Could the long-term transdisciplinary engagement of a university make a difference in a place?

The Transylvania transdisciplinary case study is coming to an end and there is one more milestone to face. This last step is decisive for the impact of the overall case. The launch of a book on transformational knowledge in one of the Transylvanian villages will mark eight years of collaborative research led by Leuphana University in Southern Transylvania. This blog entry is taking a final stock of this sometimes difficult but meaningful journey, weaves and ties its loose ends together.

The place and the challenge

Southern Transylvania is home to a great natural and cultural diversity, making it one of the largest areas of high nature value farmland in the European Union. Yet, its landscapes are threatened by numerous changes happening within and outside this region, such as draining migration, tenure changes, or the influence of the global markets. Navigating these changes while conserving the unique heritage and responding to global pressures and local aspirations have outlined a delicate balancing act.

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The people

Both science and society have responded to the regional sustainability challenge in Transylvania. On the one hand, local non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have acted through numerous initiatives dealing with nature and cultural heritage conservation, supporting small-scale farming, or rural community development and education. These local bright spots are vibrant, locally relevant and leading the pathway to transformation. On the other hand, since 2011 Leuphana University has been present in the area carrying out place-based social-ecological research dedicated to a holistic understanding of Southern Transylvania. Organically, the foundations of a science|society partnership were laid starting with 2014. The main goal was to create a safe interfacing space that supports, enhances, connects and scales the efforts of those engaged in transformation in Transylvania. Hence, we set out to recognise, capitalise and nurture what was already wonderfully there: the seeds of a sustainable Transylvania.

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The research

The University’s engagement with this ‘place’ since 2011 allowed us to steadily build a deep understanding of concrete local problem constellations and carry out a complete ‘ideal typical’ transdisciplinary case study. It is relatively uncommon for a research project to succeed in completing all phases of such a process going from Phase A – problem framing, to Phase B – Co-production of knowledge, and Phase C – Integration of co-produced knowledge.  Under this collaborative mode of research the ties at rural community level and between Southern Transylvania’s practitioners of change were strengthened through innovative approaches like design-based, serious games, physical mapping. By working with farmers’ associations and rural communities, the transdisciplinary partnership between the university and the local change agents has also developed a shared understanding of landscape stewardship and the notion of ‘a common good’. Mutual learning enabled contributions towards building the local identity, empowerment and perceptions on agency. The partnership also aimed to foster the dialogue of the newly surfaced and consolidated network of practitioners of change in Southern Transylvania with the local Government, municipalities, and policymakers. To this end, we designed and applied a social network analysis methodology based on leverage points. We also surfaced underlying value orientations and motivations for working towards sustainability in Transylvania, and elicited local understandings of sustainability. What we learned from this in terms of leverage points is that relationships at community level and deeply held values are potential intervention points for prompting the future we want to see in Transylvania.

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The women’s association in Viscri 

The impact

Behind these eight years of collaborative research there were (field)work, skills deployed, there were emotions and there were bits of soul invested in being part of the change, in co-creating processes and knowledge and in developing mutually transforming and empowering relationships. We touched one way or the other more than 50 organisations that took part in the multiple group discussions, dialogues and negotiations we provided (voicing) space for. We take this opportunity to wholeheartedly and gratefully thank all of them. A database of Transylvania’s seeds is hopefully on its way to becoming a website. The desired vision for Southern Transylvania’s future called “Balance Brings Beauty”, that we helped co-create back in 2012, continues to act as a boundary object for the region and to draw people near. Finally, we grew together with the increasing network of collaborations between Transylvania’s agents of change. As a result, we are part of the Transylvanian Highlands Eco destination management board together with another dozen organisations.

The (green) book(s)

An outreach publication of success stories and experiences on transformational strategies for moving closer to a sustainable future in Southern Transylvania is ready for the check-out phase of the case. The ideas explored in this book rest on the honest collaborative effort of many like-minded and like-hearted people. Three annual overarching workshops dedicated to the co-creation of Transylvania’s contextualised transformation pathway (September 2016, June 2017, September 2018), approximately ten focus groups on the management of community resources such as pastures, and more than 50 interviews around different strategies for reaching “Balance Brings Beauty” back up the information presented here. We envisioned this (third) book on transformational knowledge as an instrument that paves the way for dialogue and collaboration with policymakers. To some extent Transylvania is growing into a global role model for sustainability and we trust this book will serve when walking the path from vision to action. This book is the corollary of a series of books that marked our research journey: the blue book and the red book.

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A final step

The launch of the Green Book, with an impressive number of 60 confirmations, is scheduled for the 21st of March. We dedicate this event to all those who love this place. We conclude our part of involvement urging them to turn into action the principles, experience and values that came out of our common work. During our unrivalled experience in the region we believe having found the answer to the above question: „Could the long-term transdisciplinary engagement of a university make a difference in a world’s place?”. Still, we think it is important that the people of Transylvania find their answer.

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