How is transformative knowledge ‘co-produced’?

By Andy Stirling, Adrian Ely and Fiona Marshall

Andy Stirling (biography)

It’s often said that knowledge to tackle big problems in the world – food, water, climate, energy, biodiversity, disease and war – has to be ‘co-produced’. Tackling these problems is not just about solving ‘grand challenges’ with big solutions, it’s also about grappling with the underlying causal social and political drivers. But what does co-production actually mean, and how can it help to create knowledge that leads to real transformation?

Here’s how we at the Social, Technological and Environmental Pathways to Sustainability (STEPS) Centre approach this challenge of co-production.

Adrian Ely (biography)

Two senses of co-production

The definitions of co-production can sometimes clash with each other.

For example, do we mean that to be useful in addressing any given problem, knowledge needs to be ‘co-produced’ in particular ways and settings by a diversity of different kinds of actor? This ‘positivist’ sense encourages us to look at how specific kinds of knowledge are produced in particular settings.

Fiona Marshall (biography)

Or is ‘co-production’ about the unavoidable fact that all knowledge (of whatever kind), is always inherently and unavoidably co-produced alongside the social orders in which it is shaped and driven? In this ‘constructivist’ sense, context, culture and power can help to shape the forms taken by all understandings – for better or worse.

These two senses of ‘co-production’ are not interchangeable. If it leads to a sense of complacency, then the ‘positivistic’ sense – that of inviting new people into a single specific process to contribute to one particular new kind of knowledge – can actually prevent us fully recognising the key message of the second (constructivist) kind of co-production. That message is that knowledge is imprinted by power. While this doesn’t have to be a bad thing, it tends to have worse outcomes if undiscussed or unrecognised.

In this latter ‘constructivist’ view, attempts to engineer a single integration of knowledge will always depend on the situation and people involved. Other ways of integrating will always be possible, and lead to different possible conclusions.

This means there are some very concrete tensions between whether the benefits of co-production are seen to lie in striving towards single comprehensive bodies of knowledge, or a pluralist sensitivity and appreciation for a persistent diversity of understandings.

Practical implications

We offer three basic messages:
1) Relationships matter
First, knowledge is not ‘plug and play’. Relationships matter. This stems from understanding ‘co-production’ in its deeper (constructivist) sense – recognising how knowledge is always shaped by the social relations bearing on its production – which it then in turn helps to reshape.

In other words, transdisciplinary knowledge doesn’t just simply represent the phenomena it is supposed to describe. It will also reflect the disciplinary institutional and cultural conditions in which it was produced.

One of the lessons we’ve learnt from our work in the field has been that the very process of bringing together groups of people who are new to each other around a particular problem is productive. It allows knowledge and views to be exchanged in new ways. The process has also shown us some tensions and synergies between academic knowledge and the experiential knowledge held by activists and practitioners.

2) Power shapes knowledge production
Second, there is the crucial importance of power-in-knowledge. In all the talk about ‘evidence based policy’ it is easy to think that the main challenge is simply one of ‘speaking truth to power’. But producing effective knowledge for progressive transformation is also crucially about ‘speaking truth about power’. This recognises the many ways in which power in the process of producing knowledge can imprint upon the knowledge that is produced.

Without addressing this, the way that research is structured by various kinds of focus, categories, reductions and simplifications may inadvertently make patterns of exclusion worse.

In this light, the kinds of knowledge that need to be co-produced are not just knowledges about progressive transformation. So co-production doesn’t mean just ‘including’ people who wouldn’t normally be invited – it means making the relationship equal. People most affected by the potential outcomes of research should not just be invited in to have their say, but afforded equal respect and agency in the knowledge production process.

3) Co-production is slow knowledge
The third key lesson that flows from this is that co-production in its deepest sense is ‘slow knowledge’. There is a need and responsibility to resist the pressures of modern academia and policy making: quick fixes, neat solutions, disciplined schedules, short attention spans, branded processes, and the appropriation of credit for the outcomes of research. Co-production in the necessary deep sense is not just about one-off projects, exercises or tools. It is about the long-run forming of high-quality relationships spanning different social divides. History matters.

This does not mean that specific projects with limited duration cannot help in this process. They are essential. But for all the noisy claims that might be made, such exercises are most transformative when they nurture and highlight (rather than appropriate and sideline), the complex histories in which they are embedded. They must acknowledge with humility that they are small parts in much longer, broader and deeper movements of change, from and into which they feed.

Under such conditions, learning is about a process of engagement, forming deeper relationships and potentially wider alliances. Over the years, these are reinforced as positive experiences of co-production lead to an appreciation of the value of working across disciplinary and organisational perspectives. And where people trust each other enough, they can face the inevitable challenges (and sometimes failures) openly and together, contributing to shared learning and a better basis for co-producing empowering knowledge into the future.

Politics and co-producing knowledge

When it is said that knowledge is political, this often means that people use knowledge – from scientific papers to everyday practical experience – in ways that are (or should be) subject to debate, negotiation and other political processes.

