Experimenting with sustainability transformations: A study of Urban Living Labs in the food, water and energy nexus

Abstract: Scholars and practitioners increasingly emphasize the importance of transdisciplinary and experimental approaches for understanding and addressing sustainability challenges. While there is widespread agreement that human society must undergo deep and radical changes, or so-called transformation, how transformation happens depends on multiple and dynamic factors in local contexts. In this thesis, I explore how to advance experimental transdisciplinary sustainability approaches to facilitate the collaborative development of solutions to sustainability problems and contribute to transformation. I use a transdisciplinary and real-world experimentation research approach called Urban Living Labs (ULL) that focuses on specific sustainability challenges in the food-water-energy nexus. I explore the intersection of these to understand how interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research can contribute to the co-production of action and solution- oriented knowledge. Moreover, I use a combination of interdisciplinary, participatory, and reflexive methods to investigate the processes of transdisciplinary sustainability research and the roles of researchers in these processes.In five papers, I address issues related to research design and planning, navigating the day-to-day conduct of transdisciplinary collaborations, knowledge transfer and sharing, and individual transformative capacity. In the first paper, I examine urban FWE nexus research to understand if and how solutions and their implementation are approached at a ‘local’ level, with implications for research design. The second paper considers FWE nexus research broadly to develop a heuristic for local-centered action- and solution-oriented research with key roles for inter- and transdisciplinary research and collaborations. The third paper focuses on navigating long-term transdisciplinary collaborations by applying the ULL approach in the context of local work with craft breweries. The fourth paper reconsiders transdisciplinary case-study evaluation and tackles the issues of knowledge transfer and sharing between cases. The fifth paper explores the development of transformative capacity in researchers who engage in transdisciplinary experimentation. Overall, this thesis advances transdisciplinary experimentation research toward developing and inhabiting spaces that both generate and employ transformative potential to address complex sustainability problems.Based on the outcomes of the papers, I discuss and challenge the position of the transdisciplinary academic by prioritizing not just what they know but who they are and how they act and interact. I argue that transdisciplinary sustainability research is an embodied practice, where it is more than just a methodological approach but akin to an identity with associated values and practices. The relevance of this work reaches into spaces of collaboration and negotiation for small or broad sustainability change, where sustainability requires us not only to do differently but also to be different.