Disaster Risk Reduction Efforts Could Benefit From Transdisciplinary Collaborations

Report highlights promising paths to effective and anticipatory disaster risk reduction and need for specialized expertise

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Disaster Risk Reduction Efforts Could Benefit From Transdisciplinary Collaborations
Hurricane Ian flooded houses in Florida residential area. Natural disaster and its consequences.

A new report from the International Science Council (ISC) highlights promising innovations in connecting research, policy, and practice to improve disaster preparedness and reduce losses. 

Disasters are challenging to predict, often don’t conform to national borders, and can exacerbate other complex issues, such as poverty and migration. They can also affect many different groups of people in distinct and inequitable ways and can be altered by a changing climate.

The report—authored in part by Angela Bednarek, director of The Pew Charitable Trusts’ evidence project—underscores the need for researchers, policymakers, and others to create more anticipatory and comprehensive problem-solving strategies that account for the systemic and complex nature of disasters when developing preparedness and risk reduction efforts. To improve these processes for disaster risk reduction, the analysis calls for a transdisciplinary collaboration method—known in other fields as coproduction or research-practice partnerships—that involves researchers, policymakers, community groups, industry, and others. Such approaches bring together multiple groups with different perspectives and backgrounds to generate context-specific knowledge about the problems each group seeks to address. The joint efforts can help determine pathways forward that better meet a wider variety of needs.

The report informs the midterm review of the Sendai Framework, an international effort led by the United Nations Office of Disaster Risk Reduction. The framework was the first major agreement of the U.N.’s post-2015 development agenda, which established sustainable development goals for individual nations across social and economic areas. It encourages investments in disaster risk governance and improved preparedness to reduce mortality, economic loss, and damage to infrastructure.

Transdisciplinary collaborations can inform increasingly complex policy problems

The report provides compelling examples of how transdisciplinary collaboration and coproduction can facilitate more comprehensive problem definition and problem-solving processes. Such methods can create space for multiple perspectives, generate evidence that is specific to a community’s needs, and determine equitable ways for all parties to address problems together. For example, LA RED, the Network of Social Studies in the Prevention of Disasters in Latin America, is a nongovernmental network of universities, research centers, and other organizations. The network’s efforts, which focus on disaster risk mitigation, place “human and social vulnerability at the centre of its analysis of disaster risk.” Instead of a top-down, centralized approach, LA RED partners emphasize a bottom-up strategy that prioritizes the risk that disasters pose to ordinary people. By placing community awareness and decision-making at the heart of its understanding of disaster risk, the initiative embraces cross-disciplinary research efforts that inform and empower communities to create more effective problem-solving processes. Their efforts have led to the development of new disaster risk management indexes that show which communities are most at risk. One online tool, called DesInventar, uses disaster occurrence and economic loss data to create visuals showing the impact of disasters and facilitate dialogue among community members. Strategies such as those used by LA RED draw from different knowledge holders so that all partners can better understand disaster risk and make informed decisions.

Models and resources to guide transdisciplinary and coproduction efforts

Other fields provide additional examples and promising practices to guide transdisciplinary and coproduction approaches in disaster risk reduction. For example, the Germany-based MeerWissen Initiative has established cross-regional partnerships between German and African marine research institutions to ensure that projects meet the needs of the region and have clear goals that produce research findings relevant to local decision-makers. Project participants work with key partners—such as government representatives, the private sector, and community groups—to create scientific and socially inclusive knowledge, build local acceptance of the research outputs, and develop collaborative networks among local partners that can lead to additional projects. The initiative has developed detailed toolkits for guiding coproduction efforts that are applicable in other sectors.

The ISC report highlights the William T. Grant Foundation’s research-practice partnerships (another term for transdisciplinary collaboration) resource page. Informed by the foundation’s convening of a learning community made up of different research partnerships in the education field, the hub provides guidance, work samples, and resources for developing successful partnerships—regardless of policy field. The learning community led to the creation of the National Network of Education Research-Practice Partnerships in the United States to further embrace learning across individual research partnership efforts.

ISC’s report also references the “Medicine Wheel” of the Michigan-based Keweenaw Bay Indian Community. That guidance provides a framework for how Indigenous knowledge can strengthen community-engaged research efforts. Resources such as these are particularly useful as researchers build their understanding of how to alleviate power imbalances that can develop between researchers and community partners. The online framework describes responsibilities and expectations for transdisciplinary efforts, including the need for reverence, respect, responsibility, and reciprocity.

Capacity needs for these approaches

Despite the promise of these approaches, researchers, practitioners, policymakers, community-based organizers, and others may struggle to adopt them because of limited resources, misaligned incentives, or practices that undermine trust between partners.

The report describes the need for more specialized expertise to help facilitate transdisciplinary processes and ensure a focus on the aforementioned challenges. Individuals or organizations known as “boundary spanners” have the “expertise needed to manage the boundaries between those involved in relational approaches, translate and exchange knowledge efficiently, find and negotiate common understandings, and identify paths forward.” For these approaches to be sustainable and scalable, rather than siloed into rare, one-off initiatives, the report’s authors urge the disaster risk reduction field to develop a workforce with the skills to be boundary spanners.

The ISC report uses an example from Pew’s Lenfest Ocean Program to illustrate how boundary spanners operate. Lenfest hired people who could work in this role with researchers, decision-makers, and others to support the development of policy and practice-relevant research agendas. These boundary spanners can facilitate regular engagements with different partners to collaboratively identify relevant research questions, translate and exchange knowledge between partners, and negotiate common understandings of each partner’s role in the research process. These individuals help ensure that partners find common ground despite varied interests and issue complexity, while promoting active knowledge exchange throughout the partnership.

The report urges a closer look at transdisciplinary and coproduction approaches to better understand complex issues; surface gaps, perspectives, and needs; build rapport between different institutions and actors; and produce research that is useful—and used—in decision-making. The work spotlights examples of these promising approaches to guide implementation efforts that will result in more effective and anticipatory disaster risk reduction.

Angela Bednarek is the director and Alex Sileo is a senior associate with The Pew Charitable Trusts’ evidence project.

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