Coproduction, Critique and Collective Knowledge: Driving Positive Change

The challenge of measuring and valuing the impact of co-produced research has been widely recognized by academics. One reason why this is the case is because of how we define impact in the first place.

For instance, research evaluation frameworks, such as the UK Research Evaluation Framework, can perpetuate a heroic model of academic endeavor, whereby individualized achievements continue to be celebrated over collective knowledge generation.

Often, the burden of proof requires that particular impacts are codifiable, quantifiable and attributable to particular individual’s underpinning research – rather than to jointly conducted, messy processes of knowledge production between academics and community groups. This has led academics such as Sonja Marzi and Rachel Pain writing in this blog to reframe impact in and as process.

I have been troubled by the question of how best to understand the impact of co-production for many years. Between 2010 and 2020, I led a research program called Realising Just Cities, brought together with funding from a number of UK and international organizations. The program was part of an international center, Mistra Urban Futures, headquartered in Sweden, which aimed to develop partnerships between urban actors in four city-regions to co-produce knowledge to address critical urban challenges.

Our aim was to test and learn about how co-production could contribute to realizing more just cities: by working with residents, activists and communities; exploring municipal co-production and reflecting on necessary changes in the practices, processes and sites of knowledge production. In Greater Manchester, Northern England, UK the program involved 14 locally engaged research projects, responding to: climate change, economic injustice, social inequalities, spatial planning, community housing and food governance. It was delivered by a team of 13 researchers within the university and over 300 co-researchers brought in through formal partnerships with over 60 organizations.

Our formative and summative evaluations, carried out through collaborative group reflection and independent evaluations, revealed the value of the program articulated by participants. This included: shaping policy processes and opening imaginations, enabling trans-local learning, exchanges and networks, as well as stimulating infrastructures for action and building capacity. For many individuals, a sense of self-efficacy and belief was the primary value of the program, from which they went on to continue their own work, or take new directions, such as through establishing their own charities or organizations. Some participants reported that they had learnt ‘new things’ or developed skills, but for many, co-production provided evidence and justification for what they – and we – already knew.

The most valuable outcome, however, was a process of collective diagnosis and problem reformulation as the basis for action, given further weight through new coalitions that could continue to mobilize evidence produced for advocacy and activism, even after the program ended. This collective critique and the assembling of evidence for urban alternatives was a significant outcome and perhaps the most important one in the timeframe of the initiative. Examples included work around community-led housing and participation in spatial planning, where long-standing diagnosis of problems, constituting community critique, was translated into different forms of evidence in the constitution of more collective city-regional intelligence.

In a recent paper, “Co-production as praxis: Critique and engagement from within the University,” I elaborate this argument – that one impact of co-production is the generation of collective critique. Co-production takes seriously the idea that people have critical capacities to evaluate their own situations in everyday life. Critique is not an abstract act reserved for ‘experts,’ but requires different modes of organizing to create arenas for people to gather and mobilize and reformulate an understanding of their own conditions and how to act within and on them.

Producing a shared critique as the basis for collective action, through a strategy which plays with both engagement and distance, suggests particular moves which academics can make in mobilizing and forming collectives and coalitions. Putting this into practice requires designing boundary spaces, intermediating between knowledge claims and balancing between articulated and attributed values for co-production. This gives rise to co-production as an epistemic praxis, characterized by boundary work, epistemic choreography and triple shifting – doing one’s job, unpaid engagement and emotional and care work.

Often co-production and critique are seen as antithetical. In contrast, as a tool to address epistemic injustice, I have argued that the co-production of critique itself is the basis for action, in a way that takes the experiences and expertise of those systematically excluded on board. The extent to which we can do this is mediated by both our institutions and systems of funding, incentivization and reward. What is required is recognition of how we are tethered to those institutions and systems, how we can mobilize them to address complex societal challenges and, not least, how we can seek to change them from within.

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Beth Perry

Beth Perry is professor of Urban Knowledge and Governance at the Urban Institute, University of Sheffield. Her research focuses include the theory and practice of co-production in urban governance and research and addressing urban epistemic inequalities.

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