Co-producing knowledge may harness collective wisdom and insights, create synergies, enrich mutual understanding of complex problems, and promote the adoption of solutions. But this is not always the case – co-production can sometimes frustrate participants and waste their time. Co-production requires special skills and commitment to be meaningful; tangible impacts are difficult to measure; and the link between co-production and impacts is often hidden, only becoming apparent over time.
Having been involved in co-production activities in South Africa for several decades, we are now able to harness and share lessons, including with the Luc Hoffmann Institute – a keen proponent of co-production – about what makes the process meaningful. Drawing on experiences in South Africa in for example:
- understanding the role of fire in a forest-grassland mosaic on South Africa’s Wild Coast;
- co-developing monitoring systems for governance in community-based natural resource management;
- co-designing and implementing an interdisciplinary educational research programme across several academic institutions;
- developing a freshwater conservation plan for South Africa through the National Freshwater Ecosystem Priority Area project; and
- building resilient watersheds in South Africa’s Garden Route, we wish to propose seven principles for meaningful knowledge co-production.
We’d like to expand on the first experience, which centred on Nqabara in the Mbashe municipality on South Africa’s Wild Coast where a team of local knowledge-holders, students, interpreters and academics learnt about the role of fire in ecosystems by combining traditional, experiential and formal knowledge. The local knowledge-holders, of isiXhosa decent, were elected by their own kin for their superior knowledge of nature. We agreed on a common purpose: to learn how fire shaped the local Wild Coast landscape, a mosaic of grassland, woodland, crop fields and forest. A student’s analysis of aerial photographs had shown that forest patches were growing at the cost of grasslands, mirrored by shrinking livestock numbers over the past 30 years. Having worked with the local villagers in jointly developing management plans for community forests, identifying opportunities for tourism development and setting up a medicinal plant nursery, we knew each other well. We stayed in their villages, shared their rituals, understood their conflicts and knew their stories. When the time came to co-produce knowledge we had already built trust and mutual respect.
At Nqabara, learning took place by sharing aerial photographs, co-producing maps on large sheets and transferring them to electronic mapping systems, then walking many kilometres through the forest and grasslands, exchanging information as we went. The research team (which included local knowledge-holders, interpreters and students) also administered door-to-door surveys, in isiXhosa, to gather local villagers’ knowledge. We soon learnt that knowledge about nature was unevenly spread – many villagers were not as close to nature as we had thought and misunderstood the role of fire. But the select group had knowledge that was even more detailed and insightful than those of formally trained scientists. We used these collective insights to co-produce a community management plan which formed the basis for regulating which forests may be used by whom, when and how. The prize-winning peer-reviewed paper and three student dissertations, while not the main goal of this work, were nice by-products. Although difficult to ascribe to our programme, we believe long-term positive change was influenced by co-created information. This includes the emergence of local nature-based businesses such as the Nqabara Ecoriver Lodge, the inclusion of Nqabara in the Mbashe municipality’s integrated development plan (2017-2022) and ongoing discussions with government around community forestry.
Based on this project and many other experiences, we’ve identified seven principles that underpin meaningful co-production:
- Knowledge co-production must above all be about mutual learning; knowledge partners have to agree that this is the first purpose.
- Problems or questions must be clearly articulated, with an agreed co-produced product or products (even though the exact nature of these can evolve over time). The questions to be addressed should themselves be co-designed.
- There should be multiple pathways or ‘routes’ towards the final outcome, mainly to ensure that the many ways of doing and thinking are accommodated but also to build flexibility into the process: if one mechanism fails, others can compensate.
- Co-producers of knowledge should have different roles and come from different backgrounds, and should include holders of formal and informal knowledge, novices, and seasoned experts.
- Different knowledge holders should have equal opportunity to contribute; power imbalances have to be considered and addressed from the start.
- People’s time should be respected. The best use of everyone’s time is to attend and contribute to meetings that local stakeholders have organised instead of calling dedicated meetings, especially in the early stages.
- The process must continue for long enough to anchor shared vocabulary, understanding and behaviour in user communities and agencies.
We found that diversity of experiences, knowledge systems and world views are key to successful co-production, but only if inquisitiveness, trust and mutual respect are part of the team’s values and ethos. Without these factors diversity becomes a handicap rather than a strength. Participants remain motivated when their own knowledge is valued and recognised, on a par with other forms of knowledge, and when other people’s knowledge inspires them. In successful co-production the process of knowledge exchange, listening and being heard energises people. Successful co-production processes therefore have to be slow and iterative with enough time to listen and think. Egos have to be set aside – people need to feel safe and to listen eagerly, with openness and fascination.
To us, fruitful co-production is innovation in action, with new knowledge, that adds value and influences everyone’s perspectives, as an emerging feature rather than a departure point.
Both Christo and Dirk are affiliated with Nelson Mandela University’s Sustainability Research Unit in George, South Africa.
Find out more about co-production through the Luc Hoffmann Institute report Doing science differently: co-producing conservation outcomes