectacular successes. Our brain seems to be very well equipped for this type of analysis, but it seems to meet with very fundamental difficulties when it comes to analyse complex systems. Indeed, the theory of complex systems is still in its infancy, and the most spectacular advances, like the theory of chaos, are really specialised enquiries into the mathematical properties of some simple-looking  non-linear equations.


- the difficulty of understanding other science's methodologies and ways of thinking: the first step in an interdisciplinary collaboration is to understand the thought of colleagues from other disciplines. This  usually seems easy at first sight and proves to be extremely difficult when discussions are pursued to some depth. It takes indeed many  years for a student to understand in depth the methodology of the science of his (or her) choice, and it is therefore to be expected that this should prove even more difficult later in age when trying to understand  a science with a different logic.


- the non-attractiveness of the academic results (publications) from the intellectual point of view: since we have difficulties in understanding complex systems, the discussions of this kind of systems are usually hard to gauge for their quality, or even understand. They often appear boring, obscure, or even rambling. There is  little intellectual satisfaction in seeing different disciplines painstakingly using well established methodologies and confront them in a complicated problem, using a common methodology that is often unclear, or even totally absent.


-the absence of recognition and protection in the university system (for interdisciplinarity) and in the political system in general (for transdisciplinarity): because of the lack of scientific attractiveness discussed above, interdisciplinarity is usually treated as a second rank activity in universities. It is usually developed in specific centres or institutes that survive with great difficulty outside of the traditional faculties, and are only marginally protected, especially in difficult financial times. These centres very often have to rely on outside funding to fund a substantial part of their activities, but these outside funds are usually connected to very practical studies, and this drives interdisciplinary studies further into the borderlines of the university tradition.


-vulnerability to evaluation processes: the scientific tradition knows how to evaluate disciplinary contributions to science. Any  (even moderate) attempt at innovation in the direction of inter or transdisciplinary work meets with significant epistemological problems, and therefore evaluational problems. It has been stated that, viewed as an interdisciplinary effort between mathematics and physics, a funding request for general relativity by A. Einstein would never have made it through a standard evaluation process (CUS, 1998).  In fact, interdisciplinary proposals are usually  evaluated by experts in the different disciplines as to their value in their discipline. General relativity would have been viewed by mathematicians as non interesting old stuff (the Levi-Civita calculus had been known for some time) , and physicists would probably have judged their part as vague and highly speculative. Transdisciplinarity is even harder in that context, because of  its newness. It turns out that it is almost impossible to explain the motivations for transdisciplinarity to (even very good) scientists or experts who have not, by themselves, come to some of the ideas expressed in this paper. Evaluators usually work under strong  time and personal constraints: if confronted with inter (or trans-) disciplinary  work, they have to evaluate rather quickly work done in fields which are very often outside their immediate competence. So a transdisciplinary programme or institution has very low chances to go through an evaluation process unscathed unless politically  carefully protected.


The difficulties mentioned above are common to inter and transdisciplinarity, albeit to different degrees. But there are additional complexities that are specific to the transdisciplinary process.


- firstly, the transdisciplinary process supposes collaboration between academics and stake holders in society. Collaboration is however only possible if it also coincides with some personal interest of the participants. These interests must be carefully evaluated, in order for the process to be successful. Within a university system, these interest are well known and rather homogeneous : it is scientific recognition, which allows sometimes to conquer academic influence and power. In a wider context these conflicting interests may vary over a wider range,


- secondly, because the interests of the different participants may be so different, also the time horizons of the different participants may be extremely different. Whereas researchers work usually in a long time scale, counted in years, politicians for example may have much shorter attention spans, dictated by the political agenda, or even by their re election time horizon.


- thirdly, because of the non homogeneity of participants, a very important weight must be attached to the quality of the process: if you are able to convince a team of high level decision makers to come to a training session or a policy dialogue, this event should be very carefully prepared, planned and conducted. This priority in the quality of the process is well known outside of the academic world (for example in politics or in the activities of Business Schools), but is rather alien to the priorities in traditional academic circles, where the interest in ideas and in research is so dominant that the interest in the process quality is very weak (this order of priorities also has an influence on the importance given to teaching in universities, a permanent cause for discussions in universities). Scientific workshops and conferences are judged good if the contributions are good, and the ideas proposed are new and challenging. Policy dialogues have additional prerequisites: there must be ample time for (well-prepared) discussions, the contributions of all participants must be given careful consideration and so on. In a policy dialogue, it is equally important for an influential politician to reformulate and endorse an idea, even if this idea has been known to some academics for some time, as it is for academics to present new ideas.




