Transformational sustainability science develops evidence-supported solutions to sustainability challenges and trains students in this capacity [1
sustainability science has been developed in distinction from descriptive-analytical
modes of sustainability science that primarily aim at enhancing the understanding
of complex human-environment systems [2
]. While this might be useful, it is insufficient for providing actionable
knowledge to guide societal transformations towards sustainability. Another dimension of transformational sustainability science is the extent of change necessary, which ought to be significant
, not only marginal or incremental, reaching deep into the underlying structures of our society [3
]. While we fully subscribe to transformational sustainability science as an aspirational goal, we consider in this article primarily the feature of generating actionable knowledge and are lenient regarding the extent of change (see the project example provided below in Box 1
Research and teaching in transformational sustainability science involves professionals and stakeholders in different functions in order to integrate practical/local knowledge and create buy-in for the implementation of solution options [4
]. While this is widely considered “best practice”, it often presents a challenge to scholars at universities, as they lack capacity and time needed for negotiating different agendas, languages, competencies, and cultures among faculty, students, and stakeholders [6
A variety of management approaches have been developed to provide support in dealing with this challenge, including concepts of the boundary organization [8
], post-normal science and transdisciplinary research [11
], transition management [14
], and interface management [16
]. In addition, quality criteria for participatory sustainability research provide guidance for managing interfaces between researchers and practitioners [5
However, only fragmented ideas exist regarding the specifics of the facilitation of research with stakeholder participation while creating educational opportunities along the lifecycle of a project. There is little detail available on the role of the facilitator in this process, who serves as a transacademic interface manager (TIM). We have coined this term [6
] in reference to the early concept of “transacademic” research in which scholars and stakeholders collaboratively conduct research, co-producing evidence [19
]. The terms “transacademic” or “participatory” research are used interchangeable in this article, and do in fact represent a wider cluster of converging paradigms, including collaborative, phronetic, post-normal, issue-driven interdisciplinary, Mode-2, and transdisciplinary research [4
]. Despite differences in the specific approaches, common features are that they all include non-academic stakeholders into the research (knowledge generation) process, strive for generating knowledge that is of relevance to society (context of application), encourage diversity in knowledge claims and normative stances, and therefore engage participants in processes of reflection, deliberation, and negotiation. The term “scholars” refers to researchers in faculty positions at universities who lead research teams and supervise student researchers. “Stakeholders” are defined as groups or individuals from government, business, non-profit organizations, and the public, who are affected by, cause, or have another relevant stake in the problem that is being addressed or the solution options that are being developed in the participatory research process.
As stated earlier, in this article, we go beyond the basic format of transacademic or participatory sustainability research and highlight transacademic research that actively involves students and therefore provides a unique educational setting [6
]. We focus on the role of TIMs in such transacademic sustainability research and education projects, with special attention to the requirements that stem from the educational settings.
The goal of the study is to fully conceptualize the position of the TIM, with particular emphasis on TIM’s role in educational settings. The article addresses the following guiding questions:
What does TIM do in transformational sustainability research and education?
What capacities does a TIM possess (in order to fulfill these tasks)?
What is an appropriate pedagogy that allows students to acquire TIM capacities?
The remainder of the article is structured as follows: Section 2
reviews existing concepts about TIM across different streams of literature. Section 3
presents the tasks and activities TIM carries out over the life-cycle of a participatory sustainability research and education project, focusing on the specific educational requirements. Section 4
presents the capacities TIM needs to posses in order to successfully complete these tasks and activities. Section 5
outlines an educational program to train students in becoming TIMs.
The article offers a practice-oriented concept of the TIM as a key player in participatory sustainability research and education. As different communities of scholars and professionals have made significant progress in transacademic interface management over the past 15 years, there are quite rich experiences available that can inform the professional practice of the TIM. The compilation of TIM’s tasks, capacities, and training opportunities presented in this article is based on a variety of sources: literature reviews (Section 2
); research on the role of TIMs in sustainability research projects with educational opportunities at six universities [7
]; and the authors’ experiences from working in such projects at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich, the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, and Arizona State University over the last 10 years, e.g., [2
]. This synthesis article is intended to support universities in organizing participatory sustainability research and education more effectively and to offer students an additional career perspective.
