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International Transdisciplinarity Conference 2019

by Prof. Dr. Julie Thompson Klein

Wayne State University and Td-Lab ETH Zurich

The 2019 International Transdisciplinarity Conference took place September 10th through 13th in Gothenburg, Sweden. Hosted by MISTRA Urban Futures, the Swiss Academies of Arts and Sciences, and the University of Gothenburg, the meeting focused on the theme of “Joining Forces for Change.” Participants from an array of countries and cultures, disciplines and fields, professions and sectors of society explored case studies, shared practical insights, presented methodological innovations, and engaged in theorizing about societal transformation. In keeping with the mission of the Network for Transdisciplinary Research (td-net) one of their major interests was identifying spaces, practices, and learnings for transdisciplinary (TD) research and co-production of knowledge with stakeholders in society.

The conference was preceded by a day-long workshop on facilitating co-production of knowledge in TD research projects and a subsequent side event, an Urban Forum, invited participants to consider the intersection of practice and academic research. In addition, the meeting was the occasion for founding the ITD Alliance and its sponsored workshop on facilitating education and training. The goal of the Alliance is to link networks, associations, institutions, and individuals with shared interests in inter- and trans-disciplinary theory, methods, and interventions for addressing complex societal challenges and questions. The workshop featured presentations by organizers of workshops on selected methods, summer schools, and other forums for research development.

Even a cursory glance at the detailed program reveals the scope and depth of the conference. The first day featured Workshops. In the morning these covered methods and practices for transformation, global governance, and joint problem framing, a new profession of integration specialists and experts, as well as concepts for meetings and events, toolkits, co-creative processes and theories for change, and lessons from failures. Afternoon workshops spanned urban projects, a science shop for participatory research, outcomes spaces, Delta analysis and system innovation process. In addition, workshops explored infrastructure and cities, transformative learning formats, the technique of image theater, urban living labs, and criteria for selecting appropriate methods.

Plenary Sessions explored a variety of topics throughout over the three days of the meeting: including societal transformation, theoretical development, and methods. In addition, the concluding plenary focused on critical transdisciplinarity, science policy and public institutions, as well as closing perspectives from conference organizers. Taken together, the presentations underscored the cross-institutional nature of the meeting: including public officials and academic researchers from Australia, the UK, Sweden, Switzerland, Germany, and France. Speakers crossed generations as well, including veterans of prior td-net conferences and individuals new to the network.

As Parallel Sessions unfolded over the final two days of the conference they further demonstrated the scope of the meeting: spanning societal impacts of TD research, the research-to-practice gap, differing national contexts, learning competencies, innovation labs, power dynamics, and given sponsorship of MISTRA Urban Futures the recurring theme of research in urban settings. In addition, presentations covered assessment, innovation, government agencies, interaction and integration, stakeholder engagement and co-design, team science, health, and synthesis work.

Poster Sessions also expanded the scope of the meeting. The first session spanned health and climate, tools for collaboration and problem solving, funding horizons in Europe, and collaborative processes with a wider range of societal actors. The second sessions included South-North collaborations, engineering design, an academic honors program, climate and environment as well as a Knowledge Integration Questionnaire. In their aggregate, the variety of topics and problematics of the 2019 conference, coupled with international representations, mark a significant evolution for the international meetings.

The SHAPE-ID goal of bridging Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences (AHSS) with Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) was not an explicit theme of the conference. However, a number of sessions contributed pertinent perspectives. Among the most explicit:

  • A workshop on Image Theater as an embodied method for leveraging deeper integration in inter- and trans-disciplinary research.
  • Legit Failz: training academies in techniques of improvisational theater.
  • Culture-blindness and consequences for TD research in sustainable development.
  • Ways to build and support inter- and trans-disciplinary arts collaboration.
  • Storytelling as a transdisciplinary tool for disentangling local energy challenges.

Beyond these particular topics, presentations engaged related themes of creativity and design, social dynamics and theories of change, interculturality, reflexivity, and the role of discourse, voice, and dialogue. They all have implications for thinking about and implementing integration, collaboration, and transformation. They all constitute potential spaces for AHSS integration in transdisciplinary research. These highlights do not constitute a complete list of the Conference themes, but they do show how discussion of joining forces to strengthen and to improve TD can benefit from parallel reflections on the role of AHSS in interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research.

Julie Thompson Klein is Professor of Humanities Emerita in the English Department at Wayne State University (USA) and International Research Affiliate in the Transdisciplinarity Lab in the Department of Environmental Systems Science at ETH-Zurich (Switzerland). She has also been a Visiting Foreign Professor in Japan, a Fulbright Professor in Nepal, a Foundation Visitor at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, a Mellon Fellow and Visiting Professor of Digital Humanities at the University of Michigan, and a Distinguished Women’s Scholar in residence at the University of Victoria in Canada. Klein holds a Ph.D. in English from the University of Oregon, is past president of the Association for Interdisciplinary Studies, serves on the governing board of the International Network for the Science of Team Science, and is a founding member of the ITD Alliance for inter- and trans-disciplinary research and education. Julie is also a member of the SHAPE-ID Expert Panel and an active contributor to the project.

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