By Lorrae van Kerkhoff
When we talk about co-creation, co-production, and co-design as exciting and productive alternative ways of approaching collaboration, it often doesn’t take too long for the conversation to turn to the challenges. Barriers, roadblocks, and disincentives appear and are lamented, or perhaps we celebrate that they have been overcome in a research-practice equivalent of the triumph of good over evil.
For every project the triumph may look a bit different – from the support an innovative funding agency, to a policy-maker or practitioner who understood the value of research, to the dedication, energy and sheer persistence of people who enjoy working together – the solutions are many and multi-faceted. These achievements should indeed be celebrated, and the lessons from them should be harvested.
But is there more to this story? I focus here on recognising and unpacking the more structural issues that make co-creation and co-production hard: specifically, knowledge governance. Knowledge governance refers to the formal and informal rules that shape the ways in which we engage in knowledge-based activities (Clark et al., 2016), including:
- Knowledge production,
- Research agenda-setting and financing,
- Sharing or protecting knowledge,
- Access and availability to knowledge, and
- Implementation and use of knowledge.
Some of these are familiar and easily recognisable: intellectual property law is a clear example of a formal rule shaping access and availability, for instance. Others, however are more implicit and some are even, we might say, insidious. These include social expectations about how decisions should be made, or what people regard as more (or less) legitimate knowledge in any given decision-making context.
Investigating knowledge governance helps us to put barriers and opportunities for co-creation, co-design and co-production of knowledge into a more systematic institutional context. It can help us to recognise how our project-based work can be crafted to better fit the internal and external demands placed on practitioners to make sound decisions.
As an example, in our research examining knowledge governance in the cross-cultural setting of Palau, we were surprised to learn that Western ideas of transparency in decision-making (where ‘evidence’ and ‘objectivity’ are prioritised and publicly displayed) ran counter to traditional modes of ‘whispered’ decision-making, where conflict is avoided through procedures that were carefully crafted to respect the wisdom of elders. Overt displays of expertise and contests over whose knowledge counts most were frowned upon, as they potentially undermined the knowledge embedded in the experience of traditional leaders (van Kerkhoff and Pilbeam 2015).
While the lessons from this example are not surprising (treat indigenous knowledge-holders with respect, seek appropriate permissions and endorsements from leaders, learn rather than tell, and so on), understanding the specifics of a given decision-making context can help to generate more targeted, specific approaches to co-design and co-production.
Beyond the project scale, understanding the broader institutional context can also help researchers and practitioners to identify which parts of ‘the system’ may need to be tackled to generate significant support for co-creation, co-design and co-production.
In Australia, for example, a major review of research policy and funding arrangements (known as the Watt Review) identified that traditional measures of research impact through publication citations and impact factors were inadequate. Watt and fellow reviewers noted that “Notions of ‘technology transfer’, where one party supplies and another receives, have been replaced by the more relationship-based ideas of mutual engagement and ‘co-production of knowledge” (2015, p.66). Associated recommendations include combining new metrics for measuring impact and engagement with qualitative case studies.
These changes, if fully implemented, create an opportunity both for existing co-production work to be recognised and supported, as well as a wider cultural shift in academic institutions to build experience and capacity in co-productive approaches to research. Knowledge governance research and analysis can help to identify such leverage points, and build a case towards their implementation.
It is these bigger shifts that will ultimately help to move us from situations where successful co-creation is no longer regarded as the triumph of good over evil, but just a normal way research ought to be done. By systematically seeking to understand and recognise the important roadblocks, and the biggest opportunities for change, we can work more effectively to foster these transitions. Knowledge governance is a conceptual tool that can help us get there.
Comments are welcome: can you add good examples of particular knowledge governance interventions (rules, funding arrangements, problem-based programs…?) that facilitate co-creation, co-design and co-production in research?
Clark, W. C., van Kerkhoff, L., Lebel. L. and Gallopin, G. (2016). Crafting usable knowledge for sustainable development. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 113, 17: 4570–4578.
Online (DOI): 10.1073/pnas.1601266113
van Kerkhoff, L. and Pilbeam, V. (2015). Science, culture and community-based environmental governance: A pilot study of Palau. Fenner School of Environment and Society, Australian National University. Final report (FR2015-14), Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research: Canberra, Australia.
Watt, J. (2015). Review of research policy and funding arrangements. Commonwealth Department of Education and Training: Canberra, Australia.
Biography: Lorrae van Kerkhoff (@ANUsustsci) is a Senior Lecturer and Research Fellow in sustainability science at the Fenner School of Environment and Society, The Australian National University. Her research focuses on understanding the role of science in governance and decision-making for sustainability, with a special interest in cross-cultural settings. She teaches in areas related to the social and political dimensions of sustainable development, and practical approaches to tackling complex environmental problems. She is a member of the Co-Creative Capacity Pursuit funded by the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC).
This blog post is one of a series resulting from the first meeting in April 2016 of the Co-Creative Capacity Pursuit. This pursuit is part of the theme Building Resources for Complex, Action-Oriented Team Science funded by the US National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC).