By Flurina Schneider, Lara M. Lundsgaard-Hansen, Thoumthone Vongvisouk, and Julie G. Zähringer
How can science truly support sustainability transformations?
In our research projects we often find that the very process of co-producing knowledge with stakeholders has transformative impacts. This requires careful design and implementation. Knowledge co-production in transdisciplinary and other research leads to social learning and can make a difference in the lives of those involved.
Should a doctoral student specialise in transdisciplinary sustainable development research? What are the opportunities and challenges associated with undertaking a program that requires research integration and implementation?
At the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences, Vienna in Austria, teams of PhD-students and academic supervisors collaborated with representatives from regions, cities, public authorities, businesses or civil society to solve pressing and often wicked sustainability problems. We learnt the following ten lessons.
What are the practical implications of mobilising knowledge in complex systems? How can the rules, regulations, incentives and long-entrenched power structures of a system be changed so that knowledge mobilisation is maximized?
We propose six interdependent actions, briefly described below, undertaken at two levels, by those who: (1) are managing specific knowledge mobilization initiatives (initiative managers), and (2) are in a position to make the environment more receptive to change (key influencers). These people may not necessarily be involved in specific initiatives.
¿Cómo pueden los gobiernos, las comunidades y el sector privado efectivamente trabajar juntos para lograr un cambio social hacia el desarrollo sostenible?
En este blog describo los procesos claves que permitieron a Uruguay lograr uno de los regímenes más avanzados de protección del suelo de tierras de cultivo de secano en el mundo. Una explicación del proceso es la creación de una cultura pragmática de la complejidad, una cultura inclusiva, deliberativa que reconoce la naturaleza compleja del problema y abraza el potencial de lo posible.
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.
Relationships are the underpinnings of the co-production process. The quality of knowledge gained and the solutions produced are a function of the quality of relationships among the participants.
In a recent paper, Lorrae van Kerkhoff and Louis Lebel (2015) also made strong claims about the relevance, salience, and potential impacts of relationships in the co-production of science and governance needed for sustainable improvements responding to global environmental change.
One important clarification raised by van Kerkhoff and Lebel (2015) is that relationships exist not only among individuals, but also among institutions. These relationships among individuals and institutions exist in historical contexts that are interpreted differently by diverse members. Individual and institutional interpretations affect action and meaning-making in co-production settings.
The term ‘translational ecology’ was coined by eminent natural scientist William Schlesinger in a 2010 editorial in Science magazine. He wrote, “Just as physicians use ‘translational medicine’ to connect the patient to new basic research, ‘translational ecology’ should connect end-users of environmental science to the field research carried out by scientists who study the basis of environmental problems.”
Further, Schlesinger posited that without such communication, ecological discoveries “will remain quietly archived while the biosphere degrades.” The editorial chafed some ecologists whose work is motivated by increasing our understanding of natural systems. Others, however, were inspired by this call to action and sought ways to (re)orient their careers from inquiry toward impact.
Our group, which includes natural and social scientists, educators, and practitioners from both academic and non-academic institutions, expanded Schlesinger’s vision of “two-way communication between stakeholders and scientists.”
The language of ‘co-processes’ is much in vogue in policy, practice and academic communities worldwide. In commerce, product design and politics, the power of the crowd has long been recognised, but can co-processes be harnessed for the public good? The answer, right now, appears to be ‘maybe’.
What are co-processes and what are they for?
The briefest survey of the literature on co-processes confirms there is substantial variation in how they are defined and what methods or techniques they include. A confusing multiplicity of related terms exists—co-construction, co-production, co-design, co-innovation, co-creation—all are in regular use, sometimes interchangeably, and often defined at an unhelpful level of abstraction (for more on this topic see the blog post by Allison Metz on Co-creation, co-design, co-production, co-construction: same or different?). Nevertheless, however we define co-processes, participatory methods, boundary-spanning and inclusivity to varying degrees are foundational principles that can be detected in most accounts. Beyond that, the stated purposes and proposed outcomes vary considerably.
Interdisciplinarity has the potential to broaden and deepen our understanding and application of methods and tools to address complex challenges. When we embrace interdisciplinarity we broaden what we know about the potential methods for assessing and tackling problems, and we deepen our understanding of specific methods by applying these methods across different contexts. In my pursuit to understand co-creative processes by interconnected stakeholders – i.e., the deep and authentic engagement of stakeholders across governance, science, and community boundaries to identify and optimize the use of evidence for positive outcomes – I have been influenced by methods used outside of my discipline of implementation science and current context of child welfare services. For example, I recently read an article that studied the co-production of knowledge in soils governance (Prager & McKee, 2015) in the United Kingdom and was struck by the usefulness of these ideas for child welfare services in the United States.
A key topic across disciplines is the authentic engagement and participation of key stakeholders in developing and guiding innovations to solve problems. Complex systems consist of dense webs of relationships where individual stakeholders self-organize through interactions. Research demonstrates that successful uptake of innovations requires genuine and meaningful interaction among researchers, service providers, policy makers, consumers, and other key stakeholders. Implementation efforts must address the various needs of these stakeholders. However, these efforts are described differently across disciplines and contexts – co-design, co-production, co-creation, and co-construction.
Developing consensus on terminology and meanings will facilitate future research and application of “co” concepts.