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31 March 2017

The Value of Co-Design /Co-Production as a Methodology for Promoting Sustainable and Just Cities

The Value of Co-Design /Co-Production as a Methodology for Promoting Sustainable and Just Cities

"There are diverse approaches to transdisciplinary co-production/co-design/co-creation, which all share the key features of deep and extended participation."

(Article based on the INTREPID Winter School training session on 16th Feb 2017)

Although the conventional expert-led approach to knowledge production relies on compartmentalized expertise, this remains the dominant form of practice around the world, in both urban and non-urban contexts. Similarly, while the virtues of interdisciplinarity are widely appreciated, institutional structures and systems of academic organization and evaluation generally perpetuate or even reinforce narrow disciplinarity.

Conversely, numerous forms of participatory research, often pioneered in the context of ‘development’ work in the global South, seek to get beyond narrow consultation of the intended beneficiaries of planned interventions by engaging them more actively in planning and decision making. While sometimes successful, pressures of time and resources commonly lead to dilution or shortcuts. This invariably reduces the extent of participation, sometimes to little more than conventional short consultation exercises. Perhaps the best-known example is how rapid rural appraisal (RRA) evolved as a quicker and less deep version of participatory rural appraisal (PRA), an approach associated most closely with Robert Chambers (Chambers 1994a, b, c).

More recently, bold new initiatives have sought to overcome these problems through bringing teams of different stakeholders, including academics, together to undertake joint research. This is the essence of transdisciplinarity (Lawrence 2015; Simon and Schiemer 2015). It requires the researchers from the different stakeholder groups to share their respective understandings of the issue at hand and to agree that it does constitute a shared problem that they wish to research. If yes, then they need to develop and implement the methodology jointly, undertake the analysis and output writing together and support the partner stakeholder or institution that has the formal responsibility for implementation.

There are diverse approaches to transdisciplinary co-production/co-design/co-creation, which all share the key features of deep and extended participation. Hence they have the potential to overcome the shortcomings of traditional research approaches, and improve the appropriateness of solutions and their chances of successful implementation (Polk 2014; Durose and Richardshon 2016). However, there is no blueprint and each process must be formulated individually. Consequently, these arrangements are time-consuming and uncertain in terms of process and outcome. This makes the approach unattractive to some stakeholders and individuals, who prefer simpler and more predictable research methodologies and processes. Even reporting to funding agencies can be challenging because such processes do not sit easily with rigid annual budgets, activity schedules and annual reporting cycles and formats.

Urban sustainability contexts, embodying concerns with equity or justice, provide some particular challenges, which Mistra Urban Futures strives to address through a series of inter-institutional partnerships in the five cities where it currently has transdisciplinary research platforms, namely Gothenburg and Malmö/Lund in Sweden, Sheffield/Manchester in the UK, Cape Town in South Africa and Kisumu in Kenya. These cities, ranging in size from around 200,000 to several million and located in very different geopolitical, socio-cultural and socio-ecological contexts in both the global North and South, provide diverse experimental testbeds. Each platform has its own approaches, developed or modified for local appropriateness (Polk 2014, 2015; Palmer and Walasek 2016). In a new set of projects being established for our second phase of work, another challenging element of originality is being added – structured comparative research among our research platforms where each platform chooses a locally appropriate project within the Centre’s strategic research themes. This enables the comparative research to have an important self-reflexive learning component (‘formative evaluation’) in addition to the substantive comparative research topic. As far as we can ascertain, such systematic international comparative research has never before been undertaken. This is thus highly innovative and will enable us to distinguish the relative importance of local circumstances and conditions as opposed to more generalizable issues.

The importance of having institutional partnerships underpin the research activities is considerable. Not only does it lend each platform the political ‘buy-in’ and support of its participating institutions at the highest level, but it also provides enhanced status for each institution’s staff member(s) working within the co-production team, with the research commitment constituting a formal part of their regular job descriptions and expectations. These arrangements then also support the staff member within the institution which has the formal or legal responsibility for implementing the research outcomes and recommendations. Many participants particularly value undertaking the research and holding meetings in the platform’s offices, which serve as a ‘safe space’ in which to debate, argue and think outside the normal constraints and parameters and working practices of their respective institutions. Participants from non-academic institutions, in particular, tend to find this empowering, since they are not used to such debates and engagements, which range more broadly than their normal work parameters.

Conversely, implicit power relations, both interpersonal among team members and among the participating institutions, often remain evident and can bias outcomes. It is also perhaps inevitable that structural constraints and power relations tend to circumscribe some parameters – such as, for instance, in defining what might constitute an appropriate problem for particular institutions to address or the terms in which research and subsequent remedial action are circumscribed.

The challenges are considerable but transdisciplinary co-design/-production methods hold potential for transcending some of the structural contradictions and vested interests that have bedeviled conventional approaches to knowledge production and application in pursuit of more sustainable cities that have the essential characteristics of being accessible, green and just (Simon 2016).

Relevant reading:

Chambers, R (1994a) The origins and practice of Participatory Rural Appraisal, World Development 22(7), pp. 953-969.

Chambers, R (1994b) Participatory Rural Appraisal: Analysis of experience, World Development 22(9), pp. 1253-1268.

Chambers, R (1994c) Participatory Rural Appraisal: Challenges, potential and paradigm, World Development 22 (10), pp. 1437-1454.

Durose, C & Richardson, L (eds) (2016) Designing Public Policy for Co-production. Bristol: Policy Press.

Lawrence, R (2015) Advances in transdisciplinarity: Epistemologies, methodologies and processes, Futures 65, pp. 1-9.

Palmer, H & Walasek, H (eds) (2016) Co-production in Action. Gothenburg: Mistra Urban Futures

Polk, M (2014) Achieving the promise of transdisciplinarity: A critical exploration of the relationship between transdisciplinary research and societal problem solving, Sustainability Science 9(4), 439-451. DOI

Polk, M (2015) Transdisciplinary co-production: Designing and testing a transdisciplinary research framework for societal problem solving, Futures 65, pp. 110-122.

Polk, M (ed) (2015) Co-producing Knowledge for Sustainable Cities. London: Routledge.

Simon, D (ed) (2016) Rethinking Sustainable Cities: Accessible, green and fair. Bristol: Policy Press. Available on open access from;keyword=Rethinking%20Sustainable%20Cities

Simon, D & Schiemer, F (2015) ‘Crossing boundaries: complex systems, transdisciplinarity and applied impact agendas’, Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability 12, pp. 6-11, DOI:


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