With case studies from the Global North and the Global South, this guide covers a broad range of contexts. Nevertheless, it is much more than a patchwork quilt of case studies: it takes all that local learning from 10 years of experience and draws out more general insights to inform transdisciplinary knowledge co-production.

On initiating and designing collaboration and knowledge exchange

A key purpose of transdisciplinary co-production research is forming a team of societal actors and academic researchers who can work effectively together and engage in mutual learning. This process of eliciting, searching, selecting, and engaging relevant perspectives to jointly set up goals and criteria in relation to a real-world problem is commonly referred to as ‘problem framing’ and everyone who has something to say and is willing to participate can play a role.

Keeping real-life change in focus, it is important to include as many viewpoints and types of expertise as possible to allow the problem to be identified in its complexity. The initial trimming of the content and scope of the research process sets the stage for how the problem is framed, whose knowledge matters, and what is important to include or consider in addressing it.

However, in practice, the recruiting of participants and extent to which they can be involved is often limited by constraints such as time frames, budget, availability of personnel, specifications by funders, ethical or political considerations, or contextual conditions such as the geographical distance between potential team members. To avoid loss of interest and drop-outs later in the process, it is important to find a manageable level and scale of participation that can be maintained throughout.

Box 2.2 offers some overall guidance on considerations relevant to this process.

In co-production processes there are no predefined rules for who should take on what role or task. Rather, once a team has been set up, it is important to allocate time to explore the problem and potential research questions together. The project group together needs to clarify the key assumptions and prerequisites of the different participants as well as discuss and define the purpose and rules of the collaboration. This includes exploring power relations and potential power asymmetries or conflicts among members of the team and clarifying the roles and responsibilities. Doing so is often fundamental to sustaining engagement in the research process and building trust among team members.

While transparency is important throughout the knowledge production process, it is imperative at an early stage, so that everyone involved feels that the process mirrors their concerns and needs. Collaboration tends to benefit from recognizing the heterogeneity and clarifying key differences between the individuals involved.

The description in Box 2.3 exemplifies how this played out in a research project in Cape Town.

This concerns not only the obvious differences that motivated the collaboration in the first place but also those that are incidental to the collaboration. For example, each team member not only brings their own perspective on the issue addressed but they also bring their individual skills, experiences, professional identities, ways of working, forms of expression, worldviews, interests, motivations, and personalities. Recognizing these differences from the beginning of the process can prevent them from causing unneccesary tensions and frustration.

Generally, effective interaction rests on having enough time and willingness to understand, communicate, and contribute to a process. The ideal research process is often described as one that creates an oasis where all participants are given an equal voice, and where trust, creativity, and understanding can develop. However, building participants’ trust and commitment to the collaboration is highly challenging and often takes considerable time.

Enabling and safeguarding a joint knowledge process

(Text shortened by UK)

A critical issue is the ‘hidden politics’ of co-production. Universities remain powerful actors at the centre of efforts to support and innovate in transdisciplinary approaches. This endows academics with power and privilege in often unacknowledged ways. The need to navigate, negotiate, and manage across boundaries in collaborative work leads to a number of specific challenges for researchers. It is important here to distinguish between ethics and morality. Where morals are personal standards and beliefs that enable individuals to differentiate between what they see as ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, ethics refers to the systematized codes and standards defined by specific groups.

Standard ethical processes undertaken within universities can be unsuited to dealing with deep, collaborative research. Traditional assumptions do not always hold: instead of privacy, the emphasis is on publicness, disclosure, and intimacy; instead of informed consent, researchers need to plan for the unknown; instead of discrete and planned periods of data collection, everything is potentially data; instead of avoiding harm, the emphasis is on doing good.

Institutional ethical standards presume a distance between subject and object, researcher and researched that does not reflect the realities of collaborative work. Ethical dilemmas are plentiful: to what extent can anonymity be guaranteed in projects where partners’ identities are publicly known? What are the limits and boundaries of confidentiality, when researchers may have unprecedented and privileged access to the inner workings of partner organizations?

These conflicts require additional emotional labour in transdisciplinary co-production. Where institutional incentives and reward structures continue to value traditional work over more collaborative forms of research, co-produced research might not be considered ‘good’ for careers in a context where academic publication in peer-reviewed journals continues to be the hallmark of success.

