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Transdisciplinarity, co-production, and co-exploration: integrating knowledge across science, policy and practice in FRACTAL



Urbanization is taking place at an unprecedented rate across much of Africa, associated with complex demographic, economic, political, institutional, spatial, infrastructural and environmental transitions and transformations, including high levels of informality (i.e. activities, structures and occupation/use of land outside of legal, policy and planning frameworks). Despite considerable investment and local ingenuity, an array of problems remain widespread in many African cities, including water, energy and food insecurity amongst others. Within a globally and regionally changing climate, many of these problems are likely to worsen as cities grow. New ways of bringing science, policy and practice to bear on these evolving problems are therefore needed.

The FRACTAL project is advancing scientific knowledge of southern African regional climate responses to human drivers of climate change, and enhancing the integration of scientific climate knowledge into city-regional decision-making. It is doing so through mobilizing ideas and practices of transdisciplinarity, co-production and co-exploration.

This working paper presents these three concepts and approaches of transdisciplinarity, knowledge co-production, and co-exploration, highlighting their strengths and challenges, and discussing how they are being operationalised in FRACTAL to cross or blur boundaries between science, policy and practice.

*Download the full working paper from the right hand column. The key messages from the report are provided below. See the full text for much more detail.

START have created a podcast focussing on the implementation and lessons learnt from the FRACTAL project. Access the podcast here.

weADAPT hosts a variety of articles related to transdisciplinarity, co-production and co-exploration.


Transdisciplinarity entails the integration of other forms of knowledge from beyond the disciplines of academia in order to address the complexity of contemporary problems in society. It thus unsettles the conventional binary understanding of the relationship between science and society, which views the two as separate realms. The criteria for assessing transdisciplinary knowledge include the social acceptability and legitimacy of the solutions to problems, as well as the suitability of the evidence and methods used to arrive at robust findings.

Challenges include:

  • the difficulties experienced by academics in giving up control over the research process and the ownership of knowledge;
  • the large amount of time, energy and funding transdisciplinary projects require to build conceptual and operational bridges between diverse knowledge-holders;
  • the building up of trust and collaborative partnerships on an equal basis;
  • developing a shared language to transcend disciplinary concepts and conventions;
  • the uncertainty of the process which has to be individually and iteratively designed for every context;
  • and the uncertainty of the outcomes.

These challenges cannot be eradicated but canand should be addressed in the research design. As such, five core elements of a transdisciplinary approach suggested are:

  1. Living with tensions: Transdisciplinary research requires managing diversity and “tangled agendas” to navigate tensions.
  2. Formation of a diverse team: Teams need to be big enough to be diverse but small enough to build relationships.
  3. Negotiating the research approach: Develop methods of engaging all partners.
  4. Knowledge creation: Transdisciplinary projects need to ensure integration of all aspects of the research.
  5. Outputs: Negotiation is required at an early stage to ensure outputs satisfy all team members, as well as funders.

Some of the challenges of undertaking a transdisciplinary research project and ways of addressing them are discussed in the working paper in relation to the iShack project, where a diverse project worked collaboratively to improve living conditions in Enkanini, an informal settlement near Cape Town, South Africa.


Co-producing knowledge is about finding ways to foster collaboration between scientists, decision-makers and practitioners (in the public, private and civil society sectors). In essence, much like transdisicplinarity, knowledge co-production involves the combining of two or more different types of knowledge, skills and working practices by bringing together people who think and act in often very different ways in order to create new knowledge for addressing societal problems of shared concern and interest. Processes of co-producing knowledge require that no one actor or discipline claims superior knowledge of the question, issue or problem being addressed

Challenges associated are:

  • breaking down power imbalances;
  • integrating different types and scales of knowledge and worldviews across multiple boundaries;
  • dealing with multiple and contested normative agendas;
  • negotiating the products or deliverables of the knowledge co-production process.

