August 2020

Agility in Transdisciplinary Research: Paper Summary

Findings from the Ensemble Project were published and presented at this year’s International Conference on ICT for Sustainability.

The paper reports on the principles and mechanisms adopted by the flood sprint to enable transdisciplinary ways of working. The flood sprint, which considered the role of digital technologies in flood risk management, brought together researchers from a range of academic disciplines (computer science, statistics, art and design) and stakeholders from various public and private sector organisations. Access to the full paper is at the bottom of this page.

Activity at workshop
Project partners and team discussing ideas at workshop


To enable effective collaboration, the flood sprint drew on several sources of inspiration, including agile software development, an approach that responds to changing requirements by using short, iterative development cycles.  The flood sprint did not employ a rigid agile methodology, but adopted four key agile principles – partnership, reflectiveness, iteration, and openness to change. These principles were supported by several core mechanisms, such as workshops, show and tells, rapid prototyping, and the sprint cycle itself (flooding being the first of a series of year-long ‘deep dives’ into different environmental challenges).

The paper asks: did these principles and mechanisms successfully enable effective transdisciplinary work, embed stakeholders into the research process, and facilitate the design and development of digital prototypes?

Enabling effective transdisciplinary work

The approach taken in the flood sprint enabled work across disciplines and with a range of stakeholders. However, it was more successful in bringing together researchers and stakeholders than bringing the research team together, as it was sometimes difficult for the researchers to bridge their different academic disciplines. A key lesson learnt was that the research team required some more formal mechanisms to enable communication and sharing of research progress, particularly changes in direction.

Embedding stakeholders into the research process

Stakeholders from outside the university felt very much part of the team and were central in shaping the direction of the research. A key lesson learnt was that it was important to prioritise a small number of in-depth relationships rather than a broader, but shallower network.

Another lesson learnt was that collaboration with stakeholders worked best informally and face-to-face. Formal mechanisms (such as online show and tells) were less successful and encouraged the researchers to fall into the role of presenters with the stakeholders as providers of feedback. By contrast, informal face-to-face meetings enabled researchers and stakeholders to work collaboratively on prototypes.

The year-long sprint also enabled stakeholders to be involved in a research project that felt more aligned to their own timescales.

Facilitating the design and development of digital prototypes

The flood sprint led to the development of many digital prototypes to enable data visualisations, integration and queries. Agile software development techniques, such as user stories, were used to aid this prototyping.

Visualisation of data
One of the prototypes produced was the Story-Led Demonstrator

One challenge related to prototyping was enabling their longer-term legacy, as prototypes were not necessarily in a format where they could be used straightaway. The flood sprint pursued various ways of ensuring longevity, including a Knowledge Transfer Partnership to take forward some of the ideas.

Access the paper here: Agility in Transdisciplinary Research: Lessons Learnt from a Research Sprint on Digital Technologies and Flood Risk Management

Author: Emily Winter