Green Futures

Participatory research at the science and policy interface

By Thea Wingfield, University of Liverpool, Laura Sobral, Instituto Universitario de Lisboa, & Bruna Montuori, Royal College of Art

The 2030 Sustainable Development Goals signal an international consensus to understand and collaboratively address global challenges, incorporating the quality of life for future generations into national and local decisions. But if you take a moment to compare these pledges of hope to our everyday experience of engaging with the global news cycle, you could be forgiven for questioning whether actions match rhetoric. For most of us, logging on to a news website or opening a newspaper can evoke a feeling of trepidation. With almost certainty, each day scenes of chaos, tragedy and negligence are relayed through text and images: a hunger crisis in South Sudan, homes and wildlife lost in wildfires in Western US and Canada, a river system destroyed in a dam disaster in Brazil, the migrant crisis in the Mediterranean Sea to name just a few. Though the case is not often explicitly made, each individual catastrophe is linked through context – factors that arise from a myriad of complex issues including: the climate crisis, public health, human rights and justice, conservation, social and economic development, education, and food security. 

Growing criticism points to the limits of technocratic approaches in solving global social and environmental problems. Government systems in which decision makers or advisors are appointed according to expertise in areas of science or technology inflate the role of transmitting scientific fact as the principal route to improve decision making. Systems of governance can facilitate and amplify, or restrict and limit opportunities for dialogue across disciplines and between science and society. Global problems, and factors that influence how society experiences them, shift and change, conforming to location and scale; multiple actors bring differing perspectives of the nature of problem(s) according to their own lived experiences. From different interpretations, disagreements over potential solutions and ambiguity as to who is responsible for initiating change can arise. Take for example less than 1% of the authors of the top 100 cited climate science papers are based in Africa and only 12 papers have a female lead researcher. Illustrating in the global climate emergency diverse voices and key perspectives are not heard, whilst the many, international conferences and cross-sector working groups are locked in to finding an answers to the question who is responsible for climate change adaptation? And, as of yet have not produced workable solutions.

Against this, participatory research can be a conduit between institutions and local communities – taking into consideration their histories, struggles and demands. In bringing relevant stakeholders into research processes, including those local to the particular research subject, concepts such as democracy and justice can be incorporated into problem identification, analysis, actions and outputs.

Researchers, practitioners and policy makers are grappling with how to project forward in time; what should future societies look like? What are the solutions we need now? Increasingly the steer from both institutions and the communities they serve is to ensure that approaches to addressing global social and environmental challenges aren’t only technocratic in nature, and that transformative approaches are sought. Specialists are seeking to break down disciplinary silos and advocate bringing together science, policy and communities to: define problems that are locally relevant and satisfy national and international governance systems, imagine desirable futures that cultivate inclusivity and plurality, and improve the quality and relevance of academic research to the needs of society.

The approach is appealing in theory, but how can it be achieved in practice? Recently we ran a workshop “The art and practice of participatory research with organisations at the science-policy interface” which discussed participatory research as a transformative approach. An output of the workshop was to develop a list of seven recommendations to support awareness of enacting participatory work within policy making institutions, academic research, activists, local leadership, and individuals seeking to improve the lived experience for themselves and their local community. 

1. Work with hope

As a first principle, and one that intersects with all the recommendations below, work with hope as an ethos and ideological perspective. Hope affects how we foresee the future and envision change in order to grapple with the challenges of our times. Embracing hope in participatory research allows for an imagining or reimagining of the future and for contesting the political, economic and cultural predominance that act as barriers to change. 

2. Ensure time and resources to nurture collaboration 

Participatory research needs space and time to grow and flourish, as a process it can be unpredictable. Challenges, themes and boundaries can shift depending on context, the people involved and their current situations. Strong leadership and support at the political and executive level from within participating institutions can sign-post the value of participatory research at the science and policy interface.

