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“Transdisciplinarity” For A Sustainable Future

“Transdisciplinarity” for a sustainable future

Article originally published by ICLEI Europe

It is clear that we need to build a more sustainable world. Groups of people from all different areas are working towards this goal. However, so often we work in silos, trying to leverage our specific expertise only.

The problem is that climate change is complex. The challenges we face and transformation we need impact a huge variety of actors, topics and fields in an interrelated way. These are not separated by expertise or field, so our approach to overcoming climate-related challenges can’t be siloed either.

One way to overcome this problem and work more holistically is referred to as “transdisciplinarity.” Addressing a problem transdisciplinarily means incorporating a wide variety of voices, and working collaboratively across areas of experience and expertise to create methods, approaches, knowledge and solutions together.

An area of climate action that is undoubtedly complex is the transition from using mostly fossil fuels for energy, to using renewable and clean energy sources. This energy transition will impact communities, our behaviours, the way we consume, jobs, infrastructure, culture and more.

We see examples in our cities today of social innovations – such as new ways of living, or of generating and using energy in cooperative models – that work towards energy transition. Different groups of people spanning citizens, engineers, business owners, economic experts, social scientists and more will understand these innovations differently. Some may focus on profitability, others may see the ways they shift our relationships, or look at how innovations impact daily life. Simply put, to best learn how social innovations like these can help foster the large-scale energy transition we need will require multiple ways of thinking.

A new Horizon 2020 project called SONNET (Social Innovation in Energy Transitions) is addressing this head-on. The project – that had its first in-person meeting in October in Karlsruhe (Germany) – is looking at social innovation in the energy transition by engaging social science researchers, technical researchers, economists, city government officials, civil society groups, citizens and more actors to learn together and co-create solutions.

The project includes City Labs in Antwerp (Belgium), Basel (Switzerland), Bristol (United Kingdom), Grenoble (France), Mannheim (Germany) and Warsaw (Poland). The local governments are project partners, steering knowledge and results collaboratively alongside researchers from various countries and fields. This will support transdisciplinarity and make sure that perspectives from different cultural and research backgrounds – including academic and on-the-ground expertise – are equally important.

The project breaks down another silo as well. We are sometimes led to think that social and technological transformations can’t work together. When we talk about addressing climate change, we are often tempted to join “camps” that either invest in technological solutions, or think that we need social innovation to really change. SONNET rejects that these types of innovations have to be in opposition. The project looks at how technological and social innovations can meet to jointly contribute to the energy transition.

Talking between siloes is not easy. It can be difficult to understand different perspectives, and even to follow expert conversations if they veer into using acronyms, jargon, or refer to specific policies or information. SONNET partners include “knowledge-brokers” who can help build bridges to support true transdisciplinarity in the name of energy transition.

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