Sustainable development problems are complicated in several ways:


                - they involve a space and time frame that tends to connect to ever widening circles of connected questions;


                - they consider systems comprising  many agents and their interactions: they are             intrinsically complex;


                - they involve  in general large stakeholders groups with conflicting interests and many scientific disciplines.


These three classes of complications must in principle be analysed separately: the first calls for methods that help set boundaries to a problem , the second is related to the systemic nature of most sustainable development problems, the third to the management of large groups of experts. In fact these three classes of problems are also connected, since, for instance, a transdisciplinary working team will, in its composition, represent the agents of the problem itself.


A. Setting boundaries and structuring.


1. The Syndrome Concept.


The  WBGU Report (Worlds in transition, 1997) introduces the syndrome concept in reference to Global Change, but it can be extended to other problems. As a result of the various interactions between humans and the environment, the causes of Global Change differ from one region to the next. However the patterns of change are often similar. These patterns are called "syndromes" (a set of symptoms indicating disease). Examples of syndromes are : the mass tourism syndrome, the suburbia syndrome.


The advantage of the syndrome concept is that it allows to reach beyond the peculiarities of each situation and get to a more general, universal treatment of each case, with (hopefully) reference to general rules.


2. Systems knowledge, target knowledge, transformation knowledge.


Once a problem, or a syndrome, has been identified, one must distinguish the knowledge and understanding of its present state (the "is-state"), which is the field of choice for traditional scientific enquiries, from the determination of its desirable evolution (the "where-to"), i.e. target knowledge, which must involve some kind of participation with the stake holders, and from the choice of means to the end (the "how- to"), i.e. the transformation knowledge, which involve of course predominantly social and human sciences, but also participation to a high degree. These three kinds of knowledge have been defined in the CASS- Proclim report (Research on sustainability, 1997).


These distinctions give a useful  insight into the dynamical processes necessary to implement good ideas from research. These processes, in particular  the ones related to "transformation" knowledge, involve the hardest part of the problem.



3. Focus on  fields of human needs and on the corresponding sectors of human activities.


The main difficulty  in sustainable development studies lies more in the transformation knowledge than in any other parts of the methodology, because it means working with the proper actors, with a risk of becoming immediately much too wide in focus. One way is to do one more step in focusing. A proposal has been made to focus on a certain field of human needs: nutrition, or transportation, energy etc. It is more practical to then define actors, and fields of practical transformation processes (sectors of human activities which are homogeneous enough to be amenable to concrete improvements). In the field of nutrition, one would have the food producers, the retailers, the food companies, consumer associations  and so on (Mogalle, 1998).


B.  Management of intrinsic complexity.


The management of intrinsic complexity can rely on several methodologies developed to study complex systems (system dynamics, cybernetics etc.); it can also widen this analysis and use "triangulation", i.e. the use of various methodologies for the same problem, in order to shed light on hidden  assumptions and hypotheses of various approaches (Roe, 1998; Scholz, 1996); these different methods may include the direct use of the various methods of systemic analysis to represent the system  under study, but also scenario construction, .traditional socio-economic analysis, cultural theories and so on.


C. Management of the transdisciplinary process.


Transdisciplinarity involves by definition complex (and some time large) teams: participants from the academic world and from the practitioner's world, with different agendas and time lines, with different working habits and rules etc. Management is therefore extremely important, and has started to attract the appropriate attention (Roux, 1998)


Some of the lines of thinking are the following:


- Transdisciplinary collaboration is sometimes very complicated and difficult, and must be carefully prepared. Full scale transdisciplinary discussions, like in policy dialogues, tread a very thin line between the twin dangers of irrelevance and superficiality, and must be very thoroughly prepared. In particular, careful thinking must be given to what must be discussed and worked out in academic collaboration only and in stakeholders collaboration only, in preparation for the full transdisciplinary collaboration.


- Attention  must be given to the difference in goals between researchers and actors, and accordingly differences in time lines, quality  requirements etc. The possibility of "hidden agendas" must be considered and handled. If a long term collaboration is envisaged, some kind of conflict management process may be considered.


- A society relevant problematics may be sensitive to quick changes in the political focus. What seemed very interesting one year may become obsolete the next, and researchers may find themselves left alone in a problem which has lost its relevance. This means that the time devoted to a particular problem must be carefully gauged towards the time when the expected benefits are expected to be significant.


- some methods developed to manage complexity in organisations (like syntegrity (Beer,1994) or cybernetics for example) can be usefully considered for the management of transdisciplinary teams (Schwanninger,1998); methods  of team formation can also be considered (Meadows,1995);


- this all means that university researchers (who will usually lead the transdisciplinary research project) will have to learn at least the basics of inter and transdisciplinary management during their education (CUS,1998).


