Opening up the black box of co-production

© Lance Anderson / Unsplash
1 October 2018

By Josie Chambers, postdoctoral researcher, Luc Hoffmann Institute

Co-production, social learning, co-management, action research, co-design – the list goes on! A wide range of terms now exists to describe the more collaborative approaches to generating knowledge, learning and action. Why this proliferation of new methods? Faced with alarming social and environmental trends, there is growing consensus that addressing these challenges requires more effective approaches. However, there is a need to open up this black box of terminologies and approaches to develop a shared way of understanding and talking about their implications for conservation and society.

The Luc Hoffmann Institute, in collaboration with people from the Center for Collaborative Conservation, the Pew Charitable Trusts, Stockholm Resilience Centre and 20 other research institutions worldwide, is undertaking the broadest scale analysis to date of collaborative approaches in conservation. This began with practitioners and researchers wanting to dig deeper into how and why these approaches might or might not work, amidst philosophical, resource, time, impact and planning trade-offs. We organised a series of workshops in Washington DC (US), Oaxaca (Mexico), Colorado (US) and Cambridge (UK), bringing together a range of people, to explore the key differences between diverse collaborative methods, the struggles they face, and their outcomes. Our aim was to understand how, where, why and with whom people use such approaches to address conservation challenges. The findings of the workshops and ongoing analysis have helped peel back the layers of collaborative approaches to reveal their different implications. We hope this improved understanding will help people better navigate the challenges faced in collaborative conservation work.

Alongside these workshops, we have explored cases of different examples of collaboration, drawn from over 30 countries spanning six continents. These cases pursue a variety of aims – establishing local co-management regimes, breaking down polarised environmental disputes, strengthening regional networks, and influencing global science-policy dialogues – among many others. The approaches stem from the idea that it is not enough for researchers to generate knowledge on their own, or for policy-makers and practitioners to make top-down decisions.

Instead, these cases use new collaborative methods to break down barriers among diverse perspectives, empower new voices and promote the reframing of dominant thinking to build a shared understanding and action plan to address conservation challenges in new ways. One case by Dr Ruth Brennan gathered names of features, stories and songs related to the marine environment from local people living on the island of Barra in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland. This material was used to co-create a powerful interactive cultural map that expressed diverse community members’ complex values and relationships with the sea. The process played a role in empowering local voices to constructively engage with the Scottish Government in deciding, through the eyes of local people, how a contentious marine protected area would be co-managed. This opened up space for new discussions amidst long-standing disputes relating to nature conservation designations on the island.

The Scottish case and the many other experiences shared clearly show the power of collaboration to create outcomes that may be difficult using standard approaches to conservation research or practice, such as building capacity, reframing issues and reforming institutions. Yet they also show that collaborative work is not easy. The cases highlight the extensive time and resource demands, and potential risks involved. Diverse cultural, disciplinary and sectoral differences posed challenges, and external power dynamics often greatly constrained what was achievable.

This work has already sparked reflection and dialogue among our group of collaborators, who span different disciplinary, geographical and sectoral boundaries. As an early-career researcher relatively new to using collaborative methods, leading this project has been an eye-opener through learning about the truly creative methods that people are using and how they have navigated important challenges. I will certainly apply this thinking to improve how I engage with diverse stakeholders on conservation and social issues. As a project team, we hope this work will continue to stimulate broader reflection and dialogue as we release the full findings in 2019, including a flexible framework to help people reflect upon their own approach to collaboration. Stay tuned!

A new paper by the Luc Hoffmann Institute offers an introduction to co-production and explains why there is a growing demand for conservation to use the approach.

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