Existential doubt arises when there are irreconcilable tensions between how we judge ourselves and how we are judged by others. Researchers undertaking this kind of work are motivated by being useful, making a difference or the quality and longevity of relationships, for instance. Rather than detached ‘experts’, researchers are positioned deeply within research contexts, often working on behalf of their partners rather than seeking to further their own agendas. This immersion in the contexts and lives of research partners blurs the boundaries between personal and professional identities and requires constant attentiveness and an increased ethics of care. This is especially the case when working with vulnerable or marginalized groups. At the same time, researchers need to manage competing pressures, with differential amounts of time, capacity, and positions to commit to long-term partnerships. The example of PhD collaborations in Dunga Beach highlights that the impact of the institutional power of the university can even be exacerbated in international collaborations, where Swedish researchers had greater antecedent power to  shape relations than local Kenyan researchers (see Box 2.4).

Many of these concerns are not new to the process and practice of research. However, transdisciplinary co-production exacerbates and heightens such issues. A case in point relates to the concern around co-optation. Power is manifest not only within and by the university but by privileged research partners who may mobilize their position to undermine access for others to research processes. Researchers need to be aware of how others, such as elite decision-makers, may be ‘gaming’ processes of transdisciplinary co-production, creating path dependencies that reinforce their access to resources.

Confronting the privilege and politics of transdisciplinary research is a daily task for many researchers undertaking this kind of work while simultaneously working across multiple boundaries. Although not unique, the risk is that the high levels of resulting emotional labour will lead to burn out, particularly in the context of concerns over precarity for contract research staff. Transdisciplinary co-production can leave researchers feeling vulnerable and exposed, adrift or homeless. Yet many argue that if researchers don’t feel uncomfortable, they aren’t doing it right! It is only by challenging ourselves, through and with others, that we can truly co-produce. At the same time, it is important to recognize not only emotional labour, but also emotional payback: from personal satisfaction, feelings of joy and privilege, and a sense of usefulness that comes from positioning oneself clearly as part of ongoing processes of social change.


Crossing boundaries with a reflective practice

(Text & Box 2.5 shortened by UK)

Transdisciplinary co-production requires crossing disciplines, sectors, organizations, and social and personal worlds, and this has to be underpinned by a reflexive practice. Reflexivity means analysing and understanding the conditions and processes through which knowledge is produced. This requires reflecting critically on the tools with which we work and the pre-understandings we bring to research. While we would argue that reflexivity is necessary for any research practice, it is particularly so for collaborative research. Researchers need to be clear about their own positionality and standpoint as a precondition for engaging with others. In working across boundaries, a constant questioning of what we take for granted is needed in order to be sensitive to the challenges that emerge.

Reflexivity is different from reflection. Whereas the latter involves looking back on past experiences in order to capture learning, the former constitutes a process of meta-learning – reflection not only in but on action. Reflection entails ‘in-the-moment reflective episodes’, whereas reflexivity is ‘a conscious cognitive process whereby knowledge and theory are applied to make sense of remembered reflective episodes’.

There is no such thing as a method for reflexivity. The issue is whether existing methods are or are not deployed reflexively. This is an essential point: no method can be a guarantee of reflexivity – it is not what method you choose but how you to choose to approach it. Writing is a common approach to aid reflexivity in the research process, whether in diaries, letters, essays or working with transcripts.


Suggested Reading:

May, T. and Perry, B. (2017) Reflexivity: The Essential Guide, Sage, London.

Leading and managing

(Text shortened by UK)

Active boundary management

Authors: Beth Perry and Tim May

Working across boundaries does not mean that they no longer exist or are relevant; on the contrary, co-productive research is characterized by active management of these boundaries. It is also characterized by the need for compromise and making-do in changing and variable research settings. As more participatory forms of collaborative research means leaving decisions and resources on the table, to be determined collectively by those involved, so participants need to develop the ability to be highly flexible, adaptive, and creative in contrast with the usual delivery of pre-planned research tasks.

These practices can be time-consuming and are layered on top, not instead of, traditional elements of the research process. They can be characterized by variable levels of tension and the need for conflict resolution and expectation management, depending on the interactions between culture, time, space, and politics. Boundary work requires understanding and working with the grain of different institutional cultures characterized by different processes, organizations, and practices of undertaking research. These can vary strongly even within academic institutions, for instance, between a traditional department and an inter-disciplinary or geographically defined cluster, section or centre. Culture varies internationally as the setting for collaborative research is shaped and constrained by different national political economies of research and systems of higher education.