3. What Does a TIM Do?
The previous literature review suggests convergence on TIM being an essential part in participatory sustainability research projects. To achieve the ambitious goal of facilitating a collaborative process that yields solutions to sustainability problems, TIM adopts various roles of a facilitator, mediator, translator, and process innovator. However, the literature offers little with respect to educational opportunities in sustainability research projects, or the education of TIMs—despite the increasing number of sustainability projects that integrate research and teaching [5
]. Also, there is little practice-oriented guidance articulating when
TIM is doing what
along the lifecycle of a project. Thus, this section conceptualizes the activities of TIM along the lifecycle of participatory sustainability research projects with educational opportunities. We illustrate the concept with a project that integrated participatory sustainability research and teaching on neighborhood sustainability in Phoenix, Arizona (Box 1
, and examples throughout this section).
Participatory sustainability research projects with educational opportunities allow faculty, students, and stakeholders to collaborate on solutions to real-world sustainability challenges. They provide a professional learning environment for students and offer opportunities for capacity building among all parties involved. Such projects are typically structured into five phases: (1) preparing the project; (2) orienting and framing the research (research proposal); (3) doing the research; and (4) evaluating the implementation of the solution (Figure 1
). If these projects are carried out as a course for students, they often only entail the two core phases (Phases 2 and 3), preceded by pre-course preparations and followed by post-course extension activities [4
]. Participatory sustainability research projects with educational opportunities
differ from participatory sustainability research projects in a few aspects. First, they have to strike a balance of producing meaningful learning and research outcomes, as well as outcomes relevant to stakeholders. Second, TIM’s role expands towards coaching students in conducting participatory research. Lastly, they are usually funded through internal university and local supplementary funds, as opposed to conventional external funding of research.
Box 1. Project profile of integrated participatory sustainability research and teaching on neighborhood sustainability in Phoenix, Arizona .
Trees and Shade for the Sky Harbor Neighborhood in Phoenix, Arizona
The School of Sustainability at Arizona State University has been working with the Sky Harbor Neighborhood since 2009. However, most of the early projects benefitted students more than the neighborhood. Hence, the neighborhood association was reluctant to engage in a new collaboration in late 2011. Two faculty and a TIM from the School of Sustainability spent time to learn about the past experiences, unfulfilled promises, and future expectations from community members. Together, they developed an agreement for collaboration on a project to address the lack of trees and shade in the neighborhood. The Sky Harbor Neighborhood has historically been neglected by planning and economic development, leaving the neighborhood with little walking infrastructure and public amenities. The project objectives were to develop an evidence-supported strategy for increasing tree coverage and shade in the neighborhood, and to support the neighborhood in the implementation process. The outcomes of the project included an intervention manual, which was peer-reviewed by the neighborhood association, city planners, and other experts; creating buy-in across all relevant constituencies for the implementation phase; funding for planting trees; an academic publication [40
]; and enhanced capacity for intervention and implementation research among the participating students. The project was carried out during the Spring 2012 term. The project team included four graduate students and one undergraduate student.
Project meetings occur in each phase of the project and build a critical element in TIM’s activities portfolio. Because of their recurring character, we briefly describe the key meeting features here in advance, before detailing TIM’s activities in each phase. Project meetings build important milestones of the projects as they bring the core team together (faculty, students, partnering stakeholders), open/close each phase, and critically review work in progress. These meetings are pivotal decision-points of the entire project and require TIM’s full attention to gathering information (e.g., create agenda and pool inputs from all parties), facilitation (e.g., use visuals to support translation and integration of critical issues, ask clarifying questions, offer choices), and follow-up (e.g., draft memo, check-in with participants to monitor action items, plan next steps).
Overview of TIM’s activities along the lifecycle of participatory sustainability research projects.
Overview of TIM’s activities along the lifecycle of participatory sustainability research projects.
Another important issue concerns the phase when students enter the project. In principle, they can be part of the project from the beginning (Phase 1). However, because of semester schedules and other logistical challenges, students might only participate as of Phase 2. Similarly, there might be logistical and other reasons for completely setting the stage for the project (Phases 1–3) without student involvement. In these cases, students might only participate as of Phase 4. We describe the phases below with student involvement.
