The aim of transdisciplinary research is to contribute to societal change, whether this means new infrastructures and products, adapted legal framework conditions or altered patterns of behaviour. Under this topic line, we explore how research projects can be supported in terms of systematically reflecting on their societal effects and thereby increasing their potential effectiveness.
How Can We Reflect on Effects?
TDR considers complex real-world problems and aims to contribute to their solution, so it is essential that research projects consciously address their societal effectiveness. Research funding bodies also increasingly want to know what effects the planned projects are aiming for and how these can be traced. For a long time, various specialist communities have been debating how to describe, capture and evaluate the societal effects of transdisciplinary research. The literature includes mainly conceptual but increasingly also empirical contributions. Thus far, very few manageable tools have been developed to enable transdisciplinary research projects to systematically reflect on and describe their societal effects – whether independently or with external support. This is where the research by the Centre for Technology and Society (ZTG) within the tdAcademy comes in.
Bringing Academia and Practice Together
First of all, we gather the existing knowledge from the literature – the aim here is to use this basis to develop a manageable set of methods that we can then test empirically and develop further. We invite projects from different spheres of activity and in different project phases to reflect – guided by the method – on the societal effects they are aiming for or have achieved. Working with the “Theory of Change” (ToC) is at the core of the method set. The discussions bring together project partners from academia and practice; we support processes of reflection with facilitation and evaluation. Over the course of the trial, our aim is to iteratively improve the method set and adapt it to different demands – e.g. applying it at the start, during or after completion of the project. During the discussions, the participants become aware of the different perspectives on the effectiveness of the project and of which implicit assumptions about impact pathways are prevalent within the team. A common basic understanding and regular reviewing of whether any assumptions have been borne out and whether the desired effects have been achieved may contribute to the success of the project.
The Power of the Community
In the tdAcademy we explicitly believe in the knowledge and power of the community. This is why we bring together representatives of all participating projects in a dialogue forum where they can collectively reflect on their own experiences with the tools and come up with new ideas for how to develop them further. We run a reflection workshop where we ask experts on the topic of societal effectiveness to enrich and validate our results with their knowledge. The aim here is also to reflect critically on the methods used: For what purposes and goals is the ToC suitable? Is the heuristic of orders and forms of effects we employed helpful? To what extent can impact pathways be traced?
Bringing Together Knowledge Bases
We invite academics to join our Guest and Fellowship Programme who are already working on particular questions in the field of societal effectiveness. This is how we gather knowledge bases, develop them collectively, and make them available to the tdCommunity. Our first group of fellows brings together researchers from transdisciplinary sustainability, development and health research who are primarily concerned with societal effects in their respective communities. Our aim with this group is to tease out the commonalities and differences in the approaches and establish how far common approaches can be productive.