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Transforming mountains through inter- and transdisciplinary research?

A workshop to trigger networking on an urgent topic for sustainability
Raffaella Balzarini, Iago Otero, Carine Pachoud, Bastien Bornet, Emmanuel Reynard et Philippe Bourdeau

Notes de la rédaction

Reviewers: Carolina Adler, Isabelle Arpin, Jörg Balsiger, Valerie Braun, Bernat Claramunt, Stefano Duglio, Paola Fontanella Pisa, Margreth Keiler, Tamara Mitrofanenko, Janez Nared, Stefano Sala, Stefan Schneiderbauer, Thomas Spiegelberger.

Cette première publication en lien avec le numéro La montagne et les nouvelles manières de faire connaissance, s’intéresse à une initiative portée par le Centre interdisciplinaire de recherche sur la montagne (CIRM) de l’Université de Lausanne ( et le Laboratoire d’Excellence Innovations et transitions territoriales en montagne ( : un workshop sur les institutions de recherche interdisciplinaire (Id) et transdisciplinaire (Td) sur les montagnes : comment faire la différence pour la durabilité ? Ces deux journées ont interrogé la manière dont la recherche, à travers l’inter- et la transdisciplinarité, s’engage de différentes façons dans l’accompagnement des territoires de montagne vers une transition socio-environnementale de leur modèle de développement. Elles ont mis également en avant l’importance de (co)construire de nouvelles formes de collaborations entre chercheurs et acteurs pour penser les transitions.

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  • 1 We consider institution in a broad sense, which includes different kinds of entities dealing with m (...)
  • 2 Otero I., Darbellay F., Reynard E., Hetényi G., Perga M.-E., Rüegg J., Prasicek G., Cracco M., Font (...)

1On 21 and 22 October 2021, the campus of the University of Lausanne in Sion (Switzerland) hosted the “Workshop on inter- and transdisciplinary research institutions1 on mountains: how to make the difference for sustainability? It was jointly organized by the Interdisciplinary Centre for Mountain Research (CIRM,​centre-montagne) and the Labex ITTEM (Innovations and Territorial Transitions in Mountains,​). These two organizations work on inter- and transdisciplinary research for sustainability in mountain regions with a particular focus on transition/transformation of mountain social-ecological systems in the European Alps.2

2CIRM and Labex ITTEM have bilateral collaborations and are part of a large network of research institutions dealing with the scientific and societal challenges of mountain sustainability. Within the framework of this rich network, CIRM and Labex ITTEM convened a workshop at which various stakeholders within this network shared experiences in a self-reflexive manner. The workshop goals were:

  1. to share experiences on inter- and transdisciplinary (Id/Td) research on mountains (concepts, obstacles, success stories, institutional or organizational arrangements, challenges, good practices, etc.);

  2. to start a discussion on how the contribution of research to the transformation/transition to sustainability in mountain regions can be assessed, including the development of some evaluation criteria; and

  3. to explore future collaboration prospects.

3Hence, by sharing good practices and challenges, this workshop brought together scientists with different visions, scientific backgrounds, and experiences to start a collective reflection on how Id/Td is able to contribute to sustainability in mountain regions. The participants included directors, coordinators, and members of 25 institutions related to mountain research where Id/Td research is generally promoted (see below list of participating institutions). These institutions are very diverse in terms of their composition and function(s), and include “classic” academic structures (e.g., university departments, faculties, and institutes), entities explicitly created to foster Id/Td research, international research networks, and secretariats to international conventions for sustainability in mountain regions (acting as science-policy interfaces). These institutions are mostly active in the Alpine region, but other mountain ranges were also represented (e.g., the Carpathians, the Caucasus), as well as international networks operating at regional and/or global scales. Altogether the workshop gathered around 50 people based in several European countries in hybrid mode (31 in person and 18 online).

  • 3 Schneidewind U., Singer-Brodowski M., Augenstein K., 2016.– “Transformative Science for Sustainabil (...)
  • 4 Robert B. Dilts, 1994.– Strategies of Genius. Volume I: Aristotle, Sherlock Holmes, Walt Disney, Wo (...)

4The workshop included 4 keynotes (Isabelle Arpin, LESSEM-INRAE; Jörg Balsiger, University of Geneva; Riccardo Beltramo, University of Turin, and Anna Giorgi, UNIMONT) and group work sessions followed by plenary discussions. As preparation for this workshop, participants were all asked to prepare videos in which they profiled the work carried out by each of the invited institutions. These inputs shaped the workshop design and participants had access to them in advance so that the different institutions could know each other. During the first day, seven working groups (mixing members from different institutions) exchanged on their experiences of transformative Id/Td research.3 They also tried to distil criteria and indicators that could be used to qualify such experiences as (un)successful. They were asked to share personal motivations and visions underpinning their research. During the second day, a “Walt Disney” participatory method.4 was used to integrate knowledge and experiences of workshop participants. They were divided into three groups (dreamers, makers, and critics). Each group was asked to describe their vision on collaborative work to improve the transformative capacity of (our) research institutions for the next ten years. We focused on the following key points: actions to improve the current situation (dreamers), description of the main areas of work to be undertaken (makers) and identification of points of vigilance (critics).

