BLOG | Collaborative research as collaborative learning

By Georgina Cundill Kemp, Senior Program Officer, CARIAA program

ASSAR, one of four consortia that make up the CARIAA program, recently published a Spotlight on Learning. In so doing, ASSAR enters a new frontier of transdisciplinary practice characterised by an explicitly learning-oriented approach to large-scale collaborative research. The Spotlight provides an opportunity for collective reflection on the learning that has taken place in ASSAR, and CARIAA, since its beginnings in 2015. It reflects on learning in such diverse areas as new climate knowledge, administrative issues, collaboration and personal growth, and reveals the diversity of learning pathways that ASSAR partners are walking together.

The learning-oriented approach being pursued by ASSAR is important in CARIAA for a number of reasons. Collaborative research that involves many partners with diverse backgrounds and interests is challenging. Collaborative research that takes this challenge a step further by also attempting to have an impact on communities, practice and policy is more challenging. CARIAA aspires to both of these things on a grand scale - across two continents, seventeen countries and with more than 450 researchers involved. ASSAR is no less impressive in its aspirations, working across seven countries and with more than 10 institutional partners and sub-partners. An effort such as CARIAA, as embodied in the ASSAR experience, must be recognised for what it is: an experiment from which to learn.

CARIAA is not alone in its aspirations for action-oriented research within large transdisciplinary networks. Such models of research are becoming increasingly common in global environmental change research. Indeed, through CARIAA, ASSAR joins a new cohort of research communities who have risen to the challenges posed by climate change by being prepared to re-think not only how knowledge is produced, but by whom it is produced, where it should be produced, and for what purpose. Recognising this new space that CARIAA is occupying, and indeed discovering together, brings with it the need to find ways to enable teams of researchers and practitioners to work and learn together effectively.

It is one thing, and perfectly acceptable, to ‘muddle through’ complex projects, learning-by-doing and being adaptive in the face of constant change. It is another thing altogether to give forethought to how the diffuse learning that happens every day in a complex project can be harnessed in order to improve how the project is implemented, and the impact of the project, in real time. ASSAR’s Spotlight on Learning is an important step in this direction.