Saving the world together: The value of transdisciplinarity in tackling sustainability challenges
79 students, 15 organisations, and 16 projects: within the master’s programme Governance of Sustainability, diverse groups of students worked together with organisations to tackle sustainability challenges. In this blog, Annemiek de Looze reflects on how the power of their transdisciplinary approaches to problem-solving was the key to a successful, interesting, fun semester.
January 2022. It’s quiet on campus – most students are still on their winter break, most staff is working from home. The lecture halls are empty, the study rooms deserted. Scattered around the building, a couple of groups of 4-5 students sit together, laptops close to each other, reusable cups filled with coffee and tea. The students don’t look as well-rested as you would hope, so close after Christmas, but the sounds from their tables are a lively mix of excitedness and relief.
It's January 2022 and we, students of the MSc Governance of Sustainability, are finishing up our Sustainability Challenges. In this course, students work together in a transdisciplinary team on solving a real-world sustainability problem commissioned by an external party. We combine and apply the knowledge we have acquired during our study programme: both on environmental science and on public administration, but most of all on the link between the two. Projects range from urban climate adaptation to sustainable finance and from sustainable streetlights to coastal management. At the core, all projects require transdisciplinary, innovative approaches to complex problems. A demanding semester, but we wouldn’t do justice to our nickname ‘future change agents’ if we wouldn’t be up for such a challenge!
We have one communal goal: saving the planet in one way or another
Saving the planet together
The projects are as varied as the students tackling the challenges. The master’s programme Governance of Sustainability is characterised by its diversity: students come from a variety of backgrounds in public administration, biology, international studies, chemistry, business, history, anthropology, mathematics, and water management, to name just a few. The types of research methods they’re familiar with vary as well: we have some hardcore statisticians, a couple of enthusiastic ethnographers, a few survey sorcerers, and some instinctive interviewers. Some are afraid of numbers; others get scared when they need to do a literature review; many know (or fear) a bit of both.
The best thing about our programme – and this is not a sales pitch (or maybe it is a little bit) – is that we are not just eager to learn from, but also eager to teach each other. We have one communal goal: saving the planet in one way or another, and we realise that in order to achieve that goal, we need everyone’s input and skills. And so we jointly embarked upon our Sustainability Challenges in September 2021.
One such project, commissioned by PBL (Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency), was about citizen participation in formulating the Regional Energy Strategies (RES) in Dutch municipalities. The students researched if, how, and why municipalities decide to engage citizens in their RES. They interviewed nine municipalities and compared the identified strategies with lessons that have been drawn from citizen engagement in Ireland. Rinske Euverman, one of the group members, very much enjoyed the project: “The most interesting finding was that municipalities should strengthen the role of intermediaries, such as existing community groups and network partners, to include a greater proportion of citizens and make the participation process better and more diverse.”
Shana Hepping’s project was about sustainable agriculture in the Rijnland Waterboard area. “The dairy farmers in Rijnland experience growing environmental threats to their livelihoods and pressure from the government and society to change. The waterboard asked us to find out how they can support farmers in making a transition towards sustainable practices.” Governing such transitions is a recurring theme within our Governance of Sustainability curriculum.
The complexity in transitioning to more sustainable systems – whether economic, energy, or agricultural – comes from the different actors involved and their differing values, expectations, and abilities to adjust. “I find that often institutional design and systemic lock-ins lead to inability to change, while policymakers often feel like it is caused by unwillingness of actors on the ground,” Shana argues. “All farmers we talked to love their jobs and are willing to change to more sustainable practices, but they are forced by the system – the market, the laws, the regulations – to stay in the same position.”
A third project was on district heating, commissioned by BNG Bank. Students investigated the potential for district heating in the Netherlands. They interviewed stakeholders, conducted desk research, and attended conferences. Through all of the information gathered there, combined with their personal backgrounds and knowledge sets, the students spent six months discussing the complexity of the heating transition. The verdict of the students after half a year of research? “On paper the transition could work. The tools are there, the potential is there. However, there are thousands of other issues that make the transition go rather slow.” A transdisciplinary approach, such as the one during the Sustainability Challenge, could help tackle these issues and help create structure in the complexity of the transition.
