As is widely recognised, economic welfare production as put forth by the industrial age is unsustainable. However, even an economic welfare production that does try to minimise the consumption of natural resources still does not fully meet the requirements of a comprehensive sustainable development. From this perspective, a one-sided societal emphasis on (green) economic growth may be superseded by an extended concept of well-being. Science may take part in catalysing this challenging transformation.
Employing a transformative approach as scientists, we research and support the transformation of both the understanding and the level of well-being. Leaving behind concepts of welfare which focus on economic growth at the expense of sustainability, we aim to cooperatively refocus on integrating economic, social and ecological perspectives into a more holistic, sustainable approach to individual and municipal well-being in Wuppertal (Germany). Therefore, the research team investigates and develops concepts of local sustainable well-being production, maps relevant civil society initiatives, develops an indicator system on a participatory basis for measuring sustainable well-being in Wuppertal and provides scientific back-up for so-called Real-World Laboratories (RWLs).
What are the conditions and constraints of transforming well-being in Wuppertal and most particularly of the role of scientists in this endeavour? The ambitious approach on transforming well-being in Wuppertal (Germany) presents us with various challenges and opportunities: Concerning our purpose of well-being transformation, the city of Wuppertal is an interesting case, for it is still undergoing wide structural change and struggling with scarce municipal resources, thus allowing considerable room for civic involvement. Moreover, connecting citywide indicator development with specialised RWLs in city districts to jointly provide a new well-being orientation, is untested in sustainability science so far. For our article’s research on conditions and constraints of local well-being transformation and particularly of the role of scientists therein, we can draw on findings of literature on transdisciplinary processes and local sustainability transitions. Nevertheless, our research approach deviates, at least in part, from typical settings in these areas. This is mainly due to the explicitly transformative approach, which still lacks dedicated empirical research in transformative science regarding its implications for research practice.
Employing different approaches in transforming well-being in Wuppertal, we also reflect different conditions and constraints regarding these approaches (see Section 2
and Paragraph 6 of Section 3.2
In literature on transdisciplinary processes, the agreement, reflection and adaption of roles are seen as crucial, as well as co-leadership, a common language, regular and open dialogue, openness, a protected discourse arena, transparent distribution of financial resources and institutional support. Particularly in the co-design phase, most of the mentioned conditions (except common language) were not being met sufficiently in Oberbarmen & Wichlinghausen and Arrenberg RWLs but the project has got on track later on.
When lacking staff and resources, trade-offs regarding staff expertise and the realisation of ‘ideal’ roles in the course of the project may occur. In our case, this also influenced the satisfaction of the participating actors. Recruiters then must choose among different necessary specialisations. Including practice partners in the recruitment process and the negotiation of recruitment criteria is a reasonable part of co-leadership in such contexts. However, this condition cannot fully compensate for the structural constraint. This is especially evident in the Oberbarmen & Wichlinghausen RWL, where staff lacked specialised knowledge of tenancy and tax law, which then was obtained through external resources.
In addition, there may also arise a trade-off between narrowly sticking to one’s defined role and the functioning of the sub-project. In Oberbarmen & Wichlinghausen, for instance, the practice partner simply did not have enough resources to bring forward the practical part of the sub-project on his own, so the junior scientist had to step in to sustain the sub-project at all. This pushes the researcher in process facilitating and action-oriented roles. Under these circumstances, it proofed to be even more important to facilitate the formation of a steering group in order to share the burden of practical work.
Role conflicts have occurred almost only in sub-projects with high science-practice interaction and no participation of the operating junior researchers during the first co-design phase. The latter affected the consistency of role expectations over time and satisfaction with one’s own and others’ roles negatively. When the operating scientist and practice partner already worked successfully together in the first co-design phase (phase of application for funding), the subsequent co-design and co-production were effectively pre-tested, usually reducing conflict potential and facilitating common discussion of the research question and roles from the very beginning.
Consistent with literature, we found that openness towards suggestions from all partners is important and can lead to significant improvements, as was the case in Wuppertal regarding the establishment of the informal exchange platform (Stammtisch) and the group that develops the online mapping tool, both proposed by practitioners. Regular and open dialogue and discourse arenas may also be, at least partially, institutionalised in workshops and steering groups as is the case especially in the Oberbarmen & Wichlinghausen RWL. Finding suitable organisational forms proofed to be a condition for smooth transdisciplinary and transformative processes. Ideational support by the project’s research institutions was provided from the very beginning.
In transformative research, the dominant scientific institutions are questioned. However, dominant scientific institutions in turn question the explicit normative demands of transformative research, which they partly regard as critical and too excessive for science.
