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Co-design, methods, examples

In this article, Christian Pohl discusses tools that address specific challenges of transdisciplinary research.
Although there is no standardised procedure for co-producing knowledge in transdisciplinary research, there are methods and tools to deal with particular challenges.

Several online toolboxes compile such tools, such as for instance:

In this course, we mainly refer to the td-net toolbox. Most of the tools in that toolbox help making underlying assumptions of the participants explicit, for instance about what the problem is, or about who should address and solve it in what role.

The underlying assumptions become an issue because transdisciplinary projects intentionally bring together researchers of different disciplines and actors from civil society, the private, and the public sector. These actors, through their professional career, have learnt to see and interact with the world in a specific way. For instance, a representative from business might see water as a product that should be owned and sold by private companies, a resident of a city might see water as a public good, a chemist as a mix of compounds in different concentrations, an electrical engineer as a source of electricity, and a biologist as a rich ecosystem that should be preserved. Usually, the actors talk about water with colleagues who share the same view. As this is their daily routine, they start to think ‘This is how water is seen in general’. In doing so, they forget that their view is one among many and that not all share this view and its underlying assumptions.

In a transdisciplinary project, different views meet and perhaps clash, particularly if participants think that their view would be the general and right one. The first and essential step in transdisciplinary project is therefore to make participants aware of the plurality of perspectives and to acknowledge the different ways of looking, for instance, at water 1.

There are tools that support the awareness of perspectives. One step of ‘Soft Systems Analysis’ suggests that participants draw a picture of, for instance, the current situation of water in a specific area 2. Another tool – called ‘toolbox approach’ – poses a number of philosophical questions that participants first answer individually and then discuss in groups (eg ‘Is value-neutral scientific research possible?’) 3, 4. These questions point to assumptions that usually differ between disciplines, specifically between those from the natural sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities.

The tools in the td-net toolbox are hands-on and do not require technological equipment beyond usual workshop material. This is because the main purpose of the tools is to trigger a discussion among participants to make the individual viewpoints explicit and visible.

Author: Dr. Christian Pohl


1 Giri, A. K. (2002). The Calling of a Creative Transdisciplinarity. Futures, 34, 103-115.

2 Checkland, P. (2000). Soft systems methodology: A thirty year retrospective. Systems Research and Behavioral Science, 17, S11-S58.

3 Eigenbrode, S. D., O’Rourke, M., Wulfhorst, J. D., Althoff, D. M., Goldberg, C. S., Merrill, K., Morse, W., Nielsen-Pincus, M., Stephens, J., Winowiecki, L. & Bosque-Perez, N. A. (2007). Employing philosophical dialogue in collaborative science. Bioscience 57(1), 55-64.

4 O’Rourke, M. & Crowley, S. (2013). Philosophical intervention and cross-disciplinary science: the story of the Toolbox Project. Synthese, 190(11), 1937-1954.

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