Principles for knowledge co-production in sustainability research

Today’s sustainability challenges need knowledge and solutions that are produced in collaboration between academics and non-academics.

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The idea for this paper was born in a hastily conceived meeting. Together with three of my co-authors – Chris Cvitanovic, Marie Löf and Simon West – I was sitting in the basement room of the Stockholm Resilience Centre (a room charismatically dubbed “the Dungeon”) trying to kill an hour before Chris had to leave for the airport and catch the plane back to Australia. Chris, Marie and I had spent the past week working on a project trying to understand how research organisations can enhance their impact on policy and practice. As the week was about to wrap up, we invited Simon to join us for a short meeting on knowledge co-production, a term that had in different ways crossed our individual research pathways over the past years.

Knowledge co-production implies knowledge and solutions being produced in collaboration between academics and non-academics. Sustainability researchers, funders and practitioners suggest that co-production can address complex sustainability challenges better than more traditional scientific approaches. However, as the four of us sat in the SRC dungeon, discussing these issues, we were struck by the diverse, and contradictory, ways that knowledge co-production is defined and operationalized. We also concluded that frameworks to assess its quality or success are lacking. This is hampering our ability to compare and learn from the outcomes and improve practice.

We wanted to address this increasingly problematic gap and write a paper that provided an overarching definition and principles for high quality knowledge co-production in sustainability research. A series of Skype calls later and we had hatched a more detailed plan. The first step was to invite another colleague into our core group, Carina Wyborn, who had been engaged in similar discussions about knowledge co-production with several of us. We wanted the paper to not only build on the literature but also mobilize the experiences and perspectives of leading researchers and practitioners engaged in knowledge co-production around the world. Of course, we knew we could not include everyone with experience in sustainability science co-production (indeed we recognize a huge number of experienced and committed researchers and practitioners who are not part of this study). The best we could aim for was to ensure a diverse enough “sample” to enable us to produce a widely applicable definition and principles. We began to identify relevant co-authors of a particular profile. Here the focus was on people deeply involved with the research and practice of co-production, for example, leaders of global collaborative research networks and prominent research centres and academics and practitioners who undertake and study co-production processes. We first targeted co-authors within our own networks, and then asked those participants to recommend further relevant people. We designed a survey, composed of 11 open-ended questions, to capture the diverse perspectives and experiences of all co-authors. We identified common patterns and themes from the survey responses. Once we had extracted and refined an overarching definition and common principles across the different interpretations and experiences of knowledge co-production identified in the responses, we returned them to our co-authors to check, refine and validate them. The first draft of the paper had been created!

What followed was a thoroughly enjoyable collective process of not only writing a paper, but learning from each other. In the final paper, we define knowledge co-production as ‘iterative and collaborative processes involving diverse types of expertise, knowledge and actors to produce context-specific knowledge and pathways towards a sustainable future’. We propose a set of four general principles that underlie high-quality knowledge co-production for sustainability research. We hope readers will appreciate the effort we put in providing concrete, practical guidance and insights for researchers and practitioners trying to set up their own co-production processes, and we welcome their input for a continued refinement of the principles and their assessment.

Albert Norström

Researcher, Stockholm Resilience Centre

My background is coral reef ecology, but my ongoing research areas are broad. My current work spans the social-ecological dynamics of ecosystem services, the development of positive social-ecological visions for sustainable futures and delivering better frameworks to understand what is meant by knowledge co-production in sustainability research. I currently serve as the Deputy Director of the Guidance for Resilience in the Anthropocene: Investments for Development (GRAID) programme which is hosted by the Stockholm Resilience Centre (SRC) and funded by the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida). It aims to bridge the worlds of resilience thinking and development practice. I am also a member of the Scientific Committee in Future Earth's Programme on Ecosystem Change and Society (PECS).