Time is an additional feature. Paradoxically, while researchers are often encouraged to accelerate to keep pace with the supposed demands and needs of society, the value of collaborative research is often said to lie in the space it provides for those involved to think differently and reflect on their practice. This slowing down is precisely one of the reasons why deep collaborative practices tend to take a long time. Boundary work is needed to ensure that such spaces are conducive to all involved. This does not mean managing out, but managing with, conflicts that will inevitably arise in the negotiation of interests in collaborative research. The nature of these conflicts can vary and are often unearthed through the process of research, with unanticipated consequences. Participants may believe they are entering into a co-productive relationship and have sought to identify shared interests, goals, and values at the outset, only to realize that there are clear ideological differences between them. Many people have different ideas, for instance, about the means and modes of collaboration and this raises the possibility of conflict and tension. Such issues are not necessarily problematic, but can become so if group processes are captured, or co-opted by particular interests. For all these reasons, appropriately skilled and diplomatic leadership and facilitation is invaluable (see Boxes 2.6 and 2.7).


Administering transdisciplinary co-production

Author: Kerstin Hemström

Bringing together diverse stakeholders in transdisciplinary co-production carries with it many practical challenges and administrative burdens. When several institutions and organizations are involved, such as universities and public authorities, the details of the process often do not fit any of their institutional structures, routines or established practices.

Working within existing systems and finding windows of opportunity for a different approach requires creativity. Recurrently, new administrative and financial relations need to be invented within and between the scope of the participating organizations and institutions, to enable transdisciplinary co-production to take place. It is important to set up a reliable structure for the collaboration and sort out necessary formal partnership and contractual agreements. Different contextual conditions will require different strategies to enable this to happen. Groups and individuals work by various logics, have diverse needs for participation in the collaboration, and may require different forms of engagement. Generally, because these research endeavours vary and develop in the form and intensity of collaborations and partnerships, adaptability and flexibility are key. Ideally, the set-up should be flexible enough to allow changes deemed necessary later in the research process, such as taking on skills and expertise that could not be anticipated at an early stage. We share some examples of how transdisciplinary co-production has been facilitated at an administrative level within Mistra Urban Futures in Boxes 2.9–2.11.

Co-production of knowledge as a spatial practice

(Text shortened by UK)

Author: Henrietta Palmer

The role of space is pertinent to consider, both consciously and critically, when setting up a transdisciplinary co-production research process. ‘Space’ is frequently referred to in the literature on transdisciplinary research, with several conceptual connotations and attributed characteristics that explain its importance and relevance. Space is interwoven with the knowledge production process, as something necessarily ‘present’ for a process to achieve good results, or as a successful ‘outcome’ of the process itself. It is also attributed as ‘support’ that creates fruitful preconditions for transdisciplinary co-production, or thereover as something truly catalytic, embodying the setting, the process, and the outcomes.

Three dimensions of space are particularly relevant for transdisciplinary research and fill an important role in bridging knowledge production processes with the transformations necessary for overcoming institutional constraints for urban transformation and development. Our experience leads us to argue that one key outcome of transdisciplinary co-production is the creation of new urban spaces of inclusiveness.


The relational space of transdisciplinary co-production

A transdisciplinary co-production process needs to allow for learning and knowledge integration to happen. Therefore, the process itself is sometimes referred to as a ‘learning space’. Learning spaces are often discussed in conceptual terms, connoting the relationship between participating actors and their mutual agreements, or as ‘spaces for action’ in terms of attention or setting aside resources such as time and funding, or assuring the legitimacy of participation. Transdisciplinary co-production is understood as a relational space with certain inter-relational characteristics and requirements that need to be acknowledged, agreed upon, and set up to enable knowledge integration and learning to happen.


The physical space for transdisciplinary co-production

While the relational space lies at the core of the transdisciplinary co-production process, the importance of the physical space is often neglected. It is rather assumed that the collaborative enthusiasm of a transdisciplinary co-production endeavour overshadows any specific spatial requirements, allowing transdisciplinary research to take place ‘anywhere’. But certainly, transdisciplinary co-produced research implies a specific physical space for collaborative workshops, meetings, learning, and training. Space, then, has the capacity to support different means of coming together through its form, size, proportions, organization, light, materiality, and other designed and cared for features. Consideration needs to be given to how physical spaces should be designed or arranged to support processes of trustful openness, collaborative meta-reflection, and learning.


Physical space further occupies a specific location (as with the meaning of ‘place’) which makes the notion of space in transdisciplinary co-production research critical and political, as space takes on a role of accessibility, representation, and manifestation in relation to involved stakeholders and other urban actors and urban conditions. More neutral or unaligned spaces allows participants to step out of formal and daily roles to act in new constellations, unburdened by institutional bounds.


