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Challenges of Transdisciplinary Research as


Interactive Knowledge Generation Experiences from Transdisciplinary Case Study
Research
ARTICLE in GAIA: OKOLOGISCHE PERSPEKTIVEN IN NATUR-, GEISTES- UND WIRTSCHAFTSWISSENSCHAFTEN
FEBRUARY 2007
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Challenges of Transdisciplinary Research


as Interactive Knowledge Generation
Experiences from Transdisciplinary Case Study Research

Arnim Wiek

Interactive knowledge generation in transdisciplinary research faces specific epistemological challenges


that affect the scientific quality as well as the social robustness of the research results. Reflections on
transdisciplinary case study research suggest a new type of mediated negotiation on epistemological issues
that ought to enhance the quality of these collaborative efforts.

Challenges of Transdisciplinary Research as


Interactive Knowledge Generation Experiences
from Transdisciplinary Case Study Research

Evaluating Knowledge Generation in


Transdisciplinary Research

GAIA 16/1 (2007): 52 57

The paradigm of transdisciplinarity (or mode-2 knowledge production) has evolved due to a revised positioning of science in
society. It claims to outperform disciplinary and interdisciplinary research in addressing complex societal challenges such as depletion of resources, disposal of nuclear waste or governing controversial technologies.1 Nowadays, the term transdisciplinary
labels a variety of programmes and projects in which scientists
and persons from business, administration, government and the
public to put it carefully interact intentionally and purposefully to generate socially robust and scientifically reliable knowledge
(Brand 2000, Nowotny et al. 2001, Thompson Klein et al. 2001,
Burger and Kamber 2003, Balsiger 2005, Scholz et al. 2006; see
for an overview: Pohl and Hirsch Hadorn 2006). The aspect of
knowledge generation is of core interest, as transdisciplinarity
is regarded as a research paradigm (Balsiger 2005, Zierhofer and
Burger 2007, in this issue). During the past two decades, a wide
variety of transdisciplinary research programmes and projects have
been conducted in Europe, such as the Swiss Priority Programme
Environment (SPPU) in Switzerland, the Austrian Landscape Research programme (KLF) in Austria, and the Social-Ecological Research programme (SF) in Germany. Some of the transdisciplinary programmes and projects have already been studied (partly
in vivo) or even evaluated with regard to knowledge generation
(Brand 2000, Gisler et al. 2004, Balsiger 2005, Maasen and Lieven
2006, Robinson and Tansey 2006, Zierhofer and Burger 2007, in
this issue).
A smaller but internationally conducted programme is the
International Transdisciplinary Network on Case Study Research and
Teaching (ITdNet) initiated at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) Zurich (Scholz et al. 2006). Since 1993, about 20
transdisciplinary case studies on regional development, urban mobility, industrial networks, and technology governance have been
conducted at the network nodes in Switzerland, Austria, Germany, and Sweden (Scholz and Posch 2006). In line with the reflex-

Abstract
There are already a variety of contributions focusing on the aspect
of knowledge generation in transdisciplinary research. Along the
same lines, this article analyses the features of knowledge generation in transdisciplinary case studies initiated at the Swiss Federal
Institute of Technology (ETH) Zurich and conducted in Switzerland, Austria, Germany, and Sweden. The article starts with the
description of what kind of knowledge is generated when and how
in transdisciplinary case studies. On this basis, the quality of the
underlying social interactions in terms of challenges, pitfalls and
good practices is critically reflected against normative guidelines
derived from the literature. Promoting the concept of transdisciplinary research as a third epistemic way demarcated
from involving laypersons in scientific research (the primacy of
science) as well as from classical decision support (the primacy
of practice) four challenges of joint knowledge generation are
discussed: confounded agendas, separate data philosophies,
reluctance to face exposure, and co-existing values. A new type
of mediated negotiation, so-called epistemediation, is proposed
at the transdisciplinary interface between scientists and local experts,
incorporating a new type of multi-layered peer review of expertise.
Keywords
case study research, epistemology, extended peer review,
interactive knowledge generation, mediated negotiation,
transdisciplinarity

