Designing transdisciplinary research for impact
For decades, we’ve known that research leading to sustainable development and impact needs to be transdisciplinary and collaborative, but doing it is quite another story.
At UQ’s Centre for Communication and Social Change (CfCSC), Associate Professor Elske van de Fliert, the Centre’s Director, is experimenting with strategies to engage academic, industry and community stakeholders from different disciplines and professional backgrounds in research designed to improve the livelihoods of disadvantaged rural communities.
“Sustainable change requires a transdisciplinary approach, as many aspects of life interrelate, especially for people who live in the margins and can rarely afford the risks implied with one-sided change,” she says.
“As such, planning research that is expected to effectively contribute to positive change under challenging conditions needs to involve the local people who assess what works and what doesn’t from their own set of criteria.
“Only then can outsiders’ knowledge be effectively merged with insiders’ knowledge to develop systems that have the best of both.”
CfCSC-led projects applying this approach have been implemented in Vietnam, Timor Leste, Indonesia and Mongolia, involving expertise in agriculture, economics, social science and communication from UQ and a wide range of partner institutions.
Applying frameworks and processes developed and facilitated by the CfCSC has enabled teams of researchers, development professionals and community groups to create positive environmental, social and economic change for farmer and herder families, while in the process enhancing the capacities of researchers, service providers, local governments and even donor agencies to address complex issues.
One of these projects was initially focused on erosion management in the highlands of north-west Vietnam, but a community-based situation analysis taught the team that all aspects of land management, crop production and marketing needed to be tackled to achieve any change in farmers’ erosion management practices.
The researchers, together with designated farmer researchers, developed a model for integrated systems management and trained 83 farmers through Farmer Field & Business School, who went on to improve their yields, reduce their labour costs and consequently increase their income.
At the conclusion of the project in 2013, the local government continued the program for another two years, eventually involving 135 extension officers and 6500 farmers.
Significantly, according to Dr van de Fliert, more than 2200 of those farmers were able to continue the implementation of more sustainable agricultural practices in their own fields with practices that suited the local ways of managing the land.
“Although there was nothing new about the erosion management technologies, it was the fine-tuning to local ways of doing things and the combination of the introduction of new practices with critical skills development, through which farmers learned to work out what was best for them, that made the difference,” Dr van de Fliert says.
“During the research design and implementation process, we always try to put ourselves in the farmers’ shoes and listen to their opinions.”
Meanwhile the CfCSC coordinated an integrated farm management (maize-livestock) project in West Timor, Indonesia, that helped some 320 farmers increase their maize yield, allowing enough surplus to intensify their livestock enterprise, and consequently improve farm profitability and reduce poverty.
The project involved the development of a simulation game that facilitated farmers to imagine what the changes offered in their farming system would imply before they could effectively start testing new methods out and adapting them to their socio-economic conditions.
Many lessons learned from the West Timor project were taken to a new project in Timor Leste (the first phase of which ran 2012–2015, and the second phase is ongoing), considering that many of the conditions are similar. The overall aim of the Timor Leste projects is to improve the livelihoods of small-scale farmers through more productive livestock systems with a focus on household-based business development.
The CfCSC is working with project leader Dr Geoffrey Fordyce from UQ’s Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Food Innovation, research fellows Dr Simon Quigley and Dr Scott Waldron from UQ’s School of Agriculture and Food Sciences, Dr Dahlanuddin and colleagues from Mataram University (Indonesia), Dr Nurul Hilmiati from BPTP NTB (Indonesia and UQ alumna), and local staff from the Timor Leste Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, the National University of Timor Lorosa'e and district technical and extension officers.
Image: Field researchers in Timor Leste define their roles as facilitators of community-based research for development using LEGO® Serious Play®.
Dr van de Fliert says while phase one of the Timor Leste project assessed the livestock sector from household to national level and tested some of the potential innovations on station and on farm, phase two of the project is focused on the design of models that facilitate capacity building of both farm families and local government service providers.
“Phase one taught us that the problems aren’t the lack of science, but adapting science to the specific conditions of the existing livestock system and socio-economic conditions of rural households,” she says.
In phase two, research is being conducted collaboratively through networks of farmers, traders, researchers and agricultural extension and technical officers. While researchers offer options, the community-based networks determine the research questions they want answered, with facilitation support from the project’s team of researchers and trainers.
“Long-term capacity building is crucial to sustain the efforts. The challenge is to keep people involved and support them to use that capacity,” Dr van der Fliert says.
“The other challenge is to feed into policy changes for rural development so the structures and processes established in this project will continue and be institutionalised in Timorese government programs and community initiatives.
Dr van de Fliert says all agricultural extension and technical officers, as well as the project’s field researchers, are exposed to facilitator training designed to familiarise themselves with local customs and behaviours and make them better communicators.
“Improved communication leads to more meaningful relations with farmers as the researchers and service providers learn why farmers do what they do," she explains.
"This supports the quality and applicability of the services and facilitation provided and, in turn, the enhancement of farmers’ knowledge and skills.”
CfCSC expertise in all of the abovementioned is to design and facilitate an initial participatory situation analysis and stakeholder consultation, which feeds into the setting of the more technical agendas, and to design and pilot engagement and development models.
“All these projects involve local people in all phases of the program, from planning to implementation and evaluation, and through a range of mechanisms we carefully design and facilitate,” Dr van de Fliert says.
“We listen to the voices of the people and partners at all levels, and want to install ownership of research process and outcomes among them. Only then can we achieve truly transdisciplinary research that supports sustainable development and impact.”
The story so far
2007 : The Centre for Communication and Social Change (CfCSC) is established at the UQ School of Communication and Arts. The CfCSC is staffed by an international group of researchers and practitioners who have global experience in development and communication matters, including with the UN, NGOs and government institutions.
2007: The CfCSC becomes involved in a project in Indonesia funded by the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research to develop a participatory research for development framework. A series of follow-up projects pilot the framework in several eastern provinces of Indonesia until 2015.
2009 : The CfCSC begins working with the UQ School of Agriculture and Food Sciences, a range of Vietnamese research institutes and smallholder farmers in the north-west highlands of Vietnam to improve the productivity and sustainability of maize and temperate fruit-based farming systems.
2012 : Work commences in Timor Leste to improve the livelihoods of small-scale farmers through more productive livestock systems with a focus on household-based business development, funded by the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR).
2014–16: The rural communication component of a rangeland management project in Mongolia, managed by the CfCSC, reaches over 21,000 herder families directly and 43,000 indirectly. The project supports these families through collective learning and exchange services, resulting in better practices for collective rangeland management, animal feed production and preservation, business management, and income diversification through processing of raw materials, which in turn leads to improved livelihoods.
2016 : The CfCSC's work in Timor Leste continues, with Phase Two of the smallholder cattle production project and continued funding from ACIAR. Building on Phase One, which ran from 2012–2015, the overall aim of the project is to establish community-based innovation platforms through which local partners and rural communities can improve the productivity of their livestock systems, and therefore their livelihoods.
Note: The CfCSC participates in many more activities than those listed above. For a more detailed overview, please visit the CfCSC website.