3 tips for researchers on how to co-create land system knowledge with practitioners

This blog post by GLP Member Christine Ornetsmüllersummarizes three practical tips that emerged as a collective result from the immersive workshop session "355N Co-production of knowledge in landscape restoration" at the 4th Open Science Meeting of GLP in 2019.

The idea to organize a session was born based on an unpleasant and revealing experience. I worked in the world of landscape restoration (outside academia) for a year, while completing my Ph.D. In casual conversations I sometimes overheard how frustrated many practitioners are with the way scientists work in their own bubble. Hearing this was not new, but I wondered how this could still be the case. I knew that there are people who put a lot of effort into co-producing knowledge and transdisciplinary research. Probably, I had landed in a bubble of transdisciplinary land system scientists myself, because the general reputation hadn’t changed yet. How should it? I have hardly heard of a broad initiative that includes training for everyone on how to work with stakeholders as a scientist. It’s a set of skills and mindset that one has to acquire individually still.

To create some space among the land system science community for exchanging insights on co-producing knowledge in practice, I organized a workshop at the OSM 2019 in Bern together with Willemijn de Iongh, my colleague from Commonland, where I worked then.

In a ‘living barometer’ approach, the workshop participants moved around in the room, depending on their respective opinion to questions which we had prepared in advance. We also brought a recording of an interview with our colleague Dieter van den Broek, who is a trained ecologist and practitioner of the Theory U methodology with several years of experience in facilitating co-creation, landscape development and support.

The energy in the workshop was buzzing and yielded some very lively conversations. Three top tips emerged as a collective result, which I’m happy to share in this post, together with the visual summary created by Willemijn.

Part 1 of the workshop visual summary: Reflections on the different roles of land system scientists in knowledge co-production. Credits: Willemijn de Iong

Tip 1: Be aware of your role and power position, be flexible in switching it and communicate clearly which role you take

In a landscape, where the ambition is to co-create the transition to sustainable land use among many stakeholders, the role of a scientist changes from a position as expert to ‘something else’. When scientists aren’t those to deliver the knowledge for a solution by default, what role do they take? We identified and discussed three possibilities in the workshop:

Coach

‘I’m daring to be bold here to stimulate the discussion. I think scientists should be more like coaches for others to learn about their system with scientific techniques, help with analysis and interpretation of their own research question.’ (Dieter van den Broek)

This statement by practitioner Dieter van den Broek first created silence. It made people think, many nodded. Then responses started to evoke further nuancing and bringing up the role of facilitator, which is similar but slightly different.

Facilitators
The majority of participants agreed that researchers should become skilled and sensitive in facilitating knowledge exchange. Facilitators are like stewards who help keep the knowledge flowing among all stakeholders and also activate awareness of (scientific) information. One participant said: “Sometimes the work of a facilitating researcher is to aid stakeholders with navigating and accessing existing information. This is sometimes far more important and impactful than a one-time presentation of results. Another long-term contribution consists in helping to establish a culture of knowledge sharing among all stakeholders and the practicalities involved with this. This can include organizing regular meetings and a place where knowledge resources are shared - online or offline.

Sometimes, a researcher’s role is to be a taxi to enable knowledge exchange. The girl’s mum brought her kids along in order to show us the impact of maize cultivation on her remote paddy fields. This photo was taken by Jean-Christophe Castella during my PhD research on crop booms in Laos.

Expert
The classical role of researchers consists in being an expert who advises policy makers and the policies then designed are supposed to steer people and systems towards more sustainable directions. This role was identified during the session as part of a traditional model that only works in a limited way when it comes to solve wicked problems around land, such as land degradation.

However, scientists as professionals of knowledge work are needed, particularly to deal with ‘alternative truths & facts’ by politicians or other actors. To maintain observations and the creation of trustworthy databases with facts, research in a classical sense is still valued and necessary.

We concluded that many roles are possible and there is not always just one of them needed. It is important to identify which one is needed, commnicate the role adopted in a (particular phase of the) process and to stick to it until the phase in which it is needed is over. Otherwise we violate our power position as researchers.

Hence our recommendation: Be aware of your role and power, be flexible in switching it and communicate clearly which position you take.

Part 2 of the workshop visual summary: Reflections on process and product of knowledge co-production as well as funding relations. Credits: Willemijn de Iongh

Tip 2: Good project design embeds evaluation at several points during the process

What matters more? The knowledge products (e.g. scenarios, map, game) or the process to create them?

A large share of fellow land system scientists in the workshop agreed that the process is most important. Nobody placed emphasis on the product only.

Several participants said that this is inseparable: without a product, a process becomes empty and meaningless. But without a carefully co-designed, clear and adaptable process, trust may be undermined and it may become a product that is not really owned by the transdisciplinary team.

How to design such a knowledge co-creation process? The classic design of most projects places evaluation of the knowledge co-production process at the very end of a project. Sometimes, it may be even left out due to time becoming very scarce at project closure. This leaves no time for adaptation or checking in with the stakeholders on how they would like the process to be.

Good project design places evaluation at several points during the process and this needs to be taken care of from the beginning.

Two concrete suggestions for successful process design were given during the workshop. Erwan Sachet, speaker and participant in the workshop proposed an iterative two-step process which is based on the principle of participatory action research: action, reflection, action, reflection, etc.

Willemijn visualized this with ‘footsteps’ as an easy to remember metaphor in part 2 of the visual summary.

The process design used in practice by Commonland for co-creating systems change is called Theory U (www.presencing.org). It is developed and taught at the MIT Massachusetts Institute for Technology and known for its capacity to activate social innovation.

Tip 3: Find those donors and funders that already ‘get it’

Generally speaking, funders or donors often don’t realize that establishing trust among all stakeholders for a stable and productive knowledge co-creation process takes time.

During our workshop we touched this topic only on the surface, but there was strong agreement, that it is essential for us land system scientists to learn more of. How can we integrate funders in the process design to ensure that a relationship can grow with them for long-term support of land system change initiatives that embrace failures and learning along the way?

Two strategies were mentioned. The first strategy is as simple as taking donors along in your journey from the beginning onwards – wherever they are in their knowledge of co-creation processes. This may require a lot of dialogue with them to prepare them for the sensitivity and patience needed. The second strategy is to invest some time into finding those donors and funders that already ‘get it’ or are ready for it. Practically, this means spending the time to look for funders who already have a mindset that supports co-creation principles for systemic change.

Let's continue the conversations

These three practical tips on our (not so classic) role as a scientist, the process and the funding of knowledge co-production mentioned here are just a start, adding to the working group’s resources. We know that there is a lot more experience within the land system community that could be shared more widely. The workshop participants and I would be very happy to hear your comments, ideas, successes and failures to learn from. Please contact us or write about them in another blog post, so we can continue the knowledge exchange.

Session Organizers

Christine Ornetsmüller, https://glp.earth/users/christine-ornetsm%C3%BCller
Willemijn de Iongh, https://nl.linkedin.com/in/willemijndeiongh

Session Participants

Erwan Sachet https://glp.earth/users/erwan-sachet
David Griffith https://glp.earth/users/david-griffith
Deborah Muricho https://glp.earth/user/1680
Grace Villamor https://glp.earth/user/102
Jose Monteiro https://glp.earth/user/1138
Daniella Schweizer, https://www.linkedin.com/in/daniella-schweizer-phd-6711755a/

Photo at top: Extension agents and farmers co-creating knowledge in a focus group discussion in Ban Namen, Laos.