Co-producing critique and the impact of collective knowledge

Drawing on work carried out for the Realising Just Cities programme, UI Director Professor Beth Perry discusses how co-production enabled participants to collectively develop and refine a form of critique that can drive positive change.

Community is kindness

Last year Beth wrote a blog post for the LSE Impact Blog which is a hub for researchers, administrative staff, librarians, students, think tanks, government, and anyone else interested in maximising the impact of academic work in the social sciences and other disciplines. You can read the blog below. 

The challenge of measuring and valuing the impact of co-produced research has been widely recognised 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 endeavour, whereby individualised 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 programme called Realising Just Cities, brought together with funding from a number of UK and international organisations. The programme was part of an international centre, 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 realising 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 programme 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 organisations.

Our formative and summative evaluations, carried out through collaborative group reflection and independent evaluations, revealed the value of the programme 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 programme, from which they went on to continue their own work, or take new directions, such as through establishing their own charities or organisations. 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 mobilise evidence produced for advocacy and activism, even after the programme 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 organising to create arenas for people to gather and mobilise 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 mobilising 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, characterised 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, incentivisation and reward. What is required is recognition of how we are tethered to those institutions and systems, how we can mobilise them to address complex societal challenges and, not least, how we can seek to change them from within.

Interested readers can watch a video of Beth Perry’s recent lecture Why should urbanists care about co-production? on YouTube.

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