Contact: Dr. Arnim Wiek | ETH Zurich | Institute for Environmental Decisions | Natural and Social Science Interface |
CHN K 73.1 | ETH Zentrum | 8092 Zurich | Switzerland |
Tel.: +41 44 6325260 | E-Mail: wiek@env.ethz.ch

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ive research mentioned above, the article at hand analyses the


features of knowledge generation in transdisciplinary case studies of the ITdNet. Involved in several case studies over the last five
years, I discuss the main challenges observed, focusing on the
inter-individual interactions in knowledge generation, such as information, consultation, collaboration, and negotiation. Based on
the description of what kind of knowledge is generated when and
how in transdisciplinary case studies, the quality of the underlying social interactions in terms of pitfalls and good practices is
critically reflected on. In this, normative guidelines of transdisciplinary research (Burger and Kamber 2003, Grunwald 2004, Defila et al. 2006, Pohl and Hirsch Hadorn 2006) serve as evaluative
points of reference. The article provides empirically informed
practical orientations that ought to be considered when conducting transdisciplinary research.

Knowledge Generation in Transdisciplinary


Case Studies
The process of knowledge generation in transdisciplinary case
studies is characterised by four features: i. the sequence of phases, ii. the type of problems addressed, iii. the types of knowledge
generated, and iv. the methods applied (cf. Zierhofer and Burger 2007, in this issue). These features are described below and
illustrated by an example (see box, p. 54).2
i. The process starts from latent and fuzzy incentives (needs, demands, questions, etc.) that successively evolve and manifest
themselves, leading to an explicit call for transdisciplinary research by either science or society. From this initial and fairly
unstructured pre-phase, the process enters the core period of
a transdisciplinary case study, which consists of four phases:
1. problem structuring and goal formation, 2. systemic statusquo analysis, 3. anticipation, 4. assessment. Post-processing
phases are strategy building (5.) as well as monitoring and evaluation (6.) (Scholz et al. 2006). The entire research process is
conducted as an iterative spiral, successively refining the yield
results. The iterative sequence can be regarded as a fine-structuring of problem identification, strategy elaboration and implementation (Pohl and Hirsch Hadorn 2006).
ii. Transdisciplinary case studies address socially relevant, complex and wicked problems that are specified by joint definition between science and society (cf. Nowotny et al. 2001,
Thompson Klein et al. 2001).
iii. The generated knowledge is functionally differentiated into
(a) analytical (explanatory, systemic, system), (b) anticipatory,
(c) normative (orientation-guiding, goal, target), and (d) actionguiding (transformation) knowledge. Types a, c, and d respond
to requirements for sustainability knowledge, according to
CASS and ProClim (1997), Burger and Kamber (2003), and
Grunwald (2004). Additionally, the proposed concept firstly
introduces anticipatory knowledge (type b) as a new category
requiring its own quality criteria of validity and reliability. It
secondly broadens the perspective on normative knowledge

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going beyond the narrow scope of operationalised goals and


targets, also including, among others, unstructured problem
perceptions, general preferences, and value structures (cf. Van
de Kerkhof and Wieczorek 2005). In accordance with the concepts mentioned, the different types of knowledge are not generated separately, but functionally related in the ideal process
of collective knowledge generation from structuring the problem to deriving strategies.
iv. Various methods have been adopted or developed in order to
generate the required knowledge in a transparent, structured
and generally reproducible way (Zierhofer and Burger 2007,
in this issue). The methods range from qualitative system
analysis, system dynamics, scenario construction, and multiattributive assessment methods to strategic network building
methods and evaluation tools (cf. Scholz and Tietje 2002, Scholz
et al. 2006, Wiek et al. 2006).

