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Co-creating Transformations for sustainability

Date of news: 10 June 2022

The times of scientists in their ivory tower should be long over. Scientists should co-create and conduct research projects together with stakeholders to generate research that is societally relevant and useful.  At least that’s the ambition. In practice, co-creation turns out to be much trickier and more time-consuming.

Still, in TransAct, we are convinced that meaningful collaboration with non-academic partners (public authorities, private sector, non-governmental organisations) is important to bolster societal impact and debate, by identifying societal research needs together with stakeholders and co-designing research. But how to do it concretely? Last month, four of our members, Koos Wagensveld (Economics and HAN), Simone Ritter (Business Administration), Mathijs van Leeuwen (Political Science – CICAM) and Adam Calo (Geography Planning and Environment), shared their experiences and ideas about co-creation and stakeholder engagement. What have been key insights?

The way we think: Established patterns of thinking might hamper co-creation and innovation

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How would you connect the circles in this picture using only three lines? As we are thinking in our well-established patterns and rules, we might have trouble finding the solutions, which is “outside the box”. Your answer may be quite different from other people. Because we all apply different assumptions trying to find the right answer to the problem. In reality, the possibilities are broad:

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This example is showing how the diversity of assumptions we have may hinder co-creation and creativity between different stakeholders. To co-create, to engage meaningfully, it is important to consider the diversity of perceptions, sets of knowledge and assumptions we all have and can hinder us in finding solutions. We are efficient at information processing, but this may hamper creativity and innovation. Consequently, engaging different views is central in fostering creativity, to think out of the box, but it also implies a complex process as we need to understand each other and the bias we may have. It is going even further as emotions also play a role, because of fear and doubt when facing uncertainty, when moving from the status quo.

The way we position ourselves: Commitment, long-term relationships, and leadership

Engaging stakeholders to move towards co-creation requires strong commitments from all sides, from the start of the research. The researcher must be sure to stay in charge of the project, but it requires an important balance as it is not only about working on different actors but with them. This balance can only be achieved through time, long-term relationships with stakeholders, and repeated dialogues to progress step-by-step collaboratively. Developing a network of core partners, investing in this network and in creating trust, is one important way to co-create. Through this process, the researcher must also act as a facilitator.

The way we collaborate: Inclusion, exclusion and power imbalances

Who do we co-create with?  Who do we include or exclude? And how do we do this? How are decisions being made? How much information is shared with stakeholders? When? How? How is the researcher dealing with internal power imbalances between stakeholders? Should different stakeholders be differently engaged fitting to their lived realities? This depends of course on the researchers’ aim of co-creation.  Nevertheless, it is important to at least reflect and acknowledge these ethical aspects, especially when working with difficult settings in various parts of the world. It is requiring thinking about the legitimacy of different stakeholders at all steps.  Finally, it is also important to think beyond the research project itself. Who is going to use the tools you are going to build and for what purpose? Long-term objectives also need to be thought carefully.