Will co-designing and co-producing research lead to better, new and sustainable knowing?

Mike Benson, Rachael Turner and I are just on the train coming back from a workshop in Bristol. The workshop gathered together the nine projects funded, like ‘How should decisions about heritage be made?’, under the same AHRC Connected Communities Co-design Development Grant. As part of this programme there is another project (involving Robin Durie, Keri Facer, and Lindsey Horner) researching all the co-design projects. Which could be a little bit research-will-eat itself but hopefully won’t be because it’s going to ask some pretty fundamental questions. Basically:

Quality. Will the various co-design and now co-production processes lead to better research? Raising obvious questions of quality, who defines it, who judges it, and where are the different sites/places where quality might be judged (or ‘qualities’ as one member of the workshop put it).
Novelty. What’s new? Will co-design processes lead to new insights? Raising the questions of ‘new’ where and for whom.
Legacy. Will it matter that the project happened? Where and for whom?

One of the things we’re doing on our co-design project is exploring the sticking points in heritage decision making so we can see them as sites for challenge and change in our research. So this made me think – what are the sticking points in questions of ‘better’ research?

Quality is often tied spatially to academic peer networks. But in a more sticky way, quality is also often tied to the success with which research is ‘located’ (spatially and temporally) within other research through referencing and citation conventions (so research shows how it comes after, and builds on, others work and how the research is closer to some people’s work than others).

Novelty appears to reference the urgent or presented-centred but in research contexts is more closely linked to ‘distinctive’ or ‘original’ contributions. But – to turn to legacy – what makes something ‘new’ isn’t its immediate usability more that it proves its originality through being located within what came before. What makes research count as being ‘new’ is that it then creates a legacy for itself by entering the long histories and slow change of academic disciplines. A form of change which is implicitly read as ‘real’ and sustainable because the insights can be tracked – through citations – as ‘distinct’.

But these forms of quality, novelty and legacy as ‘location’ and ‘distinctiveness’ are challenged by co-production and really, more broadly, by the interest in the impact of research generally – this must make it necessary to think of…

Quality as contingent and multiple: Traditionally academic ‘quality’ is decided by a ‘peers’ (as in peer-review of journal articles) but clearly in our ‘how should decisions about heritage be made?’ project each of us have ‘peers’ from seminar managers in national organizations, members of our community or radical history groups, other people work in the same professional domain (conservation officers; archeologists; community development workers) and other academics (in history; museum and heritage studies; management studies). It’s a bit like we are all attached to bungees and will always get pulled back out from the group back to the other people we work with ‘back at home’. So we need to openly explore what would count as ‘quality’ research in our different homes, our different sites of accountability. And also, as part of this, break down ‘quality’ into more graspable things. I like the ideas of ‘resonance’, of what sticks, what can be adapted, changed and used.

Novelty as specific and having different ‘times’: A sense of newness will also be different in different places and needs to be targeted and tailored. In one of the discussions yesterday, Ann Light reflected on design research and its focus not on generalizable knowledge by in creating understanding which are ‘fit for purpose’– so fit to be used and adapted. This in contrast to traditional notions of research as authored, ‘original’ and ‘distinctive’.

Legacy as adaptability and assimilation: If we have these different spatial and temporal contingencies then there also needs to be an understanding of multiple legacies that are happening in different timeframes. Talking at the workshop, Mike, Rachael and I already believe our work together has shaped many other conversations we’ve since had with lots of other people . We played yesterday with the idea of virus, or spreading out. There are maybe two things going on here with different ‘times’:

Live and adapting: there’s the ‘live’ and adapting model where co-production happens throughout the project through multiple conversations and direct contact with us during the life of the project (which we would probably see as part of the constant shaping of our research not as dissemination). Success here might come from assimilation (and the project not being remember as such) rather than distinctiveness and separateness signaled by ownership, citation and tagging.

Mediation and distinctive: then the more conventional ‘mediation’ of ideas which has started through our project blog and continue through other written outputs throughout and at the end. These probably do need to be ‘located’ in the academic sense to be really useful – to build on what’s come before. The timeframes are different here too – for groups and practitioners this is maybe more urgent, for academic disciplines much slower and longer.

The key principle for me here is: if there are multiple peers, sites and timeframes then no one part of the network can stand it for or act as the explanatory key for the rest. If the research is considered good in one place, that doesn’t mean it’s good everywhere. The distributed accountabilities we have set up through the collaborative nature of our projects have to lead to distributed understand of qualities, novelties and legacies. This means that an academic judgment of quality should never be seen as final but nor should be a judgment made by any one of our community groups. However, the big question we will want to ask, and have asked of us by Robin, Keri and Lindsey, is whether keeping a wide range of sites (Heritage Lottery Fund, Science Museum, York Civic Trust, Heritage Studies, Management Studies, radical historians, local authority conservation officers, Urban Studies and archaeologists) in tension and in mind through our collaborative research makes for better interventions in each of the ‘homes’ and contexts to which our bungees are always pulling us back.

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2 thoughts on “Will co-designing and co-producing research lead to better, new and sustainable knowing?

  1. Pingback: Will co-designing and co-producing research lead to better, new and sustainable knowing? | Helen Graham

  2. Much as Helen tries to emphasize the multi-vocal, ‘messy’ aspect of heritage decision-making (which is what I continue to support and advocate), there is a genuine danger that this particular project does become like ‘research-eating-itself’, in the sense that there is a hierarchy being created (or already in existence in the background of what we are doing) that is becoming increasingly abstract and (thereby) self-selective. This could all just end up as another abstruse document on the shelves of heritage professionals and academics – I fear. I hope I am proved wrong.

    Regarding the issue of who determines ‘quality’, there is another major strand which defines quality in a completely different way from the one Helen describes here. When it comes to heritage related projects of any kind, there is a definition of quality determined by who holds the purse strings and is largely based on ideologically managerialist defined ‘value for money’ criteria. This has little or nothing to do with project content or academic peer concerns, let alone the interests of ‘ordinary people’, but refers to criteria decided by local authorities, the State, funding bodies like the HLF and Arts Council, and so on, often with a ‘tick-box’ system, underpinned by somebody’s personal CV ambitions. Or am I being too cynical?

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