But looking at co-production in this way shows that the politics doesn’t just begin when the knowledge is delivered. The creation of knowledge itself is political. And the different meanings and lessons around the ubiquitous language of co-production discussed here, show that these politics come in different shapes and flavours. The message of this blog post is that each different meaning has different strengths and weaknesses and complementary lessons.

One practical consequence of this is that different knowledges – of the kinds needed for real progressive transformation – cannot just be added together in some single process, defined by neatly codified (often branded) methods and tools.

Instead, co-producing knowledge for progressive transformation is about forming particular kinds of social relations. And the more equal these relations are, the less vulnerable knowledge becomes to potentially negative effects of power.

What’s your experience with co-production? Do your lessons align with ours or do you have others to share?

This blog post is adapted from a longer version How do we co-produce transformative knowledge?, which appeared in the blog of the STEPS (Social, Technological and Environmental Pathways to Sustainability) Centre. In the UK the STEPS Centre is hosted by the Institute of Development Studies and the Science Policy Research Unit at the University of Sussex.

Biography: Andy Stirling is a professor in Science Policy Research Unit (SPRU) and co-director of the Social, Technological and Environmental Pathways to Sustainability (STEPS) Centre at the University of Sussex in the UK. He is an interdisciplinary researcher on the politics of science and technology and formerly worked in the environment and peace movements. He has also collaborated with a range of governmental, business and civil society organisations – and served on a number of UK and EU policy advisory committees.

Biography: Adrian Ely PhD is a Senior Lecturer at the Science Policy Research Unit (SPRU), University of Sussex, UK and Head of Impact and Engagement at the Social, Technological and Environmental Pathways to Sustainability (STEPS) Centre. He co-leads the International Social Science Council ‘Transformative Pathways to Sustainability’ network as part of the STEPS Centre’s global consortium. His primary research interest is innovation for sustainable agri-food systems, especially with respect to their energy/ resource intensity and environmental risks, having researched these issues in Europe, North America, East Africa and China.

Biography: Fiona Marshall is Professor of Environment and Development at the Science Policy Research Unit (SPRU), University of Sussex, UK. She undertakes transdisciplinary research on environmental change and food systems; science and technology policy; the water-energy-food environment nexus, and sustainable urban development, mainly in the global south. Fiona is interested in the processes through which transdisciplinary research, can not only produce new knowledge, but also foster deeper systemic change in the knowledge system itself.

10 thoughts on “How is transformative knowledge ‘co-produced’?”

  1. Following Kirsten’s example, I wondered about the meaning of “transformation”. It’s true “we” need to know where we are starting from (diversity of world views, disciplines, distribution of power, resources etc), but we also need to know where we are going. But who is “we” and is there a consensus?

    Despite commitments entered into by some/most UN member governments to “universal human rights” or to the SDGs, or to the agreements on actions to reduce humanity’s contribution to climate change and to invest in risk reduction, conflict prevention etc, there is a gulf to be negotiated between understandings of what level of transformation, if any, will be required to achieve something closer to “sustainability” and how that might be achieved. Most of us can see that business as usual or incremental improvements aren’t going to cut it.

    If the purpose is co-production of transformative knowledge impacting policy and practice, ending/phasing out unsustainable economic activity, urgently addressing systemic injustices, “guaranteeing” basic rights for all, we will need both positivist and constructivist approaches. The two live side by side but “we” should have no illusions regarding power and privilege/vested interests – often systems in which we are embedded ourselves – as the main inhibitors to transformative change at the desired speed.

    Sadly, the three basic messages (urging attention to relationships, acknowledging different effects of use/misuse of power and noting the need for time) offer little comfort given, in reverse order, (1) repeated statements by credible experts about the need for urgent and comprehensive action don’t permit the luxury of lengthy contemplation in key domains;
    (2) the impotence of a multilateral system constrained by 18th century paradigms for the conduct of international relations when the big decisions are being made or driven by more agile private actors operating trans-nationally and governments behaving badly; and
    (3) chronic under-investment in relational skills based on mutuality, respect, fairness etc in “modern” societies de-sensitized by the barrage of “propaganda” promoting individualism, touting wealth and consumption as measures of success, and breeding collective complacency in the face of unprecedented (and unsustainable) levels of current and inter-generational inequality.

    Individuals from all walks of life are creating circles of transformation, seeking to influence the relevant institutions but not waiting for permission to show by doing what is needed.

  2. Speaking only for myself among the three authors – and invited by Gabriele Bammer to respond – I’d like very sincerely to thank the three commentators thus far: ‘elyasgarad’, ‘Dr Steve’, and Kirsten Kainz.

    To start with the first respondent, elyasgard, I appreciate the highlighting in this short comment of agreement with what is arguably the single most important theme of the blog – that talking about how power shapes truth is as important as speaking truth to power.

    As we try to show, what follows from this refers equally to all the many kinds and dimensions and contexts of power. It includes (for instance) the forms of cultural privilege that traditionally go alongside expertise, such that high quality specialist knowledge is typically only ever available under conditions in which it is entangled with other social contingencies like particular norms, values, assumptions, biases and interests.

