Transdisciplinary sustainability research in real-world labs: success factors and methods for change
Journal article, 2021

The transdisciplinary research mode has gained prominence in the research on and for sustainability transformations. Yet, solution-oriented research addressing complex sustainability problems has become complex itself, with new transdisciplinary research formats being developed and tested for this purpose. Application of new formats offers learning potentials from experience. To this end, we accompanied fourteen research projects conceptualized as real-world labs (RwLs) from 2015 to 2018. RwLs were part of a funding program on ‘Science for Sustainability’ in the German federal state of Baden-Württemberg. Here, we combine conceptual and empirical work to a structured collection of experiences and provide a comprehensive account of RwLs. First, we outline characteristics of RwLs as transformation oriented, transdisciplinary research approach, using experiments, enabling learning and having a long-term orientation. Second, we outline eleven success factors and concrete design notes we gained through a survey of the 14 RwLs: (1) find the right balance between scientific and societal aims, (2) address the practitioners needs and restrictions, (3) make use of the experimentation concept, (4) actively communicate, (5) develop a ‘collaboration culture’, (6) be attached to concrete sites, (7) create lasting impact and transferability, (8) plan for sufficient time and financial means, (9) adaptability, (10) research-based learning, and (11) recognize dependency on external actors. Characteristics and success factors are combined to illustrate practical challenges in RwLs. Third, we show which methods could be used to cope with challenges in RwLs. We conclude discussing the state of debate on RwLs and outline future avenues of research.

Transformative research



Real-world lab

Sustainability transitions

Success factors


Matthias Bergmann

Leuphana University of Lüneburg

Institute for Social-Ecological Research (ISOE)

Niko Alexander Schäpke

University of Freiburg

Chalmers, Space, Earth and Environment, Physical Resource Theory, Physical Resource Theory 2

Oskar Marg

Institute for Social-Ecological Research (ISOE)

Franziska Stelzer

Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy

Daniel J. Lang

Leuphana University of Lüneburg

Michael Bossert

Concordia University

Marius Gantert

TELEINTERNETCAFE Architektur Und Urbanismus

Elke Häußler

Hochschule Karlsruhe - Technik und Wirtschaft

Editha Marquardt

German University of Administrative Sciences Speyer

Felix M. Piontek

University of Ulm

Thomas Potthast

University of Tübingen

Regina Rhodius

University of Freiburg

Matthias Rudolph

State Academy of Art and Design

Michael Ruddat

University of Stuttgart

Andreas Seebacher

Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT)

Nico Sußmann

Heilbronn University

Sustainability Science

1862-4065 (ISSN) 1862-4057 (eISSN)

Vol. 16 2 541-564

Subject Categories

Software Engineering

Information Science

Information Systemes, Social aspects



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