Levels of Interactive Knowledge Generation


As a social process, knowledge generation in transdisciplinary
case studies relies on the interactions of different agents from science on the one hand, and from other societal fields on the other. To analyse these interactions, we need a scheme going beyond
simple concepts of participation or involvement, i.e., from-into
perspectives. Dealing either with integrating external agents into the scientific research process (primacy of science), or conversely with integrating scientists into decision-making, i.e., decision support (primacy of practice), both perspectives constitute
asymmetries between scientists and stakeholders (Gisler et al.
2004). By contrast, the scheme proposed here conceptualises transdisciplinary research as a third epistemic way in terms of joint
research (cf. Maasen and Lieven 2006, Robinson and Tansey 2006,
Zierhofer and Burger 2007, in this issue). Likewise, the scheme
abandons the concept of decision support in favour of a new form
of joint decision-making. Departing from Arnsteins (1969) ladder of participation, adapted to decision-making processes by
Krtli et al. (2006), we can distinguish four levels of agents interaction in transdisciplinary research.
Level 1: One-Way Information
On this level, scientists and local experts constitute a unidirectional relation in which relevant information goes from one side to
the other (either from scientists to local experts or the other way
around, but not both at the same time) (cf. the concept of communication and consultation in Rowe and Frewer 2005). The
transferred information may be distributed and confirmed by the

1 I assume the readers familiarity with the differentiation between disciplinary,


interdisciplinary, and transdisciplinary approaches that is described at length
in the literature (cf. Balsiger 2005).
2 For more examples and literature please visit the webpage on transdisciplinary
case studies: www.fallstudie.ethz.ch.

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BOX:

Arnim Wiek

Transdisciplinary Case Study on Appenzell Ausserrhoden: Environment, Economy, Region


(Scholz et al. 2003, Scholz et al. 2006)

Appenzell Ausserrhoden is a rural pre-alpine area in the vicinity of St.


Gallen, Switzerland, struggling with problems of structural change. The
case study was conducted co-operatively by scientists and stakeholders
over two years (20022004). The study involved chief executive officers
(CEOs) from 20 small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), 20 scientists and 35 graduate students from universities, as well as numerous
officials, representatives and inhabitants (overall ca. 120 participants).
The problem-structuring and goal-formation process led to the guiding
question: What are the prerequisites for the regional economy in Appenzell Ausserrhoden in order to sustainably operate in harmony with the
environment and socio-economic needs?

as usual, active marketing, fusion to one major company, diversification specialised products, and intensive co-operation). The scenarios were subsequently assessed by experts and by representatives of
relevant stakeholder groups (e.g., sewers, woodworking industry, administration, and forestry). The assessments interactively co-produced normative knowledge in terms of desired and undesired scenarios (e. g., for
the wood industry, the scenarios business as usual and fusion to one
major company were rated to be less favourable when compared to each
of the other scenarios. Moreover, the results indicate that the most desirable future state is a mix of the scenarios active marketing, diversification specialised products, and intensive co-operation).

Relying on normative knowledge in terms of latent, yet unstructured problem perceptions and general preferences, three environmentally relevant
and economically vulnerable business sectors, namely the textile industry, wood industry, and dairy farming, were selected as case facets (cf.
figure).

Based on the insights of the scenario assessment, action-guiding knowledge was jointly generated in terms of strategic orientations, such as joint
events (e. g., annual public wood day for active marketing) and specific networking activities (e. g., regional clustering of textile companies,
and chain-building activities towards a wood chain).

Analytical knowledge was generated in a system analysis that addressed


the historical development, agent networks, production chains, and economic, social, environmental performance indicators of exemplary companies. The data were integrated into a semi-quantitative system model.
On this basis, anticipatory knowledge was generated in terms of futurestate scenarios for each industry (e. g., for the wood industry, business

Apart from direct short-term impacts such as follow-up meetings and


workshops, for instance, on the extrapolation of results by the Swiss Textile Association (Scholz and Stauffacher forthcoming), a comprehensive
impact evaluation indicates a mid-term influence on the decision-making capacity of stakeholders, especially through new social contacts and
the generation of action-guiding knowledge (Walter et al. forthcoming).

FIGURE: Sawmill in Appenzell Ausserrhoden. Practitioners and researchers interactively collaborated in the case study on traditional regional
small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) challenged by structural change and its socio-economic as well as environmental implications.

