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Transformative research in times of disruption

The COVID-19 pandemic and measures taken to control its spread are affecting all of the research projects funded through the Transformations to Sustainability programme, but researchers are finding new ways to continue their transdisciplinary projects, and the crisis is sparking new thinking about transformative processes and sustainability in times of disruption.

There’s no doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic has proved challenging for all ongoing research projects, especially those which depend on close interpersonal interactions with different stakeholders, and fieldwork in remote locations. For researchers funded through the Transformations to Sustainability research programme, the pandemic has disrupted many planned activities.

“The world has changed dramatically since the Transformations to Sustainability projects started in late 2018… These developments may on one hand curtail the possibilities for radical societal transformation, but on the other, can also be a pre-condition for something transformed and transformative to emerge. All these factors make transformative research and action difficult, both politically and practically, raising thorny issues concerning the ethics of co-production, and the imbalanced power, gender and social relations at play in multi-stakeholder research processes, especially with respect to our research partners.”.

Lyla Mehta, Project Leader, TAPESTRY project, writing on the Transformations to Sustainability blog.

However, in the September 2020 edition of the Transformations Quarterly newsletter, we heard how research team members are thinking out of the box to adapt their activities to physical distancing measures, and finding new ways to use digital tools enhance learning processes.

The TruePATH project (Transforming Unsustainable Pathways in Agricultural Frontiers) which explores the global-local institutional dynamics behind socially and environmentally unsustainable development pathways in the Nicaragua, has been returning to fieldwork – albeit slowly and differently. We heard how the research team has expanded its network of citizen science weather observers, installing additional weather stations in the municipalities of Rio Blanco and Mulukuku (Nicaragua). The research team maintains contact with the weather observers – at a distance – through a Whatsapp group, which is used to exchange weather data and to disseminate weather reports.

The AGENTS (Amazonian Governance to Enable Transformations to Sustainability) project adapted its planned multi-stakeholder dialogue in Peru to a series of bi-weekly online workshops which aim at collective learning and establishment and strengthening of governance networks in the Amazon basin area.

In a similar way, the Waterproofing Data project shifted its midterm meeting to an entirely online event at short notice, allowing colleagues from the UK and Brazil to share their latest thinking on sustainable flood risk management for urban resilience.

And the T2SGS – Transformations to Groundwater Sustainability project was inspired by the virtual interactions to rethink their project website as a place for online interaction, conversation, exchange and remote connections between team members, ultimately seeking to make the variety of narratives of groundwater governance of team members more visible than they were before the pandemic.

Although research projects are experiencing challenges and delays related to the pandemic, it has focused attention on how transformation can arise from disruption, and whether the pandemic could create opportunities for transformative change that is socially and environmentally just. This will be a fundamental concern for the projects as they continue work in the coming years.

“Historical studies of epidemics have shown how they can lead to protest and also new visions about political and societal organization. The post-COVID recovery period should thus build on these reflections, trends and lessons and hopefully bring about the systemic shifts badly needed to address locally appropriate and socially just transformations to sustainability”.

Lyla Mehta, Project Leader, TAPESTRY project, writing on the Transformations to Sustainability blog.

The Transformations to Sustainability programme supports research on the complex social transformations needed to address problems of global environmental change, as well as on interrelated societal problems such as poverty, corruption, migration, social discontent and conflict.

Find out more about Transformations to Sustainability on the programme website.

Photo: Frederic Huybrechs (TruePATH project)

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