Wisely navigating knowledge co-production: Towards an ethics that builds capacities

By Guido Caniglia and Rebecca Freeth

1. Guido Caniglia (biography)
2. Rebecca Freeth (biography)

How can I ensure that marginalized voices are heard in this project? Whom do I call on to offer the next perspective in this workshop and why? How can I intervene in this particular disagreement in a productive way? These are typical questions that researchers and practitioners involved in knowledge co-production processes ask themselves. They express deep ethical concerns, which also have epistemological and political implications, as they address the question: What should I do in this situation? What is right and wrong for me to do here?

We suggest that a perspective based on the ancient virtue of practical wisdom may help researchers and practitioners alike working in knowledge co-production to navigate the complexities of these questions.

Practical wisdom: An ancient virtue for wise navigation

Our answers to the deep ethical questions that emerge in collaborative and participatory research will vary depending on the specifics of the situation we are in, who is involved, as well as our own positionality and role in research projects or academic institutions. There is no formula to follow. 

Instead, we are required to learn from experience and from one another how to navigate the many complexities embedded in the flux of relationships, commitments and conversations in the daily operations of collaborative work. The ancient virtue of practical wisdom can help us to cultivate both the will and skill for such navigation.

In Aristotle’s terms, practical wisdom (phrónēsis) is the capacity for making decisions and taking action on issues that matter to people’s lives, that is practical issues. In his best known work, Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle distinguishes this kind of wisdom from the capacity to produce things (téchnē) or to generate and work with abstract thoughts (epistème).

Practical wisdom is the central virtue, that is a learning-by-doing and cultivated capacity of citizens involved in public and social life. It is the virtue, Aristotle would say, of things that are relevant for managing human affairs towards good ends, that includes redefining what the good ends may be, dealing with other people and engaging with challenging questions, dilemmas, and situations.

Practical wisdom is the capacity to wisely navigate complex and contentious situations towards good ends. We illustrate practical wisdom through a visual metaphor in the figure below that depicts researchers as sailboats navigating difficult situations. Learning how to navigate wisely difficult situations requires both will and skill.

Sailboat metaphor for wisely navigating difficult situations in knowledge co-production. See detailed explanation below. Source: Based on Caniglia et al., 2023.

Will for establishing direction and sustaining determination

Practical wisdom supports developing the necessary will to get oriented when making decisions and taking action, while also adapting to ever-changing situations. Practical wisdom supports will also in the sense of sustaining determination and engagement through the many drawbacks one is likely to encounter along the way.

The circle in the middle of the figure represents a typical situation of difficulty (the big wave) and points out some important capacities that support the will to navigate such difficulties wisely: A) committing to justice (the steering wheel, which gives direction); B) cultivating care (a life buoy used for keeping people afloat); C) embracing humility (the keel that provides stability to the sailboat); and D) developing courage (the sails filled by wind pushing the boat in a particular direction). All together, these capacities may support researchers’ willful engagement and action.

Skill for deliberation and action

Practical wisdom also supports skill when making decisions in complex situations towards good ends. Thoughtful deliberation relies on the capacity to reason through the many complexities of decision-making and action, so-called practical reason, by giving arguments while also mobilizing intuitions and emotions.

Going beyond the decision-making process, practical wisdom is also a capacity to act skillfully. Skillful action refers to the capacity to put such considerations to work in specific contexts, whether individually or collectively.

The other situations in the journey illustrated in the figure show how practical wisdom includes skills such as: E) the agility to deal with many values, which may also be incommensurable (the many kinds of boats); F) the intelligence to work through power (going through a vortex); G) the discernment to apply general principles and concrete situations (circumventing sea stacks or icebergs to move in the desired direction); and H) the capacity to adaptively develop means and goals with strategy (different constellations of boats navigating waterscapes towards different destinations). These multiple skills are learned through experience when researchers navigate the obstacles and opportunities of co-produced research.

Wise navigation: from individual to collective

We may learn to recognize practical wisdom by looking at how (practically) wise people operate from a cultivated understanding of the world, when they endure the difficulties they encounter, or when they are able to learn reflexively from the consequences of their actions.

