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Co-Production For Sustainability

Available Open Access under CC-BY-NC licence. Reporting on the innovative, transdisciplinary research on sustainable urbanisation undertaken by Mistra Urban Futures, a highly influential research centre based in Sweden (2010-19), this book builds on the Policy Press title Rethinking Sustainable Cities to make a significant contribution to evolving theory about comparative urban research.

Highlighting important methodological experiences from across a variety of diverse contexts in Africa and Europe, this book surveys key experiences and summarises lessons learned from the Mistra Urban Futures' global research platforms. It demonstrates best practice for developing and deploying different forms of transdisciplinary co-production, covering topics including neighbourhood transformation and housing justice, sustainable urban and transport development, urban food security and cultural heritage.

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In terms of the logic laid out in Chapter One, this chapter moves from the locally co-produced transdisciplinary research in individual city platforms to the even more experimental approach of comparing such local research approaches across varying urban contexts.

Understanding the potential uniqueness of cities and the specificity of the local are essential for knowledge production for sustainability. Local practices stemming from a specific climate and ecology, a specific geographic setting and urban morphology, a set of cultures and traditions, and local social networks, skills and habits interact with national and global agendas to produce different and contextualised solutions from which to learn also about universal problems. This implies that urban dissimilarity and difference are interesting features for research on urban sustainability that could potentially be captured through comparison. The organisational structure of Mistra Urban Futures, as presented in Chapter One, carefully considers the differences among the partnering platforms in terms of local stakeholder participation and agreements. Nevertheless, the raison d’être for this organisational structure calls for comparison between the different cities and their respective stakeholder arrangements. Comparison is embodied in the notion of the Centre as it spans different kinds of borders at global, continental and national scales. Consequently, comparison is a constant ongoing process in which each issue is positioned and debated. To pursue comparative research across the different LIPs, to produce further knowledge on sustainable development, was therefore an underlying aspiration that found expression in the structured propositions embodied in the Centre’s Strategic Plan 2016–19 (Mistra Urban Futures, 2015).

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Ultimately, to achieve holistic sustainable urbanism, the dimensions of accessible, green and fair cities all need to be considered alongside each other, contextualised, and also assessed for synergies and trade-offs. (James Waters, Chapter Two, this volume, p 48)

Sustainable development is an interlaced concept and translations tend to provide it with sets of interdependent definitions, as the now classic division into the three dimensions of social, economic and environmental sustainability. While these definitions intersect with and enrich each other and aim to construct a holistic vision, they also project a set of embedded conflicts. As such it is possible to trace a triangle of conflicts, each one as a tension of values; the tension between economic and social sustainability as a property conflict – a conflict between the private and the public; the conflict between economic and ecological sustainability as a resource conflict – the conflict between people and nature, or between the ‘city’ and the ‘wilderness’; and the tension between social and ecological sustainability as a development conflict – as environmental concerns, for example, increasing inequity between the global North and South, when demands from the global North for environmental protection in the global South hinder economic growth and public investments (Campbell, 1996).

These tensions reveal struggles of values and power and drag sustainable development into differing political domains. Are these embedded conflicts an unavoidable and inherent problem of sustainable development, in the ambition to structure development along separately defined but holistically connected concepts? Does the holistic vision provide a practicable framework for organising actions, or does it, by contrast, open escape routes for nice labelling of toothless paper products and unholy alliances? This book investigates the triple characteristics of ‘accessible’, ‘green’ and ‘fair’, leaving out the economic as a separate part of the construction (where ecology could be read as green, and social as fair), although forming an important element of both accessible and green.

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Co-production of knowledge as an approach has evolved since the 1970s. The objective has been to bring different stakeholder groups together in an attempt to improve outcomes, whether of services or research, and their legitimacy and to overcome often longstanding antagonisms and wide asymmetries of power by working or researching together (Jasanoff, 2004; Joshi and Moore, 2004; Mitlin, 2008; Polk, 2015a).

