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Transdisciplinary Bridges

The ISC’s discussion paper Looking at the Future of Transdisciplinary Research by Matthias Kaiser and Peter Gluckman is a necessary provocation to a research establishment that, in the aggregate, is not sufficiently meeting the challenges of the Anthropocene and the needs of a post-carbon transition.

In his response to the discussion paper, Paul Shrivastava  noted that the term ‘transdisciplinary’, by centering on the disciplinary, “may inadvertently be devaluing action, agency and impacts”. Generally speaking, the prevailing organisational structures of many research institutions limit their capability to embrace the realities of societal challenge-driven knowledge production. Non-academic communities must have an equal part (at least) to play in the framing and execution of research agendas, though this is not yet possible at the scale required for national, regional and international impact.

The structures of research institutions generally reflect the disciplinary logics of national academies, international scholarly associations and scientific organisations promoting knowledge advancement through elite programmatic structures bound by common epistemological assumptions and traditions (e.g. traditional faculties and colleges). These structures not only separate scientists and humanities scholars from teachers and learners through power asymmetries that are both symbolic and functional — they also separate scientists from scholars, teachers from learners, experts from practitioners, and to no small extent universities from the very communities that support them.

Institutionalisation of these asymmetries assume linear processes of knowledge production and top-down solutions-brokering in which the academic community are the providers (and gate-keepers) of knowledge and societal stakeholders are the users. This model of scientific production is incommensurate with the dynamic realities of complex socio-ecological systems that require increased feedback capacities, greater reflexivity, and more efficient knowledge exchange in the co-production process. Shorter intervals for assessment of risks, vulnerabilities and both mitigation and adaptation options are precisely what is needed in the present moment of climate disruption, catastrophic biodiversity loss and mass extinctions. These conditions require a dramatic mainstreaming of transdisciplinary knowledge co-production.

The distributed agencies and capacities for learning and action throughout our societies as we move into the mid 21st century call for models of knowledge production that move beyond those of the late 20th century, especially as the nations of the world continue, year after year, to fall short of their own targets and obligations in intergovernmental treaties and resolutions such as the Paris Agreement and Agenda 2030. Paul Shrivastava notes the many different terms have shown up in place of ‘transdisciplinary science’ in his own research on the topic. Whatever we call it, transdisciplinarity will be central to any model by which the global community may hope to alter this trend and live up to the vision of “peace and prosperity for people and the planet, now and into the future” envisaged in the Sustainable Development Goals.

From 2015 to 2017 the international project “Broadening the Application of the Sustainability Science Approach” brought together several UNESCO sectors with international scientific councils such as ISC and the International Council for Philosophy and Human Sciences (CIPSH), national ministries of science and education, sustainability science institutes, sustainability research networks and expert groups from around the world. Funded by the Japanese Ministry of Science and Technology, this project sought to examine good practice in the field over the previous 15 years and recommend how the interface between academia and sustainability practitioners—at the levels of policy, governance and action—could be enhanced to strengthen the sustainability agendas of UNESCO member states. One important outcome of the project was the acknowledgment of the role the humanities, the arts, and qualitative social sciences, as well as Indigenous and local knowledge communities, could play as vital knowledge communities in meaningful articulation with scientific domains, policy organs, governance structures and management systems involved in mainstream sustainability science.

Another key outcome of the project was the initiation of an international multi-stakeholder process to co-design and establish the first humanities-led sustainability science coalition in the UN family of organizations. Inaugurated as the BRIDGES Coalition, this initiative brought international actors with significant capabilities for reach and impact together with regional and local site-based stakeholders representing diverse communities and environments at risk. Led by UNESCO, the CIPSH and the Humanities for the Environment global network, this multistakeholder consultation and design process spanned four international workshops in 2019-2021, bringing together more than forty organizations, institutions and programs from around the world.  In this process the ISC played a key role.

What emerged was a consensus vision for a new coalition, global in scope and diverse in its array of participating organizations, connecting high-impact international actors in sustainability science, education, civil society, and policy, with smaller regional and territorial stakeholders tied to environments and communities on the front lines of global social and environmental change.

This new humanities-led sustainability science coalition, now part of UNESCO’s Management of Social Transformations (MOST) programme, is intended to complement and work together with existing programs at various levels internationally to promote the bridging of top-down and bottom-up initiatives, serving as a focal point for humanities-anchored knowledge and learning in assessment, policy and action contexts in the sustainability domain. The coalition aims to contribute as a potential force-multiplier in the generation and application of knowledge for transformative social change through its active promotion of genuinely transdisciplinary collaborations that bridge diverse disciplines, knowledge communities, stakeholders and sectors. 

BRIDGES welcomes the ISC’s visioning of the Future of Transdisciplinary Research and stands ready as a strategic partner to contribute to the council’s efforts to build on the valuable discussion initiated by Peter Gluckman and Matthias Kaiser.

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