Working with 'real people'
Many students appreciated the connection between their research and classes and the ‘real world’ during their project. Doing an actual project commissioned by a real organisation gave our work an extra dimension and motivated us to dedicate ourselves to really delivering something useful. Shana found that “the sustainability challenge surpassed being only a university exercise and helped us experience and work with real issues”. It was also interesting to see how these organisations work and to learn from our commissioners.
The commissioners, in turn, learned from the students as well. Timo van Tilburg from the Rijnland Waterboard appreciated the six-month process and the discussions he had with the students: “During the process, I as a commissioner had to focus on what our research question really was about as well.” Looking at the project from different perspectives helped both the students and the commissioners in finding the crux of the problem and in formulating potential solutions.
“We all had different strengths and challenges, but in the end we made it work"
Marleen de Haan, former International Relations and International Organisations student and thus used to discussing complex problems, says the diversity of backgrounds within the BNG Bank group was the largest challenge but at the same time also the biggest asset of her group. They had a mixed group of students with business, innovation, social science, and humanities backgrounds. “I learned a lot because of our variegated backgrounds. Group members clearly approached research in different ways, and also different than I personally had learned to do during my bachelor programme. This was super refreshing and honestly made doing research a lot more fun.”
Their commissioner from BNG Bank, Caspar Boendermaker, also recognised the power of working with such transdisciplinary teams. “The enthusiasm of the students involved, as well as their complementary skills and a few very intensive days brought a very good and comprehensive analysis. The questions during our discussions resulted in a better understanding of the heating transition for all of us.”
Rinske likewise experienced the value of these transdisciplinary dynamics. Her group consisted of Dutch, English, Irish, and Italian students and was characterised by a wide variety in academic and working backgrounds and skills. “We all had different strengths and challenges, but in the end we made it work and I feel that everyone was satisfied with their contribution to the project.”
Interaction between teaching, research, and practice
The Sustainability Challenge wasn’t only valuable from a student and commissioner point-of-view, but also from an educational point-of-view. Eefje Cuppen, Liveable Planet researcher, coordinator of the Sustainability Challenge course, and supervisor of two of the groups, had a lot of fun teaching this course. “It is great to see how students grow throughout the course; they often start enthusiastically with a project, then find out that the question of their commissioner is not so clear or easy to answer as they thought; they then have to reformulate the question or adapt their plan, which is a very valuable learning experience. Over time, students really start to ‘own’ the project, and become experts on the topic, while also being very creative in their ideas and their communication about the project.”
This creativity in students’ approaches stems from their transdisciplinary groups, but also from the interaction between teaching, research, and practice. “The course is also a vehicle for us to develop new transdisciplinary collaborations and create new contacts and collaborations with public organisations and companies,” says Eefje. “It is a really nice example of the kind of hub activities the Liveable Planet programme wants to establish.”
The Sustainability Challenges certainly brought us a step closer.
We finished the Sustainability Challenges at the beginning of this year. We submitted our reports, performed our presentations, and had goodbye meetings and celebratory drinks with our supervisors, commissioners, and team members. But it doesn’t end here. We take with us good memories, solid friendships, and some (useful) connections in the work field we intend to enter in half a year. And that’s not all: we have also acquired thematic knowledge, practised working together in a diverse team, and learned to see the value in our own and in others’ perspectives.
As diverse as Governance of Sustainability students’ backgrounds are, so diverse will be the jobs we’ll end up in. But one thing is certain: we will work on sustainability, and it will most likely be a challenge. We’re excited to drop the ‘future’ and adopt the nickname ‘change agents’ when we graduate coming summer. The Sustainability Challenges certainly brought us a step closer.