3.1. Phase 1: Preparation—Eliciting Inputs and Creating a Frame of Reference
Phase 1 is the preparation phase, which explores interests and feasibility of project ideas [5
]. As a first step, TIM elicits
research needs and project ideas from stakeholders, faculty, or students through informal and formal communication. The goal is to create a pool of potential sustainability research needs and project ideas. TIM informally initiates or enters several conversations and sounds out what sustainability issues are being discussed. This includes monitoring local developments through reading newspapers, attending public meetings, maintaining a network of informal contacts, and staying tuned with faculty’s research and course offerings. Additionally, stakeholders might approach TIM directly with research requests. Formal approaches streamline the acquisition of projects through a request-for-proposals issued by the university to which stakeholders respond in sync with the university’s course planning process.
As a next step, TIM matches stakeholder’s interests with course offerings and research streams at the university to identify the best fits. Thereby, TIM needs to carefully explore how a project could be carried out to the mutual benefit of stakeholders (addressing their interests), scholars (contributing to ongoing research), and students (enabling rich learning experiences). It is a challenging task to create such win-win-win constellations. Mismatches can lead to lower educational attainment, damaged relationships, and personal frustration. Thoughtfully mapping out expectations and interests as well as carefully deliberating convergence and divergence are early success factors for the project.
Transacademic educational research projects come in all shapes and forms, including small in-class projects complementing a course, internships, thesis projects, or entire 1–2 semester long research studio courses [6
]. This article focuses on semester-long research studio courses. TIM drafts project vignettes outlining in general terms the research rationale (research idea, relevance), potential participants, logistics (timelines, budget), and pedagogies. Suitable pedagogical approaches draw on project- and problem-based learning [39
], which faculty and stakeholders are often less familiar with.
Lastly, TIM pitches
these ideas to stakeholders, faculty, and students to recruit them to a first meeting with the goal of securing commitment to the project. Such a pitch points out the value add for all parties to be involved, but also clarifies the rationale of such a studio course (capacity building, not consultancy work; transformational purpose, not service learning). If the potential partnering stakeholders agree to collaborate, TIM uses the meeting and bilateral conversations to specify expectations and project objectives, unearthing underlying concerns or requirements for successful collaboration, and sharing an outline for the project logistics (timeline, budget, equipment). TIM facilitates the forming of a leadership team between faculty (course instructors), students, and partnering stakeholders, and clarification of their roles and responsibilities as well as mechanisms for shared accountability. In planning the project and timing of contributions, TIM encourages the leadership team to develop realistic
expectations, acknowledging, that team members have other responsibilities than to the project [43
]. In the process of fine-tuning the project, TIM supports the leadership team to anticipate the different project phases as well as how and when the project partners envision using and implementing the results. Anticipating how the course should evolve and to what ends, helps TIM to understand what support the leadership team needs along the whole process. An intact working relationship between TIM and the course instructor is essential for success. TIM supports the instructor in negotiating and collaborating with stakeholders, as well as in developing appropriate course designs to build professional competence in students. In exchange, instructors need to be open to this support by delegating part of their responsibilities and power to TIM.
provides an overview of the support needs for partnering stakeholders, faculty, and students most commonly encountered in participatory sustainability projects.
TIM helps to provide this support, or facilitates the support delivery by recruiting internal or external experts. For instance, TIM works with partnering stakeholders to define suitable ways of communication and help them prepare for visits to class. It is key that TIM starts early to explain to everybody involved how researchers, students, and professionals respectively operate, and invite project participants to share their work environment and culture. Building this mutual understanding is key to a successful collaboration.
At the end of Phase 1, the leadership team has developed an agreed-upon project outline that defines an initial frame of reference for the next stage, and includes the timeline, organizational chart, budget, and terms of reference (e.g., in form of a letter of agreement, contract, or MOU). This outline is not the research proposal, which will be the result of activities in Phase 2.
Support activities provided by TIM during the preparation phase.