Td-Lab, NSSI, ETH Zurich

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receiving group (learning). Typical settings for level-1 interactions are expert or stakeholder hearings, focus or advisory groups,
or information panels (Van Asselt and Rijkens-Klomp 2002, Rowe
and Frewer 2005).
Level 2: Mutual One-Way Information
On this level, scientists and local experts constitute a bi- or multidirectional relation to exchange relevant information. Discussions
may take place to a minimal extent for clarification purposes. The
transferred information may be distributed and confirmed by the
receiving groups on both sides (mutual learning: Thompson
Klein et al. 2001). The typical settings for level-2 interactions are
similar to those on level 1.
Level 3: Collaborative Research
On this level, scientists and local experts not only exchange relevant information but jointly generate (new) knowledge on the
basis of their scientific as well as local expertise (joint research).
It might be useful to depart from Rossini and Porter (1979), who
propose four forms of collaborative research (socio-cognitive
research frameworks), focusing on how the research output is
determined by inter-individual interactions (cf. Pohl and Hirsch
Hadorn 2006). In this concept, intensive group interactions (e.g.,
common group learning) are presented alongside more indirect interactions (e. g., integration by leader). The latter, however, do not go beyond the levels of information (level 1 or 2). Contrary to that, interactive/collaborative research includes various
collective and social processes such as collective reasoning, disputation, negotiation and consensus building, in which various
interaction tools and media (e. g., models, questionnaires, focus
groups) are applied (Gisler et al. 2004). Observing such processes
in vivo (Maasen and Lieven 2006) reveals the imperfect reality
of transdisciplinary research. Pressures of content, time and social context as well as stereotypical images about participation,
stakeholders, etc. lead to different forms of controlling and management, e. g. for affirming expertise or facilitating the processes (cf. Brand 2000). These measures strongly predetermine the
scope, type, and range of interactions and thus play a major role
regarding the quality of the knowledge-generation process, and,
therefore, of the generated knowledge (cf. Gisler et al. 2004, Maasen and Lieven 2006). For instance, due to the aforementioned
pressures, in the majority of the transdisciplinary case studies
analysed, the involvement of stakeholders in the scenario-assessment phase displays two shortcomings. First, it relied rather on
an established and to some extent contingent network of agents
than on a criteria-based stakeholder analysis. Second, the assessment procedure was rather a static than an interactive and collaborative procedure that would have allowed for in-depth discussions and negotiations among stakeholder groups and experts
(cf. Scholz et al. 2003).
Evidently, (mutual) learning (levels 1/2) is a prerequisite for
collaboration. Typical settings for level-3 interactions are interactive workshops, consensus conferences, collaborative planning,
or cooperative discourses (Van Asselt and Rijkens-Klomp 2002,

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Gisler et al. 2004, Rowe and Frewer 2005, Defila et al. 2006, Pohl
and Hirsch Hadorn 2006).
Level 4: Joint Decision-Making
The interactions outlined on the levels 13 are restricted to prototypical constellations between the scientists and local experts,
thus neglecting the role of (prototypical) strategic agents, e. g.,
policy and decision makers. On level 4, scientists and local experts
not only jointly generate (new) knowledge, and pass the new insights on to strategic agents, who may use them in their decisionmaking process (level 3). Going beyond this situation, on level 4,
strategic agents are an integral part of the joint research, that is,
deeply implicated in the knowledge-generation process and not
only embedded in the contextual decision-making process. Interactions on this level replace decision support or policy advice in
their classic forms (cf. Rowe and Frewer 2005). Coined as responsibilisation of all actors involved (Maasen and Lieven 2006), this
stage of interactive research not only purposefully disturbs the
epistemic asymmetry but also the normative asymmetry between science and policy, or society (cf. Gisler et al. 2004). The
idea of pure science is eventually replaced by the idea of concerned science which is not only legitimised but obliged to contribute
to the generation of normative and action-guiding knowledge,
in particular. Conceptualised for rationalising decision-making
(Zierhofer and Burger 2007, in this issue), instead of adjusting,
accompanying or providing political fig leaves, this level of interaction strives for a balanced constellation among the agents
involved in the knowledge-generation process (Guimares Pereira
and Funtowicz 2006).
Evidently, (mutual) learning (levels 1 and 2) and collaboration
(level 3) are prerequisites for joint decision-making. The typical
settings for level-4 interactions are similar to those on level 3.

