SDG17++: Managing cross disciplinary trade-offs for sustainable development


The SDG17++ project team sought to understand how disciplinary dynamics within interdisciplinary research teams shape sustainability research, and what the outcomes and implications were for sustainability policy and practice. By following the progress of some of the Sussex Sustainability Research Programme (SSRP) projects as they addressed intersections and conflicts between Sustainable Development Goals, the SDG17++ project team were able to conduct a structural analysis of how expert investigators from diverse backgrounds configure themselves to support their collaborations and research aims.

Members of the SDG17++ project team addressed two questions:

  • How do the social and disciplinary dynamics within interdisciplinary research teams shape sustainability research?
  • What kinds of creative practice support transformations to sustainability?

The first question led to papers documenting Sussex academics collaborating across disciplines as part of the SSRP initiative to understand intersections in the SDGs, revealing the nature of the collaborative work needed to make it happen. The second led to the first SSRP working paper – a report into creativity practices – and EU funding to explore further. The team involved contributors from design, technology, science policy, development studies, media and management.

Ultimately, the hope is that the broader findings from this project will feed into recommendations about how to support and enable transformative interdisciplinary sustainability research.

Project description

The need to approach sustainable development systemically is newly thrown into focus by the UN's SDGs. Yet, disciplines persist, priorities differ and kinds of expertise are called into question, only to learn they are incommensurable with one another. Even the designation of expertise in sustainability is highly political. This project explored how the different worldviews and accompanying priorities of contrasting disciplinary and institutional commitments to balance goals were approached, as part of understanding transdisciplinary practices and SDG tradeoffs.

The SDG++ project team ran two workshops with eight of the first round of SSRP projects in 2017. These workshops explored disciplinary commitments and tensions that could arise over the projects' lifetime. We joined the SSRP project meetings to observe current cross-disciplinary working and negotiations at research boundaries. In addition, we conducted a design research literature review into ad-hoc problem/solution formation, linking these to a review of concepts of collaborative and interdisciplinary working.

The team will continued to follow two projects in more depth, joining project meetings and interviewing staff. Towards the end of the project, we conducted another set of workshops for individual project teams to revisit their earlier plans. These focused on incipient outcomes. A final workshop brought together participants to share the SDG17++ project findings and review the process of participating in the call and how disciplinary commitments informed their work.

Timeline and funding


March 2017-September 2018




Both projects involved analysis of reflective sessions with practitioners designed to allow participants in the studies to learn together about what was being achieved. This collaborative reflexivity was important so that the research did not become “extractive”. Practitioners were:

  • Sussex academics from diverse disciplines working as a team
  • artists commissioned by Creative Carbon Scotland to lead creative facilitation sessions with Scottish communities.

Data from Sussex was collected in a series of participatory workshops at the start and end of projects, combined with non-participant observation and analysis of project discussions during the project lifetime. The diverse ways in which research teams configured themselves to navigate their chosen terrain and the kinds of social and discursive dynamics that shaped projects was then examined. The arts practitioner analysis involved discourse analysis of interview transcriptions.


The SDGs (and especially their intersections) challenge researchers to work at the edge of their knowledge and collaborate with other epistemological traditions. This brings researchers into new relations and may cause tension as to whose knowledge processes (methods, worldview and all that links them) are adhered to. Because of time constraints, the Principal Investigator-funded RF pairing took precedence*, but interesting ‘knots’ occurred in the running of the projects where frictions in ways of knowing opened project goals too wide to be easily achievable. These knots invite further consideration, being the point where learning might be most forthcoming for the teams involved. Furthermore, each group had a distinct approach to interdisciplinarity, questioning the ‘integrative ideal’ of much existing thought on the topic.

Introducing a creative practitioner to work with civil society groups can widen their processes and goals in ways that inspire engagement with social and environmental sustainability. However, there are important differences across context, where expanding reflection about the significance of an activity, such as motivating a cycling club to consider town planning from a cyclist’s perspective, functions differently to teaching people about preparedness using arts techniques. Here, again, key moments offered an analysis point where transformational learning could occur.

*the University of Sussex policy for its Strategic Research Programmes required already-funded investigators to fund their own time. This led to time constraints across most teams, including ours, thereby also constraining the potential for interdisciplinarity.


Awareness of how to work with others across perspectives has a recursive power that enables the transformative thinking that leads to new ambitions and relations. This transformation has a strong relation with the cultural change needed for attending to SDG ambitions of Climate Action and related goals. Both projects, in analysing practice, show how changes might be achieved. 

Related work

  • Literature review (not published): A brief overview of design: Framing problems and/whilst addressing sustainability issues.
  • A bid to Leverhulme on sustainability trade-offs, problem definition and cultures of research was submitted.
  • An academic paper was submitted on the same topic (above), focusing on negotiating priorities on complexity in articulating sustainability problems, e.g. Ecology and Society, Design Issues.

The team

Where we worked