Support activities provided by TIM during the preparation phase.
|Support for partnering stakeholders||Support for faculty||Support for students|
|Facilitate understanding of course design and assist in critical review of syllabus;|
Making sure important events and deadlines are on their agendas;Brief about visits to class: what to expect, how to prep;
Defining suitable ways of communication
|Contributing ideas and assistance for pedagogy;|
Accounting for needs and perspective of partnering stakeholders;
Facilitating review of syllabus through partnering stakeholders;
Coordinating logistics, meetings, communication
|Prepare activities and material for training sessions on teamwork and stakeholder engagement;|
Prepare forms (e.g., liability waivers for fieldtrips, application for ethics approval of research);
Set up virtual collaborative spaces and tools
3.2. Phase 2: Orienting and Framing the Research (Research Proposal)
Phase 2 is the orienting and framing phase, which is about jointly setting the research objective and creating a research design [5
]. The studio course usually starts with Phase 2.
With the start of the course, TIM visits the course to be introduced to the students (if they have not been involved in Phase 1). The goal is that students recognize TIM as their contact person who supports them in managing interfaces, which includes the interactions with the course instructor(s), with partnering and other stakeholders, and within the student teams. TIM introduces the organizational chart of the course and the broader social network of the project to give students a first sense of who is involved, in what roles, and with what interests. TIM facilitates a discussion about the various perspectives and power-relations, and how students plan to manage expectations. This meeting kicks-off a series of activities for students related to teamwork and participatory research.
TIM initializes working relationships with those students who are assigned the role of “Stakeholder Contact”. The idea is that students step into the line-up of relations with stakeholders, while TIM guides from the sides. Although this is a critical learning objective for all or most of the students, it is a challenging undertaking which requires practicing caution, in particular if the project addresses sensitive or controversial sustainability issues (e.g., radioactive waste disposal; superfund site cleanup; illegal immigration). Therefore, adequate training is critical. Initial training activities include a meeting between TIM and students to review a stakeholder participation matrix, where students explain why and how they plan to involve stakeholders in the project and how they organize the first contact (e.g., join a neighborhood association meeting, volunteer at community event relevant for stakeholder, set up special meeting time). Students engage in role-plays to explore common challenges that these encounters could pose: e.g., a stakeholder has shifted or lost interest, or forgot the meeting. Depending on the situation, TIM introduces stakeholders and students virtually or accompanies students to meetings.
Based on the project outline, TIM supports faculty, students, and partnering stakeholders in specifying the problem to be addressed (framing it as a sustainability problem), the solution space, and different research designs. For this, TIM organizes and facilitates one or more structured, workshop-style discussions to identify converging/diverging perspectives and create agreement. Additional tools are Walking Audits or Joint Fact Finding Tours that provide experiential or in-depth knowledge about the problem to be addressed or possible solution spaces. TIM supports faculty, students, and partnering stakeholders in preparing those events and joins the events, too. TIM also helps the leadership team to develop agreement on a functional and robust research design that can deliver on the aspired project outcomes (solution to sustainable problem). Details on appropriate research designs can be found in [1
]. Brundiers and Wiek [6
] highlight key challenges of this process, for instance, the collaborative identification of problems as sustainability
problems. These are challenge areas for TIM to look out for and provide special assistance (e.g., using visuals and hands-on-activities to map out the problem/solution space, engage in bilateral conversation and propose options how to reconcile the issue).
As the research proposal emerges, TIM anticipates what the practical implications could be for stakeholders, faculty, and students. TIM engages the leadership team in carefully assessing these (and identifying potential other) implications and developing precautionary measures. For example: How do students travel to the community and what are the budget requirements? How and when do students enter the community and how can they get access to gate-keepers? If the research design foresees, for example, door-to-door interviews, will this put students at risk, require a translator due to language barriers, or cause stress on communities (e.g., undocumented community members)?
To prepare the actual research in Phase 3, TIM checks in with faculty and students to identify specifically what support they might need from TIM when starting their research. If students plan workshops as part of their data collection and interpretation activities, then TIM works with them to define the dates for these workshops, to check availability of locations, to get the word out in the community (save the date), and to recruit event participants.
To close the orienting and framing phase, TIM facilitates a review meeting between students, instructors and partnering stakeholders to generate agreement on the research proposal, detailing the sustainability problem to be addressed, project goals, and research design.
3.3. Phase 3: Doing the Research
In Phase 3 the project team implements the research proposal. Students collect and analyze data, interpret it and synthesize the findings in collaboration with stakeholders and faculty. However, adjustments might be necessary due to insights gained over the course of the project. The goal of this phase is to generate “actionable knowledge”, that is, knowledge than can mitigate or solve the problem addressed (which triggered the project in the first place).