Challenges of Interactive Knowledge Generation


in Transdisciplinary Case Studies
Keeping the four-levels concept in mind, I now present exemplary challenges of the interactive knowledge generation we encountered during the core period of the transdisciplinary case studies,
i. e., along the four phases goal formation, analysis, anticipation,
assessment.
The main challenge in the phase of goal formation could be
labelled confounded agendas. There is a broad consensus that
it is necessary to negotiate and agree upon a specified goal at the
beginning of a transdisciplinary research process (Pohl and Hirsch
Hadorn 2006). However, in this phase the difference between the
social positions and obligations of scientists and those of the local experts is often not adequately taken into account (cf. Brand
2000, Burger and Kamber 2003). For illustrative purposes, I focus on the poles of the spectrum. As, in the majority of cases,
the local experts are affected by the problem under consideration,
their primary goal is to find a socially robust solution. In contrast,
the primary goal of scientists is given by their institutional obli-

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Arnim Wiek

gations: it is to produce data that can be published, discussed, and


used for further research in the international scientific community (cf. Maasen and Lieven 2006). In the transdisciplinary case
study described (see box above), the local experts claimed an urgent demand for coping with the ongoing structural changes in
the region. Working at ETH Zurich and thus obliged to constantly publish peer-reviewed scientific journal articles in English, the
majority of researchers had to consider disciplinary boundaries,
traditions of research questions, data quality, etc. Interactions on
levels 3 and 4 would have been indispensable for explicitly stating, negotiating and adjusting the different agendas, thereby considering the implications for the following research phases. In
the majority of the transdisciplinary case studies observed, this
process has not adequately been carried out due to typical pressures mentioned above (cf. Maasen and Lieven 2006).
The major challenge of interactive knowledge generation in
the phase of analysis could be labelled separate data philosophies.
According to a still widely held belief, scientific and local expertise can be distinguished by contrasting quantitative versus qualitative data, and formal versus intuitive data generation, respectively (cf. Maasen and Lieven 2006). Interactions on levels 3 and 4 can
overcome this pertinent dichotomy through a joint effort of discursive integration (Rossini and Porter 1979). For instance, advanced system modelling ranging from fuzzy logic and operational research to system dynamics demonstrates that different forms
of data and data generation (quantitative/qualitative, formal/intuitive) are partly recursive, complementary and equally important components of generating strategic knowledge (Wierzbicki
2007). As these accomplishments have been adopted, and new
methods have even been developed for integrating both forms of
data and data generation (Scholz and Tietje 2002, Wiek et al. 2006),
the majority of the transdisciplinary case studies observed coped
with this challenge.
In the phase of anticipation, the major challenge of interactive
knowledge generation could be labelled reluctance to face exposure. In the light of prevalent empiricism, it could be quite risky
to claim to be an expert on future developments. Considering the
various social interactions in transdisciplinary case studies, the
individuals involved often faced obstacles to exposing themselves
by generating knowledge about possible future states and developments (Wiek et al. 2006). Especially when conducting transdisciplinary case studies on broadly controversial issues such as nanotechnology or nuclear-waste disposal, anticipation ought to be
improved to accomplish level 3 and 4 by providing more appropriate settings for this exercise. Lessons can be learned from other
transdisciplinary research settings, for instance, the transition
arena that aims at accomplishing commitment, fairness, transparency, and competence (Van de Kerkhof and Wieczorek 2005).
Finally, regarding the assessment phase, the major challenge
could be labelled coexisting values. In transdisciplinary case studies multi-attributive assessments are carried out scientific-expert based versus local-expert based (Scholz and Tietje 2002). Both
types of assessment rely on the same criteria, which allows for
revealing and communicating different patterns of preferences,