D. Evaluation.


  In order to gain acceptance and prestige, transdisciplinarity must develop concrete and well adapted quality criteria. The situation is similar to the problem of evaluation in interdisciplinarity studies: one must  go beyond the simple rule of applying  usual scientific quality criteria to the constituent parts of the inter or transdisciplinary project, and then some kind of general quality criterion to the "synthesis".


The Swiss Conference of Universities has recently published some recommendations on the evaluation criteria for inter and transdisciplinary project (Beck, 1998), which can be summarised in the following way:


1) Application of basic scientific quality criteria to the project as a whole ( the problem must be clearly stated, the project must demonstrate that it can lead to progress in this (inter or transdisciplinary) field , the methodology must be clearly explained and justified , one must demonstrate convincingly that the problem cannot be handled by a superposition of several disciplinary studies etc.)


2) Application of scientific quality criteria to the different disciplines involved, but taking into account that in an inter or transdisciplinary study, some disciplines don't aim at developing new disciplinary knowledge, but may have to synthesise in a novel fashion already available knowledge, or provide information according to well developed methods (measurements, polls etc.) that may not be acceptable as a scientific project in a given discipline, for lack of innovation.


3) Analysis of the project as a whole under the point of view of management and organisation.


4) Analysis of the relevance of the project for society needs.


5) Analysis (in the case of transdisciplinarity) of the projected role for the co-operation with stakeholders and actors (under the point of view of the expected contribution, the organisation and the process).





E. Generalities


Finally, one would like to emphasise "moral" qualities . The distance between the world of decision makers and the thinking of researchers is just very large, and one must first forego any kind of arrogance. The solutions defined by academics alone rarely go very far in the "real" world. So the words "humility", "patience", "openness" are often found in the references cited above. Academics must forget their natural tendency  to believe either that yet more research will be the answer to all problems, or that they already know all the answer and that politicians just need to listen more carefully to them. Academics must also forget, at least at the beginning of the collaboration,   their trained insistence to first define clearly the concepts to be used and to be quite intolerant of fuzzy badly defined concepts and discourse. Discussion around this kind of arguments kills immediately any constructive dialogue.


One must also be aware of "political" obstacles: firstly, the idea of collaborative research is relatively new, and as Fred Taylor puts it : [innovation] .."is not only opposed but aggressively and bitterly opposed by the majority of people". Secondly, transdisciplinarity moves academics a step closer to the political decision process, and also reinforces the idea of participation in general. Not all politicians will necessarily be happy with these  ideas. It is interesting for example to see how little of the collaborative research ideas expressed in the initial discussion within the American Association for the Advancement of Science (Lubchenko, 1998) finally found their way in the final report to the  Congress (see footnote 2 ).





In several places in this paper, reference is made to system analysis, or complex systems. The logic of this paper (where complex analysis pops up in the analysis of transdisciplinarity) could however be reversed: one could also view transdisciplinarity as  a way to contribute to the analysis and management of complex problems , in which  participative methods should play a prominent role. Indeed, one can say in general that complex socio-ecological problems cannot be analysed satisfactorily  by a single agent, or a single method, or a single type of institution. Complexity can only be analysed (and managed) by the recourse to multiple methodologies (whose results are then compared), by the implication of several agents (with their different viewpoints and approaches), and by different kinds of institutions (research centres, but also policy research centres, advocacy organisations, Strategy Centres, action centres and so on). The world is extremely diverse and changing, and one can perhaps state tentatively the rule that diversity can only be managed by diversity.


In this sense, transdisciplinarity must play a prominent role in the management of today's world problems, and the effort to develop it into a well defined methodology and practices will be of use in many areas of today's policy making. We hope that this paper, an attempt to provide a synthesis of many different ideas by many different people, will thus be of use for the development of true collaboration in society.


On a practical level, one can see that the examples cited in this paper almost always occur in well defined  institutional settings. This is because transdisciplinarity is a complex endeavour, and cannot be improvised: one needs time to accumulate experience and competence. Most of the settings discussed in this paper are not permanent however: they are related to a particular chair, or a research programme that will not in general be continued beyond a certain deadline, or Strategy Centres that often have to fight for recognition and survival. There remains therefore a very important problem to be discussed by academic and political authorities: whether the future of science-society collaboration does not deserve more stable institutions, and under what form.




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[1]throughout, when we write science, we mean all sciences: natural, human,social etc.

[2]see for example the web site:

see also:


[4] The Programme has recently opened an internet site on transdisciplinarity:

and is preparing an International Conference on Transdisciplinarity, planned for 27 February-1 March 2000.

[5] see also

[6] For details, see the web-site: http://www..oneworld/iied

[7] For details, see the web-site:


[8] see net addresses in (Sclove,1997) .