The two-day-workshop in Pretoria was a pre-event of the official launch of the Future Africa Campus and united three parallel workshops supporting (young) researchers to head for a transdisciplinary research program. The workshops were facilitated by the team of “Know Innovation”, which was an enriching experience. On the one hand, we gained great insights in tools and methods they used to bring together an immensely diverse group with different (research) backgrounds and to structure the process open and focused at the same time. The workshop “Transdisciplinarity in Sustainability Sciences” joint research groups and researchers in different phases of their career from different research contexts in Panafrican countries to develop a transdisciplinary sustainability research agenda specific for the African context (“Imagine Future Africa” was the slogan for the official launch). The process of the workshop included a diversity of formats for getting in contact with each other, providing space for discussion and developing and specifying concrete outcomes in terms of a “glossary” or “top tips” for transdisciplinary research. Starting with painting each other and introducing us with the just created picture was a great ice-breaker and a lot of fun. We then reflected on skills needed for inter- and transdisciplinary researchers on the basis of an existing model including 5 main competences: engage, connect, empower, inquiry and reflect. It became rapidly apparent that these competencies are interlinked and always refer to an interplay of people and systems or structures. Whereas connect could mean to build bridges between actors and actors and systems and systems, empower has the potential to address the emancipation of people from a system or structural disadvantage to allow change. The workshop was accompanied by the “Know-” and “Wonder-Wall”, where everybody could document what questions are still open or what answers are given. A session was focused on the development of a glossary and important acronyms. This exercise also included the exploration of embodied knowledge about different terms of the TD research arena. This unique experience enabled us to connect abstract terms with concrete emotions without reflecting it in the first place, in the second place it is amazing how limiting the term science was experienced. For me the question emerge what this tells us about the mode of science?
One exercise that I loved was the mutual painting of a tree. In small groups we were asked to paint a tree without talking, everybody with his/her own paintbrush, in a specific style (e.g. naive or impressionistic). After a while changed tables and continued the painting of the previous group. Some central insights TDR were 1) that a good result can emerge even though not every stroke of the brush looks nice from one’s perspective. Stepping back for a moment and look at the whole it makes sense, a beautiful picture has emerged. 2) A quite open framing allows for creativity and orientation and can reduce necessary communication steps. 3) Art as an example to value what you find at the next table, even though you don’t like the style or form as such but it is your responsibility to continue what was there thoroughly and with care. 4) Some art forms seemed to be more integrative and intuitive in the process of painting as others which felt more cognitively driven. I discovered how TD processes show many similarities with a collective painting process and maybe this kind of framing and experience could help the process itself. As everybody brings different notions and concepts to the table this could be a way of understanding integration: the endstate/the product is only roughly sketched out but it still orients the team, at the same time it allows for creativity and the quality is dependent on openness and engagement.
The next day was equally insightful. The most impressing exercises were the discussion of experiences in TDR processes with the aim to extract relevant aspects for a successful TD progress. Learning about an eight year process of a water-management project offered insights into the challenges of separation on institutional level, as well as the importance of the engagement and empowerment of local community. Here the university as a small but important driver in the change process has the role of bringing knowledge together, offering training programs and supporting the implementation of a learning network. In this project the starting point was an existential crisis in a specific area, what made me reflect a lot on the different characteristics of how TDR processes begin. This connects directly to the metaphor exercise we used to illustrate the characterization of TDR. The facilitators offered different metaphors like a cooking recipe, a game plan or a travel guide. Interestingly, three out of five groups chose a metaphor related to cooking (two a recipe, one cooking together as a ritual, e.g. for a funeral). Thus, the metaphor of cooking and eating as a way to keep the system alive and providing it with energy. But also food processes as social events and a context dependent practice was one way of conceptualization TDR. In the metaphor exercise, the traditions of different schools of thoughts, as well as different starting points for research and research approaches in general became nicely visible. The point that I found most challenging was to understand that a collective practice of solving problems is deeply rooted in Panafrican cultures. This practice is also mirrored in the language, e.g. “indaba” characterizes exclusively a gathering for discussing and solving a problem. In contrast, the western approach that is conceptualized with defined phases and recommendations for collaboration. Thus, the workshops was like a meeting of a culture of collaboration (that we also experienced in the official launch of the campus when the house staff was also integrated) and the theory of collaboration that we brought in from our western point of view. Realizing this means to carefully sort out what we can and should learn from each other, without preferring types of knowledge that are more familiar. Learning from each other would mean to challenge ones perspectives and synthesize creatively. In this sense, one aspect was central for me in how to orient TDR in Africa: Decolonize research! Moreover, in my opinion this is a global task and not solely an African duty.