    The issue is not therefore one of being ‘for or against’ – or even about any kind of expedient ‘trading off’ of expertise (or factual robustness) – against other factors. The challenge is rather one of recognising the inherently partly subjective nature of any human representation of the objective world. Since it is itself a manifest objective reality that knowledge is a function of both its subjective context as well as its objective focus, to acknowledge this and afford it due emphasis is a fundamental matter of scientific rigour.

    The comments by the third respondent, Kirsten Kainz, are also very welcome in this regard. These are very insightful further thoughts on knowledge, with which I (at least) would agree. And it is because of this, that I’d be happy to take up Kirsten’s request to engage in depth with the very interesting response by the second commentator, Dr Steve raising the much-discussed case of anti-vaccination mobilisations.

    It is in a case like the very serious example of concerns by some public constituencies over vaccinations, that the key thrust of our blog is arguably most relevant. Even though many specialists may entirely reasonably argue such scepticism to be irrational – rightly (in my view) pointing to very serious potential consequences – the conclusion cannot be simply to insist on some kind of impossibly transcendent state for the expert view. Indeed, this is not only itself arguably equally irrational, but also seriously counterproductive.

    The reason this is so relates to exactly the point above concerning power-in-knowledge. By virtue of the very fact of being specialists, experts will – alongside the undoubted qualities of their expertise in a narrow sense – also (eg: by gender, race, class, age, nationality, subculture – or professional or disciplinary interests) be entangled in broader cultural and institutional contexts that may be expected to have formative effects on the way they represent their knowledges.

    For instance, it is typically difficult for medical professionals fully to acknowledge or explore in a public information context, the political reality of the power dynamics around pharmaceutical companies. For all their undoubted efficacy in many vital public health settings, the IP-intensity, supply chain features, product synergies and mass markets also make vaccines a very attractive business model. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Without it, after all, vaccines would not exist. It is simply a fact of life which it is hardly rational to ignore.

    It is here that if the political economy – and associated industrial priorities and incentive structures – under which vaccines are produced are treated as entirely irrelevant to the shaping of associated knowledges (ie: there is a failure to talk about power), then the result may be seriously counterproductive. In other words, this is a point that it is especially important to recognise, when there is an aim of ensuring that powerful vaccine remedies are fully taken up.

    In short, if expert knowledge in this field (like others) is presented in romantic or overbearing ways – as if mystically-transcendent from its own social context (as if empty of any politics) – then this alone will raise suspicions. In other words, the deeper second sense of co-production that we discuss is even more important than the first sense. If expert institutions are guilty of this kind of naivety or self-interest, then what other kinds might they be concealing? As a result, communications efforts of this kind intended to reassure sceptical publics may also very likely prove much less effective.

  3. Thank you for this very interesting post. After reading, I turned to a dictionary to refresh my understanding of the definition of “knowledge.” Merriam Webster online provides three definitions: 1) a body of facts learned by study or experience; 2) the understanding of information gained from being educated; and 3) a state of being aware. These definitions seem to integrate well with the three practical implications you raise surrounding the co-production of knowledge. For example, if knowledge is a function of experience and/or education, then when that experience is not shared or that education is not shared neither is the knowledge. Consequently, relationships are central to knowledge co-production. And, because knowledge is relational and must be shared to be “known”, power dynamics are inherent (sharing is a critical skill throughout the life course!). Further, because knowledge must be shared to be known and power dynamics will have to be addressed to engineer shared knowledge, the co-production of knowledge will be slow. Where the analogies broke down for me was the quick contrast of positivist and constructivist perspectives. The previous comment about vaccines seems to emerge from the breakdown of understanding related to constructivist and positivist framing of co-production. I’d like to see you explore these fames in depth, citing your sources for the definitions and implications of constructivism and positivism.

    Thanks for a great read!

  4. The ability of diverse persons to share knowledge is certainly supported by their having otherwise good relationships of mutual trust and respect. Your definition of that ability, and the results, is very egalitarian, which may present problems.

    For example, the ongoing fiasco about vaccinations. In some parts of the world, otherwise well-educated and affluent individuals are choosing to avoid having their children receive standard inoculations. In other situations, one group may argue that all humans should have equal rights under the law, while other groups might argue for repression and persecution. For a third example, your article was written by a collaboration of intelligent educated people… what if someone with none of those three benefits should disagree with your perspective?

    While all persons may be accorded equal respect, it is not clear that all views should be held as equal.

    Another point made in the article is that the co-production of knowledge is a slow process. Interesting, yes. To make a metaphor, It seems that the speed of our co-production is related to our social technology. And, we do not want to push a horse cart at 100 Kph. The results would be disastrous. Fortunately, our ability to co-produce knowledge is enhanced by facilitation. So, we can get that cart moving at least a little faster.

    An important part of the process that the article leaves unaddressed is the question of what “is” knowledge and how do we measure “how transformative” that knowledge is (or might be, before it is put into practical application). One group has been working to measure the usefulness of knowledge by evaluating perspectives with “integrative complexity.” Our approach if “integrative propositional analysis” has proved very useful for accelerating the process of synthesizing perspectives while according equal respect for all views. A bit about that from a strategic planning perspective here: and here:


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