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Tools for co-creation in interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research – reflections on AHSS integration and an invitation to challenge boundaries

by Dr Sibylle Studer

 Tools and methods that support collaboration between disciplines, as well as experts from science and practice, are in high demand. At the Swiss Network for Transdisciplinary Research (td-net) we support researchers with tools and methods for co-producing knowledge in heterogenous groups. Within the SHAPE-ID project, we highlight the relevance of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences (AHSS) integration in inter- and transdisciplinary collaborations. Here, I take my involvement in the SHAPE-ID project as an occasion to reflect on the roles of the AHSS in co-producing knowledge in inter- and transdisciplinary research. In SHAPE-ID we talk about AHSS integration, but would there be any tool for co-producing knowledge without the AHSS in the first place? What does it mean to tap into the full potential of the AHSS in co-creation processes? What do we risk missing out on when we focus on adaptable tools?

Td-net web portal for co-producing knowledge

In an inter- and transdisciplinary setting, people with different bodies of knowledge, worldviews and working cultures aim to create meaningful results together. With the td-net web portal for co-producing knowledge, we address this challenge at the level of tools and methods. It compiles resources that support transdisciplinary research teams in selecting, adapting and developing methods and tools for collaboration between experts from science and practice. At the core of the web portal is the td-net toolbox that focuses on low-tech, open access tools and methods that support the bridging of thought styles.[1] It contains 19 tools and methods that have been tested by transdisciplinary (td) researchers (e.g. in the TdLab). The method descriptions are identically structured along 9 questions and they provide step-by-step guidance to apply the method. The tools and methods are described in such a way that they can be adapted to various fields of study. In the ‘shared experience’ section of the web portal, researchers report on how they adapted tools and methods to the concrete context and field of study, their lessons learned and ideas for further method development. For specific method recommendations, users can search by key issues and key phases of a td process; or consult the ‘resource compilations’ section where annotated references to other online open source resource compilations are provided.

Tool development: AHSS contributions to the STEM learning journey

Partnering with SHAPE-ID led me to think about how I would assess the td-net web portal through the ‘lens’ of SHAPE-ID. What role can the web portal for co-producing knowledge play for AHSS integration in inter- and transdisciplinary research? The short answer is, it provides tools and methods for bridging different perspectives – including disciplinary ones. It supports making different discipline-based assumptions explicit. It invites researchers and societal partners to discuss and deliberate on how to jointly frame the research problem, to identify the main research questions, to analyse the questions, and to develop impact pathways.[2]

One may also invert the question: What role can AHSS integration play in the efforts to compile tools and methods for co-producing knowledge? It is clear looking back at the history of the td-net toolbox that the toolbox is in fact an artefact of AHSS integration. The td-net toolbox project was initiated in the realm of – often STEM-led – sustainability research. There was a demand for tools and methods to tackle real-life problems in heterogeneous groups of experts from science and practice. Through a SHAPE-ID lens, you may perceive the td-net toolbox project as an attempt to acknowledge and integrate the ‘human factors’ – that cannot be fully captured by quantitative data – into (STEM) science.

For example, the Scenario integration technique combines (inductive) story-telling and visioning with (deductive) quantitative modelling techniques. In addition, tools inspired by philosophy encourage researchers to discuss their implicit assumptions; assumptions about values, objectivity and worldviews in science (Toolbox dialogue approach) and about societal effects and legitimation (Emancipatory boundary critique).

Social Sciences and Humanities therefore played a crucial role in the development of td tools and methods which can be considered knowledge integration at the level of methods. Thus, the toolbox has both the potential to foster collaboration between AHSS and STEM, as well as a history of Social Sciences and Humanities (SSH) integration. However, the integration of the Arts has only taken place to a limited extent.

Reaching out to Arts disciplines could further enrich td method development. For instance, it would be interesting to adapt Arts-Based Methods for Transformative Engagement[3] for td research settings. And we may learn from ongoing projects on the use of image theatre[4] and performative methods, mapping methods, and making methods[5] in td research. Thus, I see further potential to jointly craft shared spaces for co-creation that involves written signs, but also embodied, tacit, and multi-sensory knowledge, feelings and practice. But to what extent can such spaces be crafted by methods and tools that structure co-creation?

Structured co-creation vs. serendipity and emancipatory powers

From the point of view of td-net, tools and methods for co-producing knowledge help to address societal challenges in structured and traceable ways. We assume that structure fosters co-creation. In structured workshop formats, questions are explored in different constellations (individually, small groups, plenary). Tools and methods are used to set a stage, draw attention to a focal point, make involved parties explicate their implicit assumptions, knowledge, interest, visions or value statements. They furthermore encourage the parties involved to relate different perspectives to each other and integrate them.