Practical wisdom may be seen at work when individual researchers or groups work through the complexities of collaboration. This is the case, for example, when researchers attempt to give space in a project to narratives and voices that had not been taken into consideration in its original design. And this despite the fact that attempting to create such space implies questioning their own assumptions of what is important in the project or reconsidering certain deliverables.

Moreover, practical wisdom can also be collective, such as when a research team engages constructively and courageously through dialogue and reflexive conversations to overcome tough moments. For example, a research team may realize that certain choices they have made reinforce power asymmetries or dynamics of marginalization. Rather than deciding to not see these problems, they decide to face the challenges that might emerge to make sure that marginalized voices are included and heard.

Towards an ethics of practical wisdom for knowledge co-production?

Practical wisdom gives an integrated and learning-oriented approach to the many capacities needed to address difficult situations that emerge in knowledge co-production. Yet, practical wisdom does not provide either easy recipes or certainty of success. It rather cautions against approaches that consider only one way to assess what is good or bad. It invites us to recognize the complexities of collaborative research and to develop the capacities, individual or collective, to deal with them.

Do these considerations matter in the work you do as a researcher or as a practitioner? How can the educational system foster the capacities required for practical wisdom? Do you know of examples of institutions that actually foster an ethics of practical wisdom? What can we learn from them?

To find out more:

Caniglia, G., Freeth, R., Luederitz, C., Leventon, J., West, S. P., John, B., Peukert, D., Lang, D. J., von Wehrden, H., Martín-López, B., Fazey, I., Russo, F., von Wirth, T., Schlüter, M. and Vogel, C. (2023). Practical wisdom and virtue ethics for knowledge co-production in sustainability science. Nature Sustainability. (Online) (DOI): https://doi.org/10.1038/s41893-022-01040-1. The reflections in this i2Insights contribution are the results of exchanges and conversations among the co-authors of this article.

Biography: Guido Caniglia PhD is a philosopher and historian of science working in sustainability science. His research interests revolve around the intersecting epistemological, ethical, and political dimensions of knowledge co-production in this field, including in the development of new educational formats. He is the Scientific Director of the Konrad Lorenz Institute for Evolution and Cognition Research in Klosterneuburg, Austria.

Biography: Rebecca Freeth PhD is a senior consultant with Reos Partners and an affiliate scholar with the Research Institute for Sustainability (RIFS) in Potsdam, Germany (formerly the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies (IASS)). She is based in South Africa. As a practitioner, teacher and researcher, she has an abiding interest in how to strengthen collaboration, especially in situations where competition, conflict or controversy are the more familiar ways of engaging.

5 thoughts on “Wisely navigating knowledge co-production: Towards an ethics that builds capacities”

  1. Dear Guido and Rebecca,

    Thanks very much for this insightful contribution! I think a perspective like this is very much needed in the discussions about transdisciplinary research. Posing the challenges of realizing transdisciplinary collaborations in explicitly ethical terms is an important step forward.

    As you already point to at the end of the piece, I also have some questions regarding how we move forwards with practicing practical wisdom and infusing education with the cultivation of practical wisdom:

    – How might educators contribute to cultivating practical wisdom within existing curriculum or is it necessary that we rethink the learning objectives of programs in institutes of higher education?
    – In particular, what are creative means by which we can assess the degree to which students have grasped and cultivated practical wisdom?
    – Is it fair to do this within the scheme of one particular course, or would it be a “master skill”, as you suggest in your paper, that would be assessed at the end of a degree program? Or perhaps this is a means to assess the long-term effects of a learning approach? Would we even want to assess these capacities or would this be mainly an orientation that educators can use to steer their own goals?

    Thanks for bringing these great ideas to the forth, really enjoyed reading it.


    • Dear BinBin

      Thank you! Your questions are so apt. I’ve just posted a response to Ricardo Ramirez below, which is also very much a response to your questions. And I know that my fabulous co-author Guido Caniglia has lots to share on this too.