5The 1st day main outcomes concerned successful and unsuccessful experiences: we synthesised the results of the discussions in success factors and constraints criteria related to the research parameters. Research parameters are semantic categories created from the analysis of the discussion notes. This is summarised in Table 1. While the objective of the workshop was to discuss the impact of our research for the transformation of mountain regions, the discussion turned towards questions of quality of Id/Td, as if researchers felt that the two are somehow linked.

6The results of the discussions do not make it possible to identify whether the items listed in Table 1, have an effect on the general societal impact of Id/Td research. Nevertheless, we propose that these success factors and constraints could be considered indicators of transformative Id/Td research, although this needs to be further investigated.

Table 1. Synthesis of the success and failure criteria that emerged from the 1st day discussions

Research parameters

Success factors


Human factors

bring different people from different backgrounds, in order to share different knowledge

lack of human resources and institutional support

integrate the right actors when needed

misuse of power and lack of respect (“helicopter research”)

associate the different actors in time

actors’ unwillingness to engage in research

build legitimacy and trust among the actors

misconception on role of researchers


use adequate language for understanding each other and of the key notions

lack of communication skills (for example towards scientists from other disciplines and the general public)



define clearly the objectives and the roles

create an “ethical charta” with the participants, to address conflicts

Time and funding

invest time

inadequate time frame to generate impacts

develop long-term collaboration

financial support not fit for purpose objectives and dependence on funders’ expectation


ensure long-term viability of the funding to have durable projects

clarify the process over time with all actors


Two-way knowledge sharing (actors to researchers and vice versa)

opportunistic use of ID and TD



disseminate and use our work for local people

prioritize having deep impact in the territory rather than publishing in high impact factor journals

7On the 2nd day, participants identified some barriers to overcome in the perspective of a collaborative work to be developed during the next ten years. For instance, they pointed out the lack of genuine commitment of researchers to engage in transformative research, i.e., a lack of interest in engagement with others and a missing willingness to change their way of doing research. In addition, motivation appeared as an important input to work in inter- and transdisciplinarity: scientists should develop ethical convictions, interest and curiosity about territorial actors as well as skills in communicating science to dialogue with different audiences. However, the motivation is also driven by the opportunity of getting consistent funding to conduct viable research over the long term and of being acknowledged in decision-making committees at the local and international level. Along with other statements made in this text, greater involvement of scientists in governance bodies could lead to developing a sense of urgency, holding more weight on decisions and acting accordingly to sustainability, even if they can just have an advisory function.

8Among the efforts towards sustainability, participants addressed the notion of “collective intelligence” which led to the crucial issue of the co-production of data and knowledge among scientists and stakeholders. This outcome implies very different contents and formats, which in turn are shaped by potentially diverse overarching goals and objectives, too. Classically, researchers tend to be interested in publishing scientific articles in specialized journals, while territorial actors tend to be more interested in issuing reports, tutorials, or guidelines. In this perspective, the common goals in co-writing are often hard to find. In addition, due to lack of time, it is difficult to bring the stakeholders in the process of co-production. In face of these challenges, it is recommended to initiate this shift towards co-production by co-designing at least the research questions. This could be done by assigning to each one some steps of the research process and by designing deliverables, which are not only scientific papers, but for example, guidelines or videos, which have strong potential in transformation pedagogy. Despite scientific publications being a priority indicator in the evaluation of a scientific career, more effort should be given to science-policy-practice interface, supporting the transformation of mountain research by fostering “science for impact” (the one that would support societal change).

9Participants addressed a second crucial point: the professional position of the researcher in the context of Td projects. What is the role of a researcher when working with other professional categories? In a “multi-professional” environment, people identify with their professions rather than by their disciplines, as introduced by Jörg Balsiger in his keynote. For this reason, scientists need to find a new role that is probably different from the traditional representation they convey.

10The transformation of the research profession is a major concern for junior or early-career researchers. When junior researchers start their career by working in an Id-Td context, it is sometimes seen as difficult for them to pursue a career in a hardly selective context and to get support from funding agencies. Nevertheless, they are the ones who will be able to get out of the academic “paths” by creating cooperatives, associations able to provide “professional” contracts to research and therefore assume a new professional identity. Participants also mentioned that more incisive communication on the operational skills of a doctoral degree and the strengthening of collaborations among companies and networks could enable them to find other employers than universities.

