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Toilets and Transdisciplinarity

Transdisciplinarity in North-South collaborations, knowing what happens between natural sciences and social constraints is a challenge. Transdisciplinary projects have large aspirations to advance science and address societal problems. However, their participatory nature leads them to find their own direction, sometimes beyond the scope and conceptual frames we put on them.

Dr Léon Späth from the ETH Zurich TdLab (Transdisciplinary Tab) and Sustainable Agroecosystems Group was interviewed by Jillian Student, postdoc Transdisciplinary Research at WIMEK (WUR).

J: Why toilets and transdisciplinarity?
L: In principle, you don’t need transdisciplinarity to study toilets alone. But if you want to include waste production from toilets to agriculture, as we are doing in the RUNRES project, then you need transdisciplinary approaches because of the social relevance, homes and schools, and connecting your work to society. In our project, it is mainly about connection of toilets to other sectors, not about the toilet itself.

J: What are moments analysed?
L: TD approach is also a mindset, where different techniques and methods give you means to reflect and question your assumptions. And from this you can learn and make a better process. Initially, we made a plan for the process and of what we expected to learn, with direct visible impacts (toilets in the market: how much they are used (pay for entrance); how much raw material is produced; how much nutrients can be captured for agriculture) and indirect impacts, which are more difficult to see (does it work? do we learn something?). Eventually, we look at what we have learned, and it is often very different than the initial plan.

J: You’ve talked about learning from the project, how often do you do this analysis?
L: We aim to do it twice a year because of logistical and Covid-related restrictions, ideally my wish would be to do it four times year.

J: How do these reflection moments look like and what forms do they take?
L: We often go for more organic workshop formats, where we pick appropriate methods on what we want to learn or reflect on (see the Td-net toolbox in annex). There is a need for space for these kinds of processes in projects, which usually happen in-person. We see that learning is a “vulnerable” process and requires openness, as learning implies admitting that we were wrong about something. For example, our initial assumptions were that in the place where the project takes place, 90% of waste captured in toilets would be organic. But, we see that barely more than 50% of waste is organic. But someone had to be willing to admit that these estimations were not correct, and we had to reconsider what does this mean in term of potential resources for the agriculture. This requires safe space and trust. This remains difficult with stakeholders, with difficulties like different societal positions, the “foreign researcher effect”, also because of how busy stakeholders are.

J: What can be done to foster trust and create a safe space?
L: So far, showing that as researchers we also learned, and to present that in an honest way, helped. If we arrive and say that we have the “right answer”, people can become defensive. To me, transdisciplinarity is also about admitting that we are all part of the solution not the provider of the solution.

J: How to embed reflection in a transdisciplinary project?
L: In our project, we asked stakeholders to present what they have learned, and not just showing “this is what we achieved”. For example, we didn’t only want pictures and numbers on composting, but asked stakeholders to think about and present what have they learned, and we used this as a base for discussion in our workshops.

J: What about post-project analysis?
L: In our project, we are not so far yet, but when considering the next proposal or project my advice would be to plan time, resources, and space for learning “distillation”. Looking back at past projects, there was often a focus on cognitive learning. But the learning can be beyond individual cognitive learning, for instance what is the value of connecting people? What is the transformative effect of the project and what got transformed at an actor scale? If you plan more space and time, there can be more opportunities for this kind of reflection and learning distillation and a structured safe space and trust are key for this.

J: How has the reflection you have done going to influence the next iteration of this project?
L: Bluntly put, the initial mindset among the project stakeholders and us was that there is “Gold in our toilets”, as some of them put it, and that people could earn money from transforming organic and human waste to agricultural fertilizer. However, the results show that “Maybe it is not gold; it is complex, but the benefits of reusing waste can be shared and achieved together”. So, it is not just what can be earned or what the environmental effect is, but an integration of environment, economics and social needs, and eventually about improving in the situation of local people beyond the disciplinary work that has been carried out before.

TD-net toolbox:
td-net toolbox (method profiles) | Methods and tools for co-producing knowledge (

RUNRES project page and video:


Jillian Student

WIMEK Postdoc on Transdisciplinary Research


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