Addressing these challenges requires that, in addition to people contributing their knowledge and expertise (whether practical, policy based or scientific), some organizations and individuals involved in the process of co-producing knowledge take on the roles of:

  1. convenor, bringing parties together for face-to-face engagements;
  2. facilitator, fostering trust, openness, deliberation and shared learning;
  3. translator and intermediary, making different ways of knowing visible, explicit and understandable to others and linking them around common themes;
  4. mediator, representing and evaluating different interests and resolving conflicts over goals.

The working paper provides one example from the UK’s Climate Information Programme (UKCIP) of attempting to co-produce climate knowledge.

The paper goes on to support the argument that transdsciplinarity and knowledge co-production (not to be confused with the co-production of public services, or the co-production of science and social order as put forward by Sheila Jasanoff and colleagues) are different labels for the same thing.


Co-exploration is a process by which scientists, policy-makers and practitioners work together to identify and articulate where there is a demand for climate information and provide a new kind of scientific service in support of climate resilient decision-making.

The focus and main aim of co-exploration is to build the relationships and understanding needed to package, provide and communicate existing scientific data, information and knowledge in a way that is more relevant, accessible and useful to decision-makers.

This approach to knowledge still maintains the binary of science and society, although the co-exploration allows for more demand-driven, or at least demand-informed, science.

The working paper provides an example of co-exploration being practiced in two regional workshops held in Dar es Salaam and Accra in 2013 and 2014 respectively.

Operationalising transdisciplinarity, co-production and coexploration in FRACTAL

In the FRACTAL project, space and time is created for traditional disciplinary research and scientific knowledge production to co-exist alongside, yet regularly interact with, transdisciplinary efforts at co-producing new knowledge that is both scientifically and socially robust.

So how, in practical terms, is FRACTAL operationalising the concepts reviewed above in an attempt to produce knowledge that meets societal goals? Much time and effort has been invested in developing the following appropriate organisational structures and processes.

Team structure for transdisciplinarity, co-production: diverse yet intimate

Within the core FRACTAL team, smaller operational units have evolved to undertake tasks, and manage research and engagements.

  • Clusters of collaborationhave been set up to cut across various boundaries, between disciplines, organizations, sectors, and work packages to focus on particular research themes in a transdisciplinary way.
  • City task teamsbeen set up on a voluntary basis to facilitate engagements between the FRACTAL team and the city partners (the local university and city council).

Processes for transdisciplinary knowledge co-production

These processes support the coproduction of relevant climate knowledge that satisfies the needs of the whole project team, particularly the city partners.

  • City learning processes for facilitated, transdisciplinary engagement: Learning labs and city dialogues are spaces of learning in FRACTAL that periodically convene, within the cities, a broad range of knowledge-holders and interested parties.
  • Each embedded researcher, a shared position formally created in partnership between the univeristy and local goverment in each city, has a mandate to ensure ongoing and effective communication, data and information flows between researchers, policymakers, officials and practitioners.
  • Learning and reflexivity to refine processes: it is recognised that lessons are learned at three interlinked scales – the city scale, the project scale, and the broader Community of Practice scale – each of which can be used to inform and improve project activities.

This working paper was written by

  • Anna Taylor: Climate Adaptation Researcher Stockholm Environment Institute, Oxford Group/African Centre for Cities, University of Cape Town, South Africa
  • Dianne Scott: Senior Researcher: Climways and Fractal Research Programmes African Centre for Cities, University of Cape Town, South Africa
  • Anna Steynor Head of Climate Services/Science Engagement Lead Climate Systems Analysis Group
  • Alice McClure Programme/academic coordinator: FRACTAL Climate Systems Analysis Group

Suggested citation

Taylor, A., Scott, D., Steynor, A., and McClure, A. (2017) Transdisciplinarity, co-production, and co-exploration: integrating knowledge across science policy and practice in FRACTAL. FRACTAL Working Paper 3. University of Cape Town, Cape Town, South Africa.

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