Looting the Ivory Tower: “Co-producing urban sustainability transitions knowledge with community, policy and science”

This one is another good’un, albeit perhaps not entirely plausible in its ‘how to solve the problems identified’…

The title: Co-producing urban sustainability transitions knowledge with community, policy and science

The authors: Niki Frantzeskakia Ania Rok

The journal: Environmental Innovation and Societal Transitions Volume 29, December 2018, Pages 47-51

The DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.eist.2018.08.001

The abstract:

This viewpoint presents insights on designing, engaging with and researching multi-stakeholder engagement spaces based on the experience of the ARTS project (2014–2016), active in five European cities also relevant for a broader European scale. We argue that those spaces represent an important new instrument of participatory governance that can elucidate the way different actors like community initiatives relate to and employ planning and policy contexts for working towards sustainable urban futures. The multi-stakeholder engagement spaces are analyzed regarding three functions they fulfill: co-creating new knowledge for action, making sense of contemporary transitions, and, exploring how sustainable solutions impact transitions. The lessons learned focus on the roles of different actors within those spaces as well as the link between the multi-stakeholder engagement spaces and a broader local context. We name three caveats including deeply entrenched mistrust between local transition initiatives and local government representatives, existing power imbalances and inclusivity.


In plain English/tl:dr: A couple of academics, having been involved in studying a bunch of transitions initiatives in five European cities, explain some of the jargon (very usefully), highlight some of the dangers and also point to some of the dangers/problems (spoiler: am unconvinced that their solution is a solution).

Key concepts:  Local transition initiatives, multi-stakeholder engagement spaces (and I thought LPP was a mouthful?!)

The first-

Local transition initiatives are actor collectives led by civil society, business entrepreneurs and partnerships of those that actively work on sustainability solutions in their local context and contribute in accelerating urban sustainability transitions (Ehnert et al., 2018).

The second –

Multi-stakeholder engagement spaces are institutional spaces in which multiple actors convene to allow exchange of ideas, dialogue on issues and solutions and interactions concerning targeted problems and their proposed solutions. We identify three functions for designing, engaging with and researching multi-stakeholder engagement spaces: co-creating new knowledge for sustainable solutions, making sense of contemporary transitions, and, exploring how sustainable solutions operate and impact transition dynamics in the making. Multi-stakeholder spaces enable participants to co-produce new knowledge to advance urban sustainability transitions. Most of the literature on public participation focused on the methods to engage stakeholders for legitimizing plans and policy implementation, with their use often mandated by legal requirements. Participation was often criticized as characterized by tokenism.

Then let’s scoot down to the fourth of five lessons learnt-

Fourth, the complexity of urban sustainability transitions requires reaching out to diverse stakeholders, bridging existing communities and networks. This process can be time-consuming and at times frustrating, for both participants and facilitators. Used to talking to people who speak the same language, have similar ways of working or share similar concerns, people fear leaving their comfort zones and need time to find a common ground with others. Working in these co-production spaces, we observed that a new sense of shared purpose and social ties were created between people previously working in parallel. This further showcases that creating new partnerships is instrumental to making an impact in sustainability transitions (Frantzeskaki et al., 2014) and it supports democratization of knowledge on sustainability solutions that is paramount for those solutions to be legitimized and widely accepted (Carton and Ache, 2017).

Well, yes, but who has the capacity to sustain that new sense of shared purpose? And who gets to reshape it to their own ends? (they kind of flag that in the second and third caveats)

Second of three caveats

4.2. Peeling off local transition initiatives for the sake of ‘research’ and political agendas?

Local transition initiatives (especially those led by civil society) are important for empowering local actors “to participate in policy making” (Vignola et al., 2009, p.695) and for sharing their knowledge on how to make and scale sustainability solutions. When scientists and/or local policy makers discover impactful local transition initiatives, they often invite them in different fora and promote them as ‘iconic projects’ that showcase possibilities for contributing to urban sustainability agendas. With their limited resources and sometimes unbalanced exposure and demands, local transition initiatives become vulnerable and peeled off in serving different agendas (Frantzeskaki et al., 2016). For this to be alleviated, a new form of commitment is needed both by local governments and by local transition initiatives to respect the autonomy of local transition initiatives in having their agenda and (social) mission and be considered as ‘associates’ in specific topics or activities (Voorberg et al., 2014). Both policy makers and researchers should respect time, effort and resources local transition initiatives can and may contribute and seek ways to compensate and/or acknowledge them. (emphasis added)

HOW?  What would that LOOK like?? With which individuals and organisations would which academics have to work with, how and for how long to show respect, to compensate?  How would that be measured so it could be funded?


And as they ask “open and inclusive to whom?”

It remains to be explored how to further engage with community actors and local transition initiatives that were not as established nor as impactful yet as those we selected to engage with. At the same time, it was a challenge on how much effort and time researchers could claim from stakeholders for carrying out this new mode of knowledge co-production that requires intense and continuous interactions with multiple stakeholders. The issue voiced early on was about the power relations between researchers versus the ‘other’ stakeholders since researchers’ time was paid for whereas the ‘other’ stakeholders – especially local transition initiatives – were requested to invest their personal time, or, volunteer their professional time. This makes such processes limited in scope since only a certain type of stakeholders can volunteer their time and access personal and ‘organisational’ learning from such engagement processes. 

 If the multi-stakeholder engagement spaces fulfill their promise of equipping its participants with new knowledge for action and better understanding of transition dynamics, they will be able to continue without the protection of science and will find their own ways to influence a broader local context.

Hmm, I could be wrong, but this seems to betray a naive faith in the Magical Power of Knowledge (MPK)  to overcome baked in class-race-time issues (alluded to earlier).  You can’t magic away those barriers, much as you’d like to. I would be very staggered indeed if the authors didn’t already know that very well, of course…

Marc’s two cents: Defo worth reading – alive to the intricacies and messinesses in the “Quadruple Helix” (no, seriously, there’s an article with that in the title on my reading list – #livingthedream)

Should you read this?

Hell yes


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