The institutional space generated through transdisciplinary co-production

The  transdisciplinary co-production process, bridges not only the realms of science and policy but also overlaps and blurrs the knowledge borders and professional roles of the two . The latter overlapping realm is defined as an open, social, and ‘permeable space’, and sometimes described as an ‘agora’, using the symbolic image of a classical ancient Greek urban public space, in which science can meet the public and the public can speak back to science . Knowledge is produced together with social order by redrawing the boundaries between academic and non-academic communities. The  boundaries between science and policy in the agora are provisionally blurred, as a necessary condition for changed perceptions and behaviours to occur. This gives the agora a radical potential, not only inviting individual participants to step out of their daily roles but also for the diverse organizations to act in new manners. With mandates from participating organizations, the agora, or the boundary space, could facilitate new structures to challenge power relations, leadership, and decision-making in a collaborative way. When new practices, technologies, and rules are eventually established, new ‘proto-institutionsʼ could emerge from these collaborative practices.


Space enables transdisciplinary co-production and urban change

The argument here is that relational and material conditions of space need to be strongly present in the processes of knowledge integration if they are to happen successfully, and that space in this context should be practised, experienced, and represented. Understanding transdisciplinary co-production as a public space is intriguing, liberating the process from becoming an isolated institutional experiment.

Transdisciplinary spaces could remodel both the fringes of the campus and the institutional contours of the university, creating new physical and institutional spaces for transformation. Transdisciplinary co-production will then exist, not only as a mode of knowledge production and joint social production but also as a mode of spatial production. Space is not merely a precondition for a collaborative research process and a possible institutional emergence, but the formation and outcome of both. Being critically conscious of this potential, involved actors could engage in urban transformation, creating inclusive spaces as urban commons, linking collective knowledge production to new spatial production. These then, could be urban spaces as a collective practice of pluralism and egalitarian difference.

Catalizing the change process

(Text & Box 2.5 shortened by UK)


Author: Kerstin Hemström

The knowledge emanating from transdisciplinary co-production can be carried, expressed, and inform action in multiple ways, for example, as materialized products, tools or guidelines in relation to specific issues, or manifested in increased capacities and deepened insights at individual, organizational or community levels. As has been explained in this chapter, what is useful knowledge for promoting urban change on the local level depends on what is meaningful for the specific purposes of the action. This knowledge need not be entirely ‘new’. It may intend to make better and more creative use of the existing knowledge in relation to a real-world problem to better facilitate sustainable change. Similarly, the participants of transdisciplinary co-production need not necessarily reach consensus around the issues addressed or the possible solutions suggested. They may very well engage in mutual learning and knowledge integration, each setting something into motion that has significance for the real-world problem at hand.

Having a broad range of actors involved in transdisciplinary co-production opens multiple pathways to change. An underlying motivation for pursuing transdisciplinary co-production in the first place is the reciprocal relationship between knowledge and action. This means that the knowledge we carry does not necessarily precede our actions but is constantly put into use either consciously or subconsciously. Similarly, through our actions, our knowledge is in constant development. This implies that, when relevant stakeholders are involved, the knowledge they co-produce is not ‘applied’ to action, but used interchangeably, regenerated, and used within the situation at hand to better act upon it. It informs the usual manner of thinking and acting by everyone involved and can generate considerable personal rewards through, for example, feelings of inclusion, empowerment, and involvement in social change. Frequent interactions among the participants of transdisciplinary co-production can also generate longstanding relationships, networks, and alliances, making it easier for disparate actors to approach one another again. This can mean, for example, that subaltern knowledges, such as those of poor or indigenous community members, achieve greater legitimacy and influence to address structural injustices in urban development.

As detailed throughout this chapter, relevance is not automatic but closely tied to how the transdisciplinary co-production process and interactions between participants unfold. Critical reflection on the interests, concerns, roles, and responsibilities different participants assume in the co-production process, while paying attention to the frictions and tensions that the interactions provoke, is key to achieving societally relevant outcomes. Here, the question of how to best tailor change and the search for solution-oriented outputs and actions need to be continually integrated, sensitive to changes in the real-life context that may open windows for change or call the research focus into question. Box 2.13 on the failure of a fish-cage farming project in Kisumu illustrates just how critical this type of reflective practice can be. Practising reflexivity (see principle ‘Crossing boundaries with a reflexive practice’) in a transdisciplinary team is a way of checking up on the relevance and validity of the research activities and results that accommodate multiple perspectives.

Meanwhile, doing so jointly can itself induce change. The process of examining, questioning, and revising taken-for-granted perspectives and assumptions helps to identify disparate expectations and objectives and facilitates exchange of ideas, arguments, and information. This opens doors for a peer-to-peer learning that can promote and empower participants to contribute more actively to change.

Scroll to Top