As an example of a dominant scientific institution, the regular research funding structure
in many cases favours science jobs and neglects practice jobs, which often relegates the practitioners’ workload to leisure time and voluntary commitment, for example in two of our RWLs and the developing of the interactive mapping platform (at least at the beginning). Furthermore, a three-year funding period does not provide enough time for observing sustainable long-term transformational impact. This is why WBGU calls for 50 urban RWLs for 50 years ([32
] p. 454).
Of course, apart from the time frame, these constraints might be special features of the Wuppertal case. In transdisciplinary case studies by ETH Zurich and ISOE, the main practice partners are not volunteers but larger stakeholders that usually launched the respective studies and benefitted directly from the solutions found [17
]. Furthermore, in ETH td-studies on sustainable urban transformations, a multiple of the number of scientists and practitioners are involved [98
]. These settings allow for solid funding, specialisation in roles and expertise and the use of extensive methods and procedures, all of which are constrained in the different, publicly funded case of Wuppertal.
Schneidewind et al. ([20
] p. 8) ascribe science the tasks of initialisation
of societal transformation processes, inter alia. In resource-constrained environments, we learned that catalysing is easier and more consistent than initiating: One benefits especially from employing already existing processes, structures and ideas, like Forum:Mirke
or Essbarer Arrenberg
, in contrast to the Haushüten
project, which started from scratch. This jumping on the bandwagon
also eases the delimitation of roles and still provides sufficient opportunities for interventions, given that the actors, structures and processes are flexible and open-minded. This is because pure initialisation is unsustainable when there is no practice partner with sufficient resources to take over the transformation process. In this case, the researcher is prone to fill the gap and may become a mostly action-oriented change agent, neglecting her scientific tasks.
For transformative science is committed to catalyse sustainable development, the normativity
of its research framework is inevitable. If this is combined with a transdisciplinary approach or participatory methods, it might create challenges and trade-offs between substantial aspirations (sustainability transformation) on the one hand and true, substantial inclusion of practitioners and the wider public on the other. This is reflected in heterogeneous conceptions of well-being in participatory indicator development and transdisciplinary cooperation in the Haushüten
RWL. Different from pure transdisciplinary research, transformative researchers are often biased in the selection of stakeholders and the inclusion of their interests, as the (normative) research goal usually is provided and not negotiated. In this regard, they lean to a certain degree towards action research, e.g., transition management, without necessarily buying into its constructivist premises ([25
] pp. 14–15). This is true at least for our WTW project. The closer the practitioners’ (and scientists’) attitudes overlap with the project objectives, the easier the research cooperation seems to be. Having said that, making possible paths of sustainable well-being known to other actors is in itself transformative. And, of course, differing views facilitate mutual learning. So, this normativity is both a condition of well-being transformation and a constraint for co-design and smooth project implementation. Thus, transformative research must be challenging in order to be transformative.
In approaches of local sustainability transition, cities are generally highlighted as being crucial for sustainability transition. Also, cooperation with local non-science actors, most particularly change agents, is stressed, as well as the consideration of the respective city’s Eigenart. In urban transition labs, the motivation of volunteers, uncertainty and scarce resources are identified as challenges.
These challenges are likewise found in our RWLs. Shortage of resources might be a common lament in research projects but it is especially critical in transformative and transdisciplinary research, given the multiple demands of the projects at the levels of practice, scientific PhD research and science-practice interaction. All levels are quite resource-consuming regarding money (staff, workshops, events, public relations), time and both hard and soft skills. Most of the practice partners have consequently already indicated that their participation in future research collaborations will depend on the availability of external funding so they can afford the additional time, despite their high level of motivation.
A certain affinity of change agents for scientific research as well as transformation towards sustainability is very helpful. To meet the challenge of inducing and sustaining the motivation of volunteer citizens, the Essbarer Arrenberg group is particularly successful in their approach. It combines low thresholds to participation, tangible and early results, modern communications, themes related both to abstract sustainable development and to concrete everyday life, a narrative of success and innovation and a popular leading actor to motivate, inspire and provide the necessary infrastructure. Forum:Mirke focuses on integration, creativity, strategic thinking and impact on the city administration and is sometimes slowed down by taking along as many people as possible. The simple fact of participating or living in a group or district that is being researched by the University and the Wuppertal Institute, sometimes provided pride and motivation. The development of the Wuppertal well-being indicator system requires less participation, which is largely self-motivating.
