Learning from 2020: Why collaboration and transdisciplinarity must mark our forward paths

Sara Bice and Martin Bortz

Today’s decision-makers need the evidence and insights of transdisciplinary research. Transdisciplinarity enriches our capacity to respond to complex problems by broadening perspectives on issues that are too complicated to be understood fully from one disciplinary angle.

COVID-19 presents an obvious example. The pandemic requires the insights and advice not only of medical and public health experts, but of policy scholars to inform government action; urban planners to model population movements and transport usage; epidemiologists to run big data models on potential virus spread; mental health experts on the implications of lockdowns and isolation; educationalists on the opportunities and pitfalls of home-schooling; behavioural psychologists on how to ensure restrictions will be accepted; the list goes on.

But how do we create diverse and effective research collaborations?

Our study on using collaborative conceptual modelling (CCM) to translate research into impactful social and policy outcomes, published in Evidence & Policy, offers one helpful starting point. Our work, led by Dr Kate Neely, highlights the importance of integrating the numerous perspectives informing complex issues into the problem definition itself.

Our study introduces readers to a CCM approach that works well when attempting to tackle large, ‘hot button’ policy problems. In our case these topics included a transition to renewable energy sources for climate change mitigation and the establishment of a digital infrastructure strategy for a major city. The study builds on Newell and Proust (2012) to demonstrate how CCM can be adapted to shape research agendas and priorities for complex policy issues, while simultaneously engaging a variety of disciplines and professions. Our work involved bringing together groups of researchers from diverse disciplines and engaging professionals and policymakers in each field to bring their own experiences, perspectives and concerns.

We introduce a simple, four-step model to implement CCM for these issues. This involves:

  1. Identifying and gathering the diverse stakeholders pertinent to the chosen issue of concern.
  2. Hosting a short series of workshops with those stakeholders, introducing and applying the CCM method.
  3. Facilitating an iterative reflective process where researchers and participants use the information generated in the CCMs to identify outstanding questions and fill knowledge gaps.
  4. Completing a final workshop to review the co-created knowledge to work towards consensus about priority problem areas. The discussion in this final workshop is based on the clear, system-level articulation of the variety of concerns and influences informing an issue.

The article aims to provide everyone with research-based insights and advice to help them work effectively on complex issues by engaging a wide variety of stakeholders to explore the diversity of influences affecting the topic at hand. This could involve participants including researchers, government representatives, special interest groups, geographic or demographic communities affected by the topic, private sector actors or NGOs. Those familiar with systems thinking will find the article’s discussion of how we used pair-blended and larger group influence diagrams to build the CCM helpful. For those who have not used influence diagrams before, we offer an introduction and highlight simpler ways that the general ideas supporting CCM can be useful.

We also share the lessons we have learned in implementing these methods with different groups on a wide variety of policy issues. In particular, we found garnering stakeholder buy-in and participation in Step 3 (filling knowledge gaps) to be most challenging. This step relies on participants to prioritise work on the CCM in their own time, outside of the focused time available in a workshop. One simple way to overcome this problem is to create an additional dedicated workshop where participants focus on filling knowledge gaps. This is something we have trialled in other projects since publishing the article, and it certainly helps. It may also be the case that, as we all become more comfortable with remote work, online platforms could be used effectively to progress this step.


Sara Bice is Professor and Vice-Chancellor’s Futures Scheme Senior Fellow at the Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University, where she is Founding Director of the Institute for Infrastructure in Society. She is Professor (Special International Guest) at Tsinghua University, Beijing.

Dr Martin Bortz is an Honorary Senior Research Fellow at the Melbourne School of Government. Marty’s current research investigates management consultants, policy narratives and transformative festival culture.


You can read the original research in Evidence & Policy:

Neely, K. Bortz, M. and Bice, S. (2019). Using collaborative conceptual modelling as a tool for transdisciplinarity. Evidence & Policy, DOI: 10.1332/174426419X15468578119304.


Image credit: Photo by Vlad Hilitanu on Unsplash


If you enjoyed this blog post, you may also be interested to read:

Systems thinking, knowledge and action: towards better models and methods

Evidence synthesis for knowledge exchange: balancing responsiveness and quality in providing evidence for policy and practice [Open Access]

Guidance for organisational strategy on knowledge to action from conceptual frameworks and practice

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