11In order to increase the job opportunities and to improve the career of junior (and senior) researchers the workshop participants highlighted the need to explore new ways of working together, at different levels, covering from the projects set-up to the design of large-scale transformative experiments and the scientific outreach. For that, it would be important to share best practice examples, where transformative research has already taken place. Researchers should use communication channels to show and disseminate (good) impacts of Td research, in order to get more commitment from researchers and funders.

12Then, in order to enhance links with mountain inhabitants, practitioners and local actors, and boost interest in collaborative projects, some practical actions could be implemented. In order to develop more effective communication strategies, researchers should make greater use of webinars, meetings and periodic public events to share methods and results in mountain areas as well as to implement visioning approaches and improve collective thinking.

13In conclusion, the workshop was an important step to bring together institutions that have long been interested/engaged in Id-Td research, critically reflect on their respective experiences, and build on these to promote Id-Td research at the Alpine scale and beyond. In order to continue and deepen the reflection, a workshop at the International Mountain Conference 2022 will be dedicated to all these topics.

14In fine, a second, more elaborated paper will be developed to further analyse the impacts of our research institutions on the sustainability of mountain regions.

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List of participating institutions

Labex ITTEM (Innovations et Transitions territoriales en montagne), University Grenoble Alpes – University Savoie Mont Blanc – INRAE

Interdisciplinary Centre for Mountain Research (CIRM), University of Lausanne

Department of Management, University of Torino

Department of Geography, University of Innsbruck

Department of Geography and Environment, University of Geneva

Chair Planning of Landscape and Urban Systems (PLUS), ETH Zurich

Faculty of Geography, University of Bucharest

Anton Melik Geographical Institute, Slovenian Academy of Sciences

Laboratoire Environnements, dynamiques et territoires de montagne (EDYTEM), University Savoie Mont Blanc – CNRS

Laboratoire Écosystèmes et Sociétés en Montagne (LESSEM), INRAE

Mountain Research Initiative (MRI)

Network for European Mountain Research (NEMOR)

The Caucasus Network for Sustainable Development of Mountain Regions (Sustainable Caucasus)

International Scientific Committee on Research in the Alps (ISCAR)

Global Mountain Biodiversity Assessment (GMBA)

Permanent Secretariat to the Alpine Convention

Secretariat of the Carpathian Convention – Science for the Carpathians

Institute for Interdisciplinary Mountain Research, Austrian Academy of Sciences

Università della Montagna (Unimont), University of Milano

UNESCO Chair on Natural and Cultural Heritage for Sustainable Mountain Development at the Centre for Development and Environment, University of Bern

Global Mountain Safeguard Research (GLOMOS), United Nations University – Eurac Research

International Commission for the Protection of the Alps (CIPRA)

Zone Atelier Alpes (ZAA)

Journal of Alpine Research|Revue de Géographie Alpine

Swiss Academy of Sciences

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1 We consider institution in a broad sense, which includes different kinds of entities dealing with mountain research (university departments, research centres, networks, organisations, associations, etc.).

2 Otero I., Darbellay F., Reynard E., Hetényi G., Perga M.-E., Rüegg J., Prasicek G., Cracco M., Fontcuberta A., de Vaan M., García J., Bussard J., Clivaz C., Moos C., Guisan A., Schaefli B., Mapelli N., de Bellefroid B., 2020.– “Designing inter- and transdisciplinary research on mountains: What place for the unexpected?”, Mountain Research and Development, 40(4), D10-D20. DOI:

3 Schneidewind U., Singer-Brodowski M., Augenstein K., 2016.– “Transformative Science for Sustainability Transitions”, in Brauch H., Oswald Spring Ú., Grin J., Scheffran J. (eds) Handbook on Sustainability Transition and Sustainable Peace. Hexagon Series on Human and Environmental Security and Peace, vol. 10. Springer, Cham. DOI:

4 Robert B. Dilts, 1994.– Strategies of Genius. Volume I: Aristotle, Sherlock Holmes, Walt Disney, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Meta Publications, Capitalo (California/USA), pp. 161-217.

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Raffaella Balzarini, Iago Otero, Carine Pachoud, Bastien Bornet, Emmanuel Reynard et Philippe Bourdeau, « Transforming mountains through inter- and transdisciplinary research?  »Journal of Alpine Research | Revue de géographie alpine [En ligne], Transitions, mis en ligne le 08 mars 2022, consulté le 17 juin 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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