Addressing complex, political and intransient sustainability challenges of transdisciplinarity: The case of the MEGADAPT project in Mexico City

Published in Environmental Development, v. 38: 100604

Bojórquez-Tapia, L.A., Eakin, H., Hernández-Aguilar, B., Shelton, R.

Publication year 2021

Laboratorio Nacional de Ciencias de la Sostenibilidad, Instituto de Ecología, Ciudad Universitaria, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, Ciudad de México, 04510, Mexico
School of Sustainability, Arizona State University, PO Box 875502, Tempe, AZ, 85287-5502, USA

IAI Program


The study was funded through the National Science Foundation, CNH: The Dynamics of Multi-Scalar Adaptation in Megacities (Grant No. 1414052, PI HE), and the Collaborative Research Network-CRN3: Coping with hydrological risk in megacities: Collaborative planning framework for the Mexico City Metropolitan Area (Project number: CNR3108, PI LABT). This article is a partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor in Sustainability Science, UNAM, of B. Hernández.

IAI Project CNR3108


Transdisciplinarity (TD) is now recognized as one of several core approaches to sustainability science. Efforts over the last decade have led to the conceptualization of transdisciplinary endeavors and the definition of practices that define the fundamental ambition and aspiration of TD. Nevertheless, while the principles defining transdisciplinary research are increasingly clear, the practice and disparate contexts of TD often receive a less critical examination. The ideal of research co-design and knowledge co-production is particularly challenging &mdashalthough arguably particularly salient&mdash in the highly contested, highly politicized, urgent, yet also uncertain settings of many sustainability problems.

In this paper, we use the case of an international, transdisciplinary project to explore some of the challenges in scientist-stakeholder interactions in addressing a truly wicked sustainability problem in Mexico City: chronic flooding and water scarcity. We argue that in cases such as that of water risk in Mexico City, clear and transparent procedural &ndash or algorithmic approaches can serve as robust mechanisms for integrating disparate knowledge. When linked to &ldquoboundary objects&rdquo such as the geographic support decision-making system used in our work, procedural approaches enabled our team to illustrate the interdependence of disparate actors' values, decision priorities and actions, and the effect of these interdependencies on the city's vulnerability. We contend that the realities of countries like Mexico compel the implementation of &ldquotransgressive TD&rdquo to push the frontiers of sustainability rather than reinforce pre-existing (and unsustainable) patterns and paradigms.