Column: Interdisciplinary Publications of Note

Julie Thompson Klein and Rick Szostak

This column calls attention to recent publications, including books, articles, and authoritative reports. Our purpose is to alert AIS members to works meriting their attention, without full-fledged reviews.

Hemström, K., Simon, D., Palmer, H., Perry, B., and Polk, M. (2021). Transdisciplinary Knowledge Co-production: A Guide for Sustainable Cities. Warwickshire, UK: Practical Action Publishing. 

The ten-year Mistra Urban Futures project was a major transdisciplinary center for co-production of knowledge involving academics and representatives of civil society as well as private and public sectors. It provided an institutional umbrella for collaborative research and problem solving at a time when the concept of transdisciplinarity was evolving beyond the traditional quest for unity of knowledge and overarching synthetic paradigms, such as general systems and feminist theories, to trans-sector participation of a wide range of stakeholders beyond the academy focused on complex societal problems. Five primary authors and a large number of contributors joined in compiling a guide based on pertinent literature and experience in five contexts spanning Cape Town’s African Center for Cities in South Africa, local interaction platforms in the Kisumu urban area of Kenya and a cross-city Sheffield-Manchester initiative in the United Kingdom, as well as the Gothenburg and the Skäne platforms in Sweden along with the Stockholm node. The genre of a guide makes this 175-page booklet suitable for individual and group background reading as well as a possible text in courses in urban studies and on inter- and trans-disciplinarity. Numerous short presentations from local platforms include descriptions of projects, key lessons or takeaways, and pertinent bibliography enhanced by drawings and photos of design and collaboration methods on site.

Five primary authors and large number of contributors joined in compiling a heuristic guide with examples of methods that might be adapted in particular geographical areas and problem contexts. Part I is an Introduction to co-production of urban knowledge and related approaches. Part 2 elaborates on methods and tools, including creating spaces conducive to co-production, designing integrative processes, and blurring boundaries to foster understanding. Part 3 presents concluding reflections and recommendations along with an appendix describing the local interaction sites. The common focus was collaborative work on urban challenges, though the authors emphasized in their concluding recommendations that “Context is everything….” At the same time, insights from a growing literature underscore the importance of scholarly understanding of the dynamics of transdisciplinary co-production with the aim of moving beyond experiments to a new epistemology of knowledge production that is action-oriented and sustainable long term. Given the centrality of context, the authors do not present a universal model with prescribed linear steps. Working across both disciplines and sectors, they exhort, is rarely linear. It requires ongoing and reflexivity about norms and relations. Furthermore, co-production of knowledge is a generative process, attuning to different institutional and cultural settings, building trust in collaborative groups, recognizing the role power plays in representation and decision-making, and deploying creative, outcomes-focused, visionary, and egalitarian forms of leadership.

Two additional topics loomed large in the book–space and learning. The first topic encompassed multiple forms of relational, physical, and institutional spaces of transdisciplinary co-production that facilitate integration of knowledge, exchange and interaction, and neutral ground for boundary work that is not circumscribed by disciplinary and sector boundaries, while also fostering learning. Part 2 comprises the bulk of the book. Chapter 3 in particular focused explicitly on differing ways of creating space for co-production. Guides such as this one are crucial resources because methods are dispersed across contexts, complicating the search for appropriate ones for particular projects. The Action Research Collective in Sheffield-Manchester connected a wide range of stakeholders in a new form of peer community that functions as a critical reflexive space. It did not settle for a neat final solution but accepted diversity, adaptation, creativity, and uncertainty as conditions of working across multiple kinds of boundaries. The CityLab program in Cape Town, in turn, focused on overcoming divides of disciplines as well as policy and practice when addressing challenges of climate change, health, safety, and public culture. Here as in other chapters methods varied: including a seminar series, joint publications, field trips, and collaborative writing. And, the Challenge Lab in Gothenburg identified leverage points at in-between spaces where no one individual or organization can govern alone. Location in a science park in this instance was also a neutral space between the academy and society.

Chapter 3 also included transdisciplinary expert Panels in Skäne that provided space for co-learning activities involving representatives of three regional universities and municipalities. A doctoral course for both students and practitioners in Gothenburg’s Urban Futures Open Research School provided another space with multiple learning outcomes, including gaining knowledge and understanding of urban challenges, honing competencies and skills for projects, and developing judgment for evaluating impacts. Approaches included practical case studies, learning-by-doing and reflection-in-action, and co-learning from student-teacher interactions as well as teachers learning from students. In turning to integration in Chapter 4, co-learning also occurred in Gothenburg’s Well-being in Sustainably Cities project, including identifying knowledge needs of Mistra’s local partners and affirming the importance of ongoing feedback. Researchers within the Sheffield-Manchester local platform also called attention to the value of trans-local learning, which expanded to include interactions in networks and group beyond one local site through learning visits. The occasion for the first learning visit was a Mistra conference in Cape Town where Manchester and Gothenburg officials met with researchers from the academy and the social sector. The second was a mixed delegation from Manchester at a meeting of the International Observatory on Participatory Democracy in Barcelona, and the third was a three-day trip to Gothenburg by a trans-sector delegation of representatives from Manchester and the West Midlands Combined Authority. Each visit fostered learning about citizen involvement in decision-making and experience using particular tools, techniques, approaches, and methods. 

In addition to examples cited above, Chapter 5 also illustrated the Knowledge Transfer program in Cape Town’s CityLab, embedding PhD researchers in the City for three years to work on topics spanning environmental and social justice. The Jam and Justice Action Research Collective in Manchester also called attention to the value of everyday expertise in a small community and the method of Photovoice to render views of community members visible. The Collective’s inverted citizens’ jury on homecare for elders was a model of deliberate democracy that recognized the lay expertise of community members. The FunkKet method of learning from knowledge and experience of visitors to cultural sites expanded accessibility for the disabled to the Museum of Gothenburg. And, the building of a playground in Dunga within the Kisumu County of Kenya provided a safe space for children whose mothers worked in a nearby fish market. This project also furnished lessons about not only social cohesion but also the challenge of perpetuating a project with minimal resources. As these and other examples repeatedly document throughout this guide, participation requires representation. Leveling the playing field, the authors conclude, requires grappling with implicit and embedded power relations, whether talking about academic disciplines or trans-sector transdisciplinary co-production of knowledge.