Reflecting on two years of interdisciplinary research together

From Urban Green Adaptation Diary

On 17 June 2016, at the 23rd Pacific Science Congress at Academia Sinica in Taipei, we delivered our first conference paper together. Titled “Achieving Mitigation of Land Surface Temperature via Greenspaces: A Case Study of Taipei Metropolis,” we shared the stage for five minutes each. Wan-Yu talked about her remote sensing work into urban thermal environments, and I spoke about content analysis of newspaper articles on heat and greenspace in Taipei. Before I came to Taipei, we had met each other only once, talked on Skype a couple of times, and exchanged a number of emails and messages. And somehow, we are still working together two years later.

So what have we achieved and learned together in the time since?

  1. Interdisciplinary working is hard. You have to be prepared to put the time in to get the outcomes, and have the persistence to deal with complications and setbacks. I have worked harder in the two years since we started doing research together than at any other time in my academic career. Conversely, I have also been more motivated to develop this research than on any other set of projects I’ve worked on;
  2. Having a common goal helps a lot. This can be a topic or subject that you can all work round, in our case climate change adaptation in cities through green infrastructure. This acts as a focal point that you can build your various approaches and techniques around. But it can also be a shared personal goal. In our case, we are at a similar career stage with similar aspirations, and can use this as a driving force to keep us moving forwards in the same direction;
  3. Working across disciplines is challenging conceptually, as well as practically. There are of course all the challenges associated with bringing together different types of data and different research methods. However, as we have discovered, there are also big conceptual differences between disciplines. What I mean by this is much deeper differences in what we consider to count as valid scientific knowledge; how we analyse, interpret and write up our research; and even fundamental differences in how the world works. Wan-Yu and I don’t always agree on these, but we do at least understand where the differences lie. This is important for good collaboration, but unfortunately takes time to achieve. Which is why we need…
  4. Good interpersonal relations. As above, work of this nature isn’t easy. You aren’t going to understand or agree with each other all the time. But the only way things will improve is if you are able to talk with each other openly and honestly about where your concerns lie. So having the trust and mutual respect to do this within your collaboration is very important. For me at least, it is not always comfortable to have my assumptions challenged and it can be hard to avoid becoming defensive, but we produce better work as a result. Building good relations also means taking the time to help each other out, explain things and find each other data, in a way that benefits everyone.

Developing a good interdisciplinary collaboration takes a lot of work and time. I think we would both agree it was really hard at first, but now we are finding a much better way to work together.

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Hopefully, this is evidenced in what we’ve managed to achieve together over these two years…

Publications

In addition to our separate publications, we have managed four co-authored SSCI-indexed papers. Two of these are based on the content analysis of Taiwanese media I undertook in preparation for our PSC paper. One was published in World Development earlier this year, and the other will be out later this month in Environment and Urbanization (in fact, we were so engrossed in writing the first draft of it when we were working in NTU Library that we lost track of time and missed the PSA conference dinner). We polished up the interview-based work Wan-Yu did on biodiversity and ecosystem services governance in Durban, and got it published in Journal of Environmental Planning and Management (with a chapter in the Handbook of Climate Change Communication as well). And we worked up some of my interviews and policy analysis from Yubari in Japan, which came out in Journal of Environmental Policy and Planning earlier this year.

The next round of publications are currently under review and/or in the final stages of being written up…

Projects

We are just about to wrap up our first funded project, a Wellcome Trust Seed Award in Humanities and Social Sciences-supported project into urban heat and energy precarity in subtropical Asian cities. For that, we collaborated with the Clean Energy and Sustainable Development Lab in the University of Science and Technology Hanoi; and with the Department of Environmental Design in Kyushu University. We have had project meetings and fieldwork in Taipei, Hanoi and Fukuoka along the way, and picked out some ideas we want to develop further.

We’re also just about to start the second year of our Royal Society of Edinburgh-Ministry of Science and Technology Joint Research Project into green infrastructure, heat vulnerability and social-ecological characteristics. We are Joint PIs on this, working on the case studies of Glasgow and Taipei. Year 1 saw interviews and site visits in both countries, with more of the same to come in Year 2.

This means it is now time to be writing more proposals!

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Fieldwork, conferences and travel

Other highlights along the way have included:

-two virtual co-lectures and two physical co-lectures in the Department of Urban Planning and Disaster Management at Ming-Chuan University, where Leslie delivered some sessions on his research in Japan and Scotland (with Wan-Yu’s linguistic support!)

-attending the IPCC Cities and Climate Change Science Conference in Edmonton together, and meeting many new (and old) friends while there;

-seeing our work start to get attention in, for example, the briefing note on climate justice and community resilience produced by SNIFFER, and involvement in the TRACTION project;

-establishing and growing our presence online through Urban Green Adaptation Diary, and through our presence on Twitter (please follow Wan-Yu and Leslie!)

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