Co-production is generally seen as good for society, at least in relevant fields of research, as co-production is more equitable and includes more diverse voices and perspectives than traditional research (Durose et al, 2018). In the particular context of sustainable urban development, the terms co-production, co-creation and co-design have emerged to inform new expectations of project design, where the beneficiaries or users of a given intervention also participate in its design, research and implementation. Co-creation and co-design are gaining currency because they draw attention to the joint definition of shared problems and the design of an appropriate methodology, as well as undertaking the actual research, whereas co-production is sometimes used to denote only the actual research being undertaken jointly, on a design and methodology formulated by one or two participants, usually academic researchers. In this book, for convenience, we use co-production as a shorthand term to embrace all these variants.

The co-production approach to both research and service provision is now widely used in diverse situations in both the global South and North. In development contexts, co-production is often presented as a means of identifying and incorporating local and/or traditional forms of knowledge into development, thus moving beyond the problematic a priori valorisation of either local/traditional or generally Western scientific knowledge.

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All international comparative urban research is complex and challenging. Hence, attempting to undertake it in countries situated in different regions, particularly bearing in mind the many structural differences and inequalities between the global North and South (as very loose and diverse categories), adds another challenge since relative priorities may differ considerably. For example, in relation to food supply and security, reducing obstacles for informal urban and peri-urban producers and retailers and dealing with the implications of supermarketisation are priority issues in the Southern countries where Mistra Urban Futures has city platforms, whereas the priority issues in the Northern countries centre on enhancing local production of healthy food and reducing the consumption of unhealthy foods, as well as cutting transportation distances and hence food miles and associated emissions.

The challenges are amplified when the global comparative research is undertaken using transdisciplinary co-production (used in this book as a short-hand term that includes co-design and co-creation) rather than conventional academic research teams that to a greater or lesser extent share epistemological and methodological understandings, despite often profound differences between disciplines and in institutional, resourcing and local contextual circumstances, practices and power relations. As reflected in the preceding chapters assessing the pioneering efforts in this regard, transdisciplinary co-production teams seeking to compare locally defined and appropriate projects and research processes within the same research theme in each participating Local Interaction Platform (LIP) face several additional internal and external challenges. Some of these reflect the locally specific nature of transdisciplinarity in each LIP, while others pertain to possible differences in the numbers of partners undertaking the co-production, the particular methods used, differences in the nature of the respective empirical projects, and both interpersonal and interinstitutional power differentials within and across the respective research teams.

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Everyone with an interest in the urban will consciously or unconsciously compare earlier experiences of other urban environments with what is experienced at hand; they will be ‘thinking (cities) through elsewhere’ (Robinson, 2015: 195). It is therefore difficult to imagine any other situation where such comparative activities play out more distinctively than in urban situations induced by migration and other forms of mobility. Who is ever better set to do urban comparison than migrants constantly reminded of places left behind and trying to make sense of places of arrival? Therefore, migration is ultimately connected to comparative urbanism in what Jacobs calls ‘an everyday comparison’ (Jacobs, 2012: 910).

This chapter describes comparative knowledge production by way of bringing together already existing research financed by other means and local development projects within a defined area of research and intervention. The projects were all dealing with migration but based in different urban contexts, and they were brought together in a systematic way we call clustering. This methodology was developed through a joint venture of comparative knowledge production involving researchers, practitioners and civil society actors at the Local Interactive Platforms (LIPs) in Gothenburg (GOLIP), Skåne (SKLIP) and Kisumu (KLIP). Based within the Mistra Urban Futures agenda for comparative research and its understanding of co-produced transdisciplinary research (as discussed in Chapters One and Two), this was a natural starting point. The project originally stemmed from a need to better understand international migration, and in particular refugee reception and integration, as this developed in Gothenburg and Malmö following the so-called refugee crisis in 2015.

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