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Six modes of co-production for sustainability

Abstract

The promise of co-production to address complex sustainability challenges is compelling. Yet, co-production, the collaborative weaving of research and practice, encompasses diverse aims, terminologies and practices, with poor clarity over their implications. To explore this diversity, we systematically mapped differences in how 32 initiatives from 6 continents co-produce diverse outcomes for the sustainable development of ecosystems at local to global scales. We found variation in their purpose for utilizing co-production, understanding of power, approach to politics and pathways to impact. A cluster analysis identified six modes of co-production: (1) researching solutions; (2) empowering voices; (3) brokering power; (4) reframing power; (5) navigating differences and (6) reframing agency. No mode is ideal; each holds unique potential to achieve particular outcomes, but also poses unique challenges and risks. Our analysis provides a heuristic tool for researchers and societal actors to critically explore this diversity and effectively navigate trade-offs when co-producing sustainability.

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Fig. 1: Overview of the 32 cases.
Fig. 2: Eight key differences in how cases approach co-production.
Fig. 3: Six modes of co-production identified by approaches to purpose, power, politics and pathways.
Fig. 4: Comparison of co-production modes by main features and outcomes.
Fig. 5: The unique opportunities and critical risks of different modes of co-production.
Fig. 6: Dimensions most strongly associated with higher attainment of sustainability outcomes.

Data availability

The data analysed in this study can be made available upon request, with a few limitations. Quantitative data on outcomes cannot be shared at the level of individual cases because some projects are still ongoing and some projects have not met their anticipated outcomes; thus, sharing this data could negatively impact projects and their participants. However, complete quantitative data can be provided at the level of each of the six modes, keeping the specific case identities anonymous. In addition, qualitative codes can be shared to provide further details of the qualitative analytical process. At the level of individual cases, if people wish to access data for a specific case, they will be put in touch with the contributor of that case (also a co-author of this manuscript), who must be informed of the data being requested and the intended use for it. Each case contributor will then provide the final say on whether they wish to share their own quantitative and qualitative case data on a case-by-case basis. These protective steps were critical for ensuring a safe environment for case contributors to share many critical perspectives related to the challenges and outcomes of their cases, thereby ensuring an ethical analysis with accurate results.

Code availability

The codes used in R to produce all statistics and figures can be made available upon request.

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Acknowledgements

This project and paper were supported by the Luc Hoffmann Institute and MAVA Foundation. We acknowledge the Center for Collaborative Conservation, PECS, the Cambridge Conservation Initiative and The Pew Charitable Trusts for hosting our workshops. We thank J. Lokrantz at Azote for improving the graphics design. J.M.C. received support from the Economic and Social Research Council (grant RG97777). J.J.C. was funded by a Rhodes University Postdoctoral Fellowship and acknowledges the contributions of P. Singh and S. Behngu to analysing the Durban Research Action Partnership case. H.Ö. was funded by the Walton Family Foundation (grant 2018-1371), the David and Lucile Packard Foundation (grant 2019-68336) and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation (grant GBMF5668.02). J.M.H.G. was supported by the UK Research and Innovation’s Global Challenges Research Fund through the Trade, Development and the Environment Hub project (project ES/S008160/1). A.-I.H.-M. was supported from a Volkswagen Stiftung and the Niedersächsisches Ministerium für Wissenschaft und Kultur grant (A112269), followed by a Marie Sklodowska–Curie grant (840207). A.-I.H.-M also acknowledges support from the Leverage Points project practice partners and all project team members. J.M. was supported by the Leverhulme Trust. J.G.Z. was funded by the r4d programme of the Swiss Programme for Research on Global Issues for Development (grant 400440 152167). Elements of this work were undertaken while J.G.Z. was a visiting scholar at the Department of Geography, University of Cambridge (May 2018–April 2019), supported through Scientific Exchange funding from the Swiss National Science Foundation (grant IZSEZ0_180391).

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J.M.C., C.W. and M.E.R. conceived the project and co-led the design of methods, with contributions from R.S.R., M.R., A.S., N.J.B., C.C., M.E.F.-G., K.A.G., B.E.G., N.L.K., M.T., A.T.B., K.C., R.G. and T.P. Authors J.M.C., M.E.R., C.W., R.S.R. and A.T.B organized and designed all workshops. J.M.C. coordinated the study, gathered all data and led the data analysis in collaboration with all authors. J.M.C. and C.W. drafted the manuscript and all authors contributed to and commented on drafts and the final version.

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Correspondence to Josephine M. Chambers.

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Peer review information Nature Sustainability thanks William C. Clark, Catherine Durose and the other, anonymous, reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

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Chambers, J.M., Wyborn, C., Ryan, M.E. et al. Six modes of co-production for sustainability. Nat Sustain 4, 983–996 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41893-021-00755-x

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