By Andy Stirling, Adrian Ely and Fiona Marshall
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.
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.
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.
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.