TIM monitors the process and is available if needed. Monitoring activities include checking in informally with each party to sound out what support is needed. Towards the end of the course, students are increasingly stressed. Having less energy, they often feel frustrated as much remains to be done in little time, facing other common challenges such as tensions in the team, unexpected changes to stakeholder engagements, and feedback on preliminary outputs requiring additional revisions. Keeping students situation in mind, TIM intervenes if necessary to help renegotiate expectations among students, instructors and partnering stakeholders.
Throughout Phase 3, TIM works closely with the “stakeholder contact” students to identify needs (e.g., group has difficulty recruiting stakeholder for participatory events; or group struggles with eliciting meaningful feedback from stakeholders) and issues (e.g., group is discouraged by feedback from stakeholder). TIM tries to resolve those issues timely, by working with the student team, with the stakeholders, or mediating a joint meeting.
TIM also supports the project team in preparing stakeholder engagements (e.g., workshops, satellite events) in a timely manner. TIM knows that these events take always more time than students have budgeted, which negatively affects their motivation. Leading up to the actual event, students draft a stakeholder engagement guide, which serves the role of a guidebook. TIM reviews this document adopting the perspective of the event participants, which can include a wider range of residents (e.g., families, elderly, single mothers, immigrants), city staff (city planner, police officers), representatives of business councils, advocacy groups, and so forth. With these perspectives in mind, TIM focuses on the recruitment for the event, the length of the engagement, and the flow of activities. TIM considers questions including: Are all relevant stakeholders invited? Are the most effective recruitment strategies employed? Are the activities appropriate for the capacities of participants? Are activities well explained and engaging (e.g., use of visuals)? Does the event require translators, babysitters, and/or photographers? Critical is to make an honest assessment of time needs, and try to keep activities dense in order to respect participants’ time. Usually, instructors and partnering stakeholders review the guide related to research and project needs respectively. Once the Stakeholder Engagement Guide is revised, TIM attends students’ dry-run: the mock-stakeholder event, which helps students learn their roles, test the material in action, and engage in role-plays with stakeholders. In addition to being rehearsals, these dry-runs help students to anticipate and mentally prepare for the eventualities of the event.
TIM supports the project team well in advance to prepare for the final project presentation where the project team shares the results of the project and insights into its process in appropriate and engaging ways. TIM supports the project team to make sure that all relevant stakeholders attend the final presentation. The final presentation fulfills multiple purposes. It can help students in receiving realistic feedback from stakeholders such as city officials; or it can expose scholars to new pedagogical approaches; it can also foster the implementation process if funders and additional stakeholders are made aware of the solution options developed.
3.4. Phase 4: Transitioning to Implementation and Post-Course Extension
While the course comes to an end, TIM explores with the leadership team potential post-course extension activities, e.g., conducting evaluation research on implementation [45
]. To this end, TIM works with the partnering stakeholders to learn how they plan on utilizing results or moving forward with the project and how students might be able to participate in those options. For example, students conduct thesis research on specific aspects (e.g., evaluating use of an intervention manual) or another studio course tests the applicability of the results in other contexts (e.g., applying the intervention manual to other neighborhoods of the city); or one of the partnering stakeholders takes on a student as intern to assist with the practical aspects of bringing the project to fruition.
TIM works with the course instructor to wrap up the course in three areas pertaining to transacademic research. First, TIM supports students to conduct extended peer-review
of final products (e.g., research report, outreach material). Second, TIM brings in a graphic designer/editor to target the product to stakeholder audiences. Professional presentation of the results provides the instructors and students with a critical aid that often convinces scholars, administrators, future collaborators, and students of the value of this educational experience. This activity needs to be planned and budgeted from the outset, as experience shows that students do neither have the time nor the capacity for this task [7
]. Third, TIM facilitates a collaborative evaluation
of the transacademic and collaborative components of the course and students’ professional performance to equally include the stakeholders’ point of view. As part of this evaluation, TIM elicits stakeholders’ additional research needs and how they could be dealt with through post-course extension activities.