as well as value conflicts among the expert groups. Ideally, in this


phase interactions on level 3 or 4 would be indispensable. However, the majority of the transdisciplinary case studies analysed
remained in revealing (diverging) values and preference structures and did not explicitly contrast and negotiate them in order to achieve (partly) consensual normative knowledge. Further
elaboration towards strategies and measures (strategic and actionguiding knowledge) was therefore partly built on unstable foundations. One reason for reservation might be that interactions
at least on level 4 would enter a controversial (and possibly hardfought) territory when arriving at the question of legitimisation
and how the societal power structure is interwoven with the values and preference structures of the scientific and local experts
involved. Further insights on this challenge are expected from
an ongoing transdisciplinary case study on the highly contested
issue of repository-site selection for nuclear waste (cf. Wiek et al.
2007, in this issue).

The Problem of Expertise and the Challenge of


Mediated Negotiation
In acknowledging local/practical knowledge as being equivalent
to scientific knowledge (Nowotny et al. 2001), one has to deal with
expertise and reliability in three aspects scientific knowledge,
local knowledge, and jointly generated knowledge (Guimares
Pereira and Funtowicz 2006) as all of these types occur in transdisciplinary research. The discussion on the reliability of transdisciplinary research is still dominated by the scientific sphere.
This is reflected in the terminology on extra-scientific agents and
involvement, as well as in the proposal that the scientists should
evaluate the local knowledge that is offered for integration into
the research process (cf. Burger and Kamber 2003). Instead, the
third epistemic way implies evaluating and affirming expertise
by constituting peer communities not only for scientific knowledge but also for the two other types of knowledge (local; jointly
generated), incorporating concepts of epistemic communities,
of peer and performance evaluation, of biases and fallacies (Guimares Pereira and Funtowicz 2006, Pregernig 2007, in this issue). In the transdisciplinary case studies analysed, this was initiated by inviting local experts and practitioners for peer-reviewing the case study reports. In various cases this lead to re-interpretations and modifications of the preliminary results (cf. Scholz
et al. 2003).
The challenges of the third epistemic way described above
(confounded agendas, separate data philosophies, reluctance
to face exposure, co-existing values) contain the general challenge of negotiation in the knowledge-generation process. Acknowledging asymmetries in power, perspectives and aspirations
between scientists, local experts and decision-makers, an epistemediator would be required who would facilitate the (epistemic)
process of joint knowledge generation, revealing and balancing
standards of scientific and local knowledge (best available knowledge) (cf. Van de Kerkhof and Wieczorek 2005). As Guimares

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Pereira and Funtowicz (2006, p. 43) point out: Mediation of


knowledge in this case entails organisation, communication and
exchange of a plurality of sources and types of knowledge. The
epistemediator would have to cope with a great number of social aspects such as communication technology and virtuality,
team size and structure (power, roles, possibility of participation),
etc. that could greatly influence the knowledge-generation performance of the collaborating agents (Gisler et al. 2004). This would
not only include traditional features of mediation such as structuring discussions and balancing contributions but also organising the aforementioned peer reviews of the knowledge generated
(Pregernig 2007, in this issue). The call for an epistemediator
might be self-evident. However, as in most transdisciplinary research projects, there was no epistemediator in terms of an independent person or team engaged in the case studies observed.
Restricted financial and temporal resources are obvious reasons
for this practice, but also latent aspects of power transfer as well
as the lack of experience. Efforts in this direction, relying, for instance, on expertise in cross-cultural organisational studies, would
successively build a basis of good practices that would bring the
reality of transdisciplinary research closer to its ideal.

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Joint problem identification and structuring in environmental research.
GAIA 16/1: 7274.
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Journal of Operational Research 176: 610635.
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Submitted May 22, 2006; revised version


accepted December 12, 2006.

Arnim Wiek
Born in 1972 in Loma Linda, CA, USA. Master in
Philosophy from Free University Berlin, PhD
in Environmental Sciences from ETH Zurich.
20052006 senior researcher at the Institute for
Human-Environment Systems at ETH Zurich.
From Spring 2007, visiting researcher at the
University of British Columbia (Vancouver),
Harvard University, and the Australian
National University. Research interests:
transdisciplinarity, integrated methodology of
modelling, scenario construction and assessment.

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