3. Forging common understanding, building trustful relationships 

In common with all research, participatory research is about knowledge production. Unlike some other research practices, it is advised to consider the participatory processes through ‘relational’ lens. This will help reveal how knowledge is shared, what effective collaboration looks like and how to build a common understanding of what is at stake that is reasonable to all actors involved. Whether participants are data collectors or co-producers, you will find that, once research has begun, everyone involved is in a position to learn.

4. Recognise and disrupt power relationships at play                                         

The term ‘sharing power’ implies that someone is relinquishing power and giving it to another, which is problematic in true ‘bottom-up’ projects/activities. It is important to acknowledge that underprivileged groups and communities will always carry a history of struggles and resistance, and have often been excluded from decision making processes. As such, recognising the power imbalances rooted in dominant political, economic and cultural forces within society is not enough to share power. How could expertise based on lived experiences guide our questions and paths?

5. Create, respect and maintain inclusive spaces

Create welcoming and accessible spaces for engaging seldom heard groups (frequently and equivocally called “hard to reach”) and vulnerable groups that incorporate an understanding of differences in perspectives carried from a history of struggle and/or disregard. The mindset of ‘hard to reach’ tends to exclude the expertise and value of lived experiences, frame the groups and communities as problematic, and is ethically indefensible, raising questions such as hard to reach by whom? It is essential that all relevant stakeholders are included and that different voices are heard.

6. Envisioning ethics as a collective decision

A critical part of developing participatory research at the science-policy interface is dealing with ethical requirements and procedures. The process of applying for consent from different institutions and groups is more involved than asking for permission to produce the work. It requires an alignment of political and ethical agendas in which all actors involved are in mutual agreement to produce and value the research, its process and outputs, and therefore generate original knowledge. Thus, consider working with participants’ in developing ethical procedures and guidance to apply shared knowledge to incorporate needs, wishes and constraints.

7. Foster the multi, inter and trans dimensions of disciplines

The multi-, inter- and trans– turn is well recognised, there is widespread acknowledgement that to tackle ‘societal wicked challenges’ there is a need for different knowledge and disciplines to work together. Use methods that act to break down participants’ own disciplinary boundaries to open novel pathways and nurture new modes of engagement that can be used beyond the life of the participatory research project. Practice-based participatory research needs to navigate different disciplinary knowledge bases, cultures, conventions, histories, stories, tools and skills.

About the authors: Thea Wingfield is a water scientist her research employs transdisciplinary and participatory methods to encourage a broad participation of actors, social learning and integrate the multiple environmental, social, cultural, political and spiritual aspects of environmental decision making. Laura Sobral is an urbanist and researcher. She investigates territorial policies that foster the distribution of local power through the co-production and co-governance of public spaces. Laura is a co-founder of the CSO A Cidade Precisa de Você and the author of the book ‘Doing it Together – cooperation tools for the city co-governance’ (ZKU Press, 2019). Bruna Montuori is a designer and third-year PhD researcher at the School of Architecture, Royal College of Art, London. She investigates the relations between narratives and spatial justice through the work of Redes da Maré organisation in Maré, Rio de Janeiro. Her research interests encompass ethics of care, feminist and decolonial thinking, exploring intuitive approaches for participatory processes.

Contributions were also made to this post by Virginia Thomas, University of Exeter, Gemma Moore, Alexander von Hunboldt Foundation and Jenny Knright, University of Birmingham

Suggested further reading

Fisher, J.C., Mistry, J., Pierre, M.A., Yang, H., Harris, A., Hunte, N., et al (2021) Using participatory video to share people’s experiences of neotropical urban green and blue spaces with decision-makers. The Geographical Journal,.

McEwen, L, Gorell Barnes, L, Phillips, K, Biggs, I. (2020). Reweaving urban water-community relations: Creative, participatory river “daylighting” and local hydrocitizenship. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers

Gustafson, S. (2021) Children breathe their own air: Reflections on children’s geographies, the urban political ecology of air pollution, and ongoing participatory action research with undergraduates near an east London primary school. Area.

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