Finally, TIM ensures that the course is documented and the documentation is made available for others to learn from (institutional memory). TIM keeps a record of the course material and all contacts. TIM also records testimonies from all parties to establish a full documentation for the project [43
The proposed TIM training is an initial attempt and needs to be built out further. As our experience is based on initial experiments and reflections, various aspects warrant further attention: How to operationalize TIM’s capacities in measurable learning objectives? How to formalize suitable learning activities into small stand-alone modules, and ensure they build progressively upon each other? And, how to ensure that TIM’s role creates a space for democratic inquiry? Additionally, the institutional structures need to support the educational design. TIMs do not just get trained in one or two courses, and then perform as a professional TIM. Ideally, the university has an approach for continuous and advanced training of TIMs, from undergraduate student to graduate, and even further to staff, with the understanding that fulfilling the role of the TIM can be a career-long pursuit [4
]. Three concrete actions could help this institutional development.
Collect evidence on the role of TIM for transacademic sustainability research projects
. There exists mostly anecdotal evidence on the benefits a TIM provides, or on the project shortcomings in the absence of a TIM. For instance, the Australian Council of Learned Academies concluded a large interdisciplinary project aimed at addressing sustainability challenges by asserting that an “emerging group of trans-disciplinary project managers” were essential in making those projects flourish [28
]. Research indirectly speaks to the benefits that TIM provides by identifying shortcomings if projects forgo a TIM. For example, stakeholders often withdraw from projects because they perceive their knowledge is not adequately represented or considered; which, in return, leads to missed opportunities for social learning [25
]. Other examples pertain to project failures that arise from power and decision structures that often remain unaddressed or lack proper negotiation [36
]. Often, project-initiator-turned-project-leaders are not impartial to either community and lack the capacity to manage transacademic research [5
]. Also, students and faculty often withdraw from transacademic collaboration if they perceive their additional efforts of coordination and translation is too demanding and distracting from their main obligations [6
]. Lastly, it is important to critically reflect not only on the benefits, but also on potential drawbacks of TIM’s involvement in participatory sustainability research projects with educational opportunities. Potential drawbacks can result from TIM failing to be impartial, or burning bridges to critical stakeholders, or overstepping his/her competence in course instruction.
Formalizing procedures and creating mechanisms that facilitate project development. TIM’s work at the university-community interface is challenged by academic calendars and course scheduling procedures that dictate pace and timing of creating and running educational research projects. To ensure a successful training program, it is important to institute an annual schedule for the lifecycle of a project that aligns with the university’s course scheduling procedures. This ensures an ongoing and smooth influx of projects. To support learning from projects, it is useful to create a list with TIMs, researchers, and stakeholders, who are willing to come to class to share their experience, or have students shadowing them. All these efforts come at some cost. Budgets of such projects include TIM’s work (this might even require a full position or an entire team, depending on the number of projects managed), temporary student workers to professionalize the products, expenses for students’ travel, refreshments at stakeholder engagement events, small stipends for participating faculty, and so forth. One options is to feed a fund through a range of sources, e.g., partnering stakeholders’ contributions, small student fees, and a direct contribution from the university. Another option is for universities to fund such project expenses entirely through the regular budget. Evidently, institutionalizing the role of TIM is always shaped by the specific context of the respective university (e.g., history, commitment, funding, teaching philosophy).
Acknowledging the spectrum of interface management needs on-campus and beyond.
This article focuses on the collaboration across the university-community interface, zooming into TIM’s role in educational transacademic sustainability research projects. Hereby, TIM can provide this role as employee of different academic units: at colleges offering such collaborative educational experiences; at universities that sustain a living learning laboratory
to advance the university’s sustainability by integrating education, facilities and operations, and research; and finally at boundary organizations linking university research with policy-makers. However, the university-community interface is just one among many. William’s [10
] asserts the wealth of interfaces that arise beyond the university as people across the society strive to tackle sustainability challenges.
“Strategic alliances, joint working arrangements, networks, partnerships and many other forms of collaboration across sectoral and organizational boundaries currently proliferate across the policy landscape. However, the discourse is positioned at an institutional and organizational level, and comparatively little attention is accorded to the pivotal role of individual actors in the management of inter-organizational relationships”
Therefore, developing a training program for TIM and promoting interface management as a professional career requires accounting for the richness of interfaces beyond the university-community interface.