City districts proof to be good spatial boundaries of RWLs so far, for they are a source of identity and, regarding their size, suitable targets for tangible well-being transformation. Nevertheless, their socioeconomic structures and historical paths may not only facilitate but also constrain this kind of transformation. The Wuppertal districts examined here are quite heterogeneous in their assemblage of inhabitants, with high rates of unemployment and large groups of citizens with migratory backgrounds. This is a challenge for integration and failing herein may endanger the project of well-being transformation by becoming solely an elite or niche transformation project. Many Wuppertal districts have undergone deep structural changes, which on the one hand may necessitate new visions of district identity and development, as well as well-being. This may result in a pressure to act, which may in turn lead to new narratives of progress and success that will strengthen local identity and motivate inhabitants to participate, as in the Arrenberg project. On the other hand, it may also leave longstanding inhabitants feeling left behind, without the motivation or energy for transformation towards sustainable well-being.
RWLs draw on the approaches and the respective conditions and challenges discussed above. For action-oriented approaches, different researchers’ roles and possible trade-offs between direct relevance for practical outcomes and scientific rigour are mentioned. As expected, we have seen the different expectations on researcher’s roles as particularly challenging. In interaction with RWL settings, this leads to different role foci, like change agent and process facilitator on the one hand (especially in Oberbarmen & Wichlinghausen) and knowledge broker and (self-)reflexive scientist on the other (especially in Mirke and Arrenberg). However, there are strong variations over time and significant intersections across the RWLs. We also experience the trade-off between catalysing practical outcomes and aspiring scientific rigour, as both is very time consuming and requires different skills. If resources are scarce, this trade-off is difficult to mitigate. This finding also relates to the mentioned criticism of transformative science regarding its ‘excessive demand’. In the Wuppertal case, we partially alleviated this situation by including additional actors with own resources, as has happened in the Oberbarmen & Wichlinghausen RWL.
For well-being transformation
, contextuality and participation are stressed and both the level and the understanding of well-being should be addressed (see Section 2.5
). As this article focuses on framework conditions which are by definition causally distant to the outcome, we have not made any assertions regarding guaranteed success criteria with measureable effects on well-being transformation in Wuppertal. However, reflecting on conditions and constraints based on experiences of others found in literature, we were able to report on strengths and weaknesses, mitigating tactics and certain mechanisms that are at work and which plausibly influence Wuppertal’s well-being transformation.
Wuppertal is an ambiguous field for local well-being transformation: supportive in its rich landscape of civic engagement and its cooperative city officials and strategies, but driven by the city’s constrained leeway for urban development. The city’s huge social and economic heterogeneity creates chances for niches but constrains a city-wide transformation that will take along all inhabitants.
The research project on transforming well-being in Wuppertal enjoys institutional support and excels through a highly-motivated team of academics and practitioners eager to learn from each other. To facilitate exchange, we established new organisational forms. The project also addresses key drivers and structures of sustainable urban transformation, e.g., governance, collaboration and learning and precincts [41
]. It also takes up the WBGU [32
] demands. By indicator development, mapping activities and RWLs, both contextuality and participation are addressed, as well as the level and the understanding of Wuppertal’s well-being (see Section 3.2
and Appendix A
, Appendix B
, Appendix C
, Appendix D
and Appendix E
). At the same time, we struggle with adverse timeframes that hamper co-design as well as the promotion and evaluation of long-term real-world impacts. However, as this research project on transforming well-being in Wuppertal is only TransZent’s first one, this project is supposed to be the ‘stirrup holder’ for parallel and future similar projects. Hence, learnings and activities started by the project are to be perpetuated, taken up and recalibrated to further catalyse Wuppertal’s well-being transformation in the middle and long run.
All in all, parts of our analysis reflect the findings, requirements and recommendations found in the literature on transdisciplinarity, transformative research, sustainable urban transitions, RWLs, action research and well-being transformation. The case study results nonetheless set their own accents and feed back into academic and practical discourses. For example, having few operative staff and low resources makes supervision and mutual support even more important—as does ‘band-waggoning’ when selecting the transformative projects in the first place. This also calls for the increased emergence of alternative funding schemes that will meet the needs of both science and practice, enabling trustful relations from the very beginning of co-design. Moreover, the role of city districts as suitable boundary objects has been emphasised ([41
] p. 6) and facilitating factors like narratives of departure and commitment and the timely production of tangible results—at least on the practical side—were identified. The positive effect of ‘being researched’ on single participant’s attitudes adds a small but interesting further insight to the discourse on transdisciplinary and transformative research approaches. And the discovery of challenges regarding the project’s normativity should cause serious reflection in transformative science.