While we assume that structuring tools and methods fosters co-creation, voices within the heterogenous group of AHSS experts challenge this assumption. For example, it is argued that serendipity is key to inter- and transdisciplinarity.[6] This raises the question to what extent tools and methods crowd out moments of serendipity, the ‘things we have not been searching for’ but that would be the most valuable ones for creative co-creation. The attempt to make processes traceable (and thereby scientifically credible?) may impede us from exploring other ways to find creative solutions.

Furthermore, our focus on ‘do it yourself’ tools to create relatively short moments of co-creation is challenged by holistic AHSS approaches, e.g. those that examine power and diversity. Deriving ‘do it yourself’ tools from these may be considered reductionist, instrumental, even distorting. Thus, our tools may manage to temporarily alleviate power imbalances and to acknowledge diversity, but how can we tap into the full – including creative, critical and emancipatory – potential of AHSS?

Challenging Boundaries

During my involvement with SHAPE-ID, I was invited to critically reflect on the limitations of methodical structure in the pursuit of co-creation. It reminded me to think of expressions of knowledge and experience other than words, and to find ways to capture, comprehend, and incorporate them. It also made me realise that talking about the co-production of knowledge may irritate collaborators who strive for the co-creation of a tangible artefact or a practice.

I wonder whether we can challenge some of our boundaries: What do we need besides tools and methods of co-creation, in order to fully appreciate different perspectives in td research? How can we combine the use of tools and methods with broader ‘work attitudes’ inspired by AHSS disciplines, e.g. to reduce the primacy given to voices with high verbal/ expression skills and the jargon of dominant discourses? How can we develop a respectful balance between borrowing and adapting tools from the AHSS for td purposes (‘do it yourself’), and arguing for the involvement of (disciplinary trained) AHSS experts in td projects (‘buy-in’)?

I look forward to further discussing how we best complement methods and tools for co-creation in order to jointly foster creative and meaningful pathways to impact. The SHAPE-ID Toolkit will be one source for this: It provides capacity building resources on the diversity and specific expertise of the AHSS that inter- and transdisciplinary projects shouldn’t miss, and resources on different roles the AHSS can play that go beyond tokenism. It also contains resources on building collaborative conditions beyond tools and methods, as well as on developing the skills necessary to perform in inter- and transdisciplinary settings.

To sum up, the AHSS have played a crucial role in method development for co-producing knowledge and will continue to do so. For example, I see potential to learn from the AHSS, especially the Arts, about co-creation that involves more than spoken and written words. Furthermore, representatives of encompassing – often emancipatory – AHSS approaches should feel invited to take part in co-creation processes and enter the dialogue so that the AHSS are not only used instrumentally, but considered substantially during the whole research process. STEM (and Social Sciences) researchers may be reminded that co-creation needs both structuring elements such as tools and methods and unstructured, creative, multi-sensory ways of interacting; and may be inspired by encompassing AH(SS) approaches that cannot be readily turned into tools. Finally, it is people, not tools, who initially formulate and negotiate the purpose of co-creation. That’s where AHSS integration should take place.


[1] Fleck, Ludwik (1994): Entstehung und Entwicklung einer wissenschaftlichen Tatsache: Einführung in die Lehre vom Denkstil und Denkkollektiv. Mit einer Einleitung herausgegebene von Lothar Schäfer und Thomas Schnelle. 3. Auflage. Frankfurt a.M. [erste Auflage 1935]: Suhrkamp.

[2] Pohl C., Wuelser G. (2019) Methods for Coproduction of Knowledge Among Diverse Disciplines and Stakeholders. In: Hall K., Vogel A., Croyle R. (eds) Strategies for Team Science Success. Springer: Cham.

[3] Pearson, K.R., Backman, M., Grenni, S., Moriggi, A., Pisters, S., Vrieze de, A. (2018): Arts-Based Methods for Transformative Engagement: A Toolkit. Wageningen: SUSPLACE.

[4] adapting methods from Paulo Freire´s critical pedagogy and Augusto Boal´s “Theatre of the Oppressed” to transdisciplinary research in order to integrate normative, affective and aesthetical elements:


[6] Darbellay, F.; Moody, Z.; Sedooka, A.; Steffen, G. (2014): Interdisciplinary Research Boosted by Serendipity, Creativity Research Journal, 26:1, 1-10, DOI: 10.1080/10400419.2014.873653


Sibylle Studer is part of the TdLab team at ETH Zurich and Head of Project Methods at the Network for Transdisciplinary Research (td-net) of the Swiss Academies of Arts and Sciences. She studied Social Anthropology, Management & Economics und International Relations, with field visits in Togo and Bolivia. After having completed her PhD in Nonprofit Management, she was involved in transdisciplinary research for the Competence Center for Research in Energy, Society and Transition (SCCER CREST) and worked in interdisciplinary teams at Interface Policy studies Research Consulting.

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