    • Dear BinBin,

      thanks a lot for reading our piece and for your questions. Indeed, they are as central as they are difficult to answer. I resonate a lot with the way in which you frame the last question: Would we even want to assess these capacities or would this be mainly an orientation that educators can use to steer their own goals? I think this is a very wise way of framing the challenge 🙂

      As Rebecca mentioned also in the reply to Rodrigo practical wisdom can be developed through intentional exposure to core practical wisdom ideas and skills + observing others, having a mentor, experiential learning, reflexive practice, and opportunities to experiment through mistakes and “failures”. So, with the awareness that we might not even want to assess the many capacities that contribute to practical wisdom, as you say, I think there are multiple ways in which we can cultivate practical wisdom. We would love to actually develop the insights in the paper further towards multiple operationalizations in training and education settings for transdisciplinary researchers.

      Towards this goal, I think it will be important to convey interdisciplinary collaborations across education scholars, psychologists as well as with practitioners, facilitators, and scholars dealing with training of professionals (such as teachers, nurses, etc). Without trying to be exhaustive, I am mentioning here some examples of works that could be brought into dialogue in order to operationalize practical wisdom more in the field of transdisciplinary (sustainability and not only) research:

      A classic on phronesis as professional knowledge with many inputs towards operationalization and with a lot of reflections on the benefits (and limits) of a phronesis perspective: https://link.springer.com/book/10.1007/978-94-6091-731-8

      An example on the education side about using story telling to more concretely create the conditions for cultivating practical wisdom (maybe going more towards the kind of operationalization you were talking about, BinBin): https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/323052265.pdf

      An overview on research from (social) psychology that attempts to measure and operationalise wisdomn: https://academic.oup.com/psychsocgerontology/article/73/8/1393/4769351

      I think by initiating a dialogue across (and by leveraging existing interest and expertise from) these fields (and others), it might be possible to provide more operational ways to address your questions for the special situation/context of inter/transdisciplinary research.

      I think developing this work would be very exciting! Happy to chat more about this and to move in this direction. And I am sure the readers of the i2INSIGHTS blog will have many insights and examples to share.

      Thanks again for the questions, BinBin, and I hope that the answers are somewhat helpful .



  2. Hello Guido and Rebecca:
    It was refreshing to read your piece on practical wisdom in capacity development. Your piece leans on theoretical dimensions, which we complement with practice. I co-lead an action-research project in evaluation and communication capacity building; we have been at it since 2009.

    We have worked on this notion for communication capacity development: https://evaluationandcommunicationinpractice.net/knowledgebase/can-participatory-communication-be-taught-finding-your-inner-phronesis/

    We have also reflected on its dimensions in capacity development in both evaluation and communication, see reference to this theme in a recent primer of ours (available in 3 languages): https://evaluationandcommunicationinpractice.net/wp-content/uploads/2022/08/Ramirez-Brodhead-Quary_FacilitationPromptsEvaluators_2022-En.pdf?b1841d&b1841d

    Happy to chat one day!
    Warm regards,

    • Dear Ricardo
      Thank you for your response. I immediately read your article “Can participatory communication be taught? Finding your inner phronesis” with interest. It made me want to bring you, BinBin Pearce (who posted a response shortly after yours) and other readers into conversation around the questions you and BinBin share about HOW to engender practical wisdom practices in students. In your article, I found a valuable combination of approaches, including: Being exposed to core practical wisdom ideas and skills PLUS observing others, having a mentor, experiential learning, reflexive practice, and opportunities to experiment in ways that recognise the gold to be mined from from making mistakes and “failures”.

      And yes, inevitably, this takes time.

      In my own experience, all of these approaches can happen, and happen optimally, in group contexts where people are learning together, in conversation, benefiting from a much wider pool of experiences than they could have on their own. This includes group mentoring / coaching. So while the time frames absolutely do need to be extended beyond a workshop or a short course, a group cohort experience can intensify the learning for everyone, and place less of a demand on faculty / trainers / facilitators / mentors to invest time and resources in 1 to 1 learning.


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