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Making transdisciplinarity real: transformations supporting transdisciplinary research

By now the transdisciplinarity (TD) movement, initiated through recognition of the complex ecological and societal problems we currently battle with, is adopted by many institutions. However, to solve the ‘wicked’ problems we face, we must recognise the value of TD to transform, beyond mere rhetoric, innovative institutional transformation as a transgressive game changer. Christian Pohl calls this the ever expanding ‘community of transdisciplinarians’, when he listed the amount of diverse platforms that already exist, both within and outside of academia.

Open dialogue and partnership with society is an important part of TD research, especially since the broader community is partnering in research projects as Citizen Scientists. While the main academic system of structured ‘discipline silos’ remains firmly in place, universities will therefore have to take bold institutionally-transformative steps when adopting TD. This is not an easy task and requires a three-pronged approach: foresight, funding, and buy-in.

The University of Pretoria in South Africa took the initiative to implement the necessary approach. By making TD a cornerstone of its overall strategy, it created specific pathways to accelerate and amplify research impact. Four research platforms were created to support dedicated TD collaborative research across scientific fields, disciplines and with society: Future Africa, Engineering 4.0, the UP-Javett Art Centre and Innovation Africa@UP.

Future Africa was instituted as a designated campus that facilitates and foster TD research engagement, as well as adopting Open Science principles as it convenes and connects diverse collaborators across the worlds of science, policy, business, civil society and the media. Research Chairs in ‘Advancing One Health: People, Health and Places’, ‘Securing Sustainable Food Systems in Africa’ and specific projects based on the development of a ‘Futures literacy’ enable researchers to work in a neutral and safe space. Since the Future Africa platform is not tied to assessment in the usual academic sense, there exists no competition with other faculties.

For TD researchers who often work in isolation, with limited funding and knowledge of only the somewhat narrow corridors of traditional faculties, the experience of joining a TD-research oriented platform such as Future Africa is like a breath of fresh air – a home-coming one might call it. The campus acts as a research hub to connect networks across the African continent with global actors, where researchers can join international platforms. In this way, Future Africa enables a new ‘community of transdisciplinarians’. But, more so, researchers encounter, within a facilitating environment, an opportunity to work in a space that is managed with care and consideration, and in line with the Transdisciplinarity Article 13 of the 1994 Charter of Transdisciplinarity that requires ‘… a shared understanding based on an absolute respect for the collective and individual diversities united by our common life on one and the same Earth’.

The institutional architecture as designed for the Future Africa platform, should be considered as a positive transformation brought about by TD, for TD research. Not only does the Future Africa initiative provide the platform for an innovative research ecosystem where numerous pioneering synergies join forces, it also creates a physical environment that creates ecological awareness. The campus boasts vegetable patches and indigenous gardens that embed Future Africa researchers in a eco-friendly environment. The collaborative mentoring, facilitative networks and cross-disciplinary mentorship inspire its younger generation of researchers to become more adventurous in their fields of interest. The cows on the same university’s Experimental Farm which is adjacent to Future Africa, for example, listen to Mozart to reduce their stress and their milk production improved! Informally, being on the Future Africa campus allows researchers to make connections, often over a cup of coffee, sometimes in nature, or within the numerous workshops and similar events by the various departments hosted on this ecologically friendly campus.

The challenge remains: how do we measure the success and the impact of our TD efforts?  The jury remains out on this challenge. However, while efforts to measure and evaluate TD research projects are ongoing, it might be appropriate to include, as impact measure, the structural and innovative institutional transformation within universities that is brought about by adopting a TD approach.

Dr Hester du Plessis, Senior Research Fellow at Future Africa and Associate Researcher at the Faculty of Humanities: School of Arts, University of Pretoria.

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