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Knowledge co-production for anticipatory governance

Updated: Nov 28, 2022

In a recent webinar organized by the Anticipatory Governance Community, Prof Dr Esther Turnhout provided insights from her past engagements and initiated conversations around knowledge co-production systems for anticipatory governance.

Prof Dr Esther Turnhout currently serves as the Chair of Science, Technology and Society at the Section of Science, Technology and Policy Studies (STePS) of the University of Twente in The Netherlands. She is an interdisciplinary social scientist with expertise in science and technology studies, environmental studies, and political science. Her research and teaching focus on the interactions between science and lay, Indigenous and local knowledge systems, and policy and governance for biodiversity and sustainability transformations. She has authored several articles and the book Environmental Expertise: Connecting Science, Policy and Society and is the current editor-in-chief of the journal Environmental Science & Policy. In addition to that, she also plays active roles in the Intergovernmental Panel on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) and acts as the Scientific Director of WTMC - the Dutch Graduate Research School for Science and Technology Studies.

Drawing on her extensive engagement with science and policy issues, her participation in IPBES, and recent collaborations with Prof Myanna Lahsen, Dr Turnhout provided the audience with insights on knowledge production processes concerning environmental governance. Throughout the talk, she primarily focused on why we are not doing more to ensure that knowledge production contributes to the changes needed for sustainability and biodiversity conversations. To address this question, she gave the audience an overview of the linear model of science and policy that dominates research and decision-making today. This was followed by a call for opting for the emerging perspective of knowledge co-production. Having alluded to many nuances, she had two proposals for the future. They were to pluralize and decolonize knowledge.

Why is there a need to shift the science-policy-society relations?

A linear model seems to dominate the order of events today. But there is a need to shift that to improve both knowledge and the legitimacy of knowledge in governance processes and enhance decision-making. The linear model suggests that science is supposed to produce objective knowledge and provide it to society so that relevant institutions can utilize that knowledge to make rational decisions. The IPCC, too, follows this principle to provide governments with the information needed to develop climate policies. However, the extant system has failed to deliver the results at the pace it needs to.

Why are we not making (more) progress in the actual transformation of scientific knowledge?

Owing to the pattern prescribed by the linear model of science and policy for translating knowledge into action, global environmental science and global governance are locked into a shared belief in a singular world for science to represent and assess and for policymakers to govern. Not only that but also the dominant planetary perspective in sustainability science has hindered progress by creating a politics of neutrality. The planetary perspective overemphasizes quantitative, integrated assessment modelling and views the planet as a singular system, placing the onus of taking action based on the information on policymakers.

Together the act of limiting science to a position of neutrality and the perceived inapplicability of research serve the status quo and their agendas. This has resulted in a significant slowing down of progress as, despite the amount of knowledge supplied, authorities in governance often do not hold up their end of the bargain.

To expedite progress, all the key stakeholders need to adopt the knowledge co-production perspective, which encourages participation and collaboration. Based on multiple knowledge systems, it tries to prevent the limitations of the planetary perspective by directly linking knowledge to action and engaging stakeholders in producing knowledge and solutions. This approach, however, has its shortcomings too. The ideals of inclusivity and diversity are salient only in theory here, as this approach suffers from similar problems as the planetary perspective in practice.

The knowledge co-production perspective ignores power differentials by claiming that everyone can join and fails to address the root causes of power differentials. In doing so, it also falls into the trap of preconceived categorizations of diversity that have fixed classifications. Lastly, by ignoring power differentials and placing the onus of participation on the margins, the perspective legitimizes existing power inequalities under the ruse of participatory fails.

Therefore, we are not making more progress because both approaches suffer from their unique problems. Further, coproduction is still marginal due to funding issues. Both systems also undergo the concerns arising from an apolitical framing of knowledge and knowledge action relations in practice.

What can be done to change this?

The solutions proposed by Dr Turnhout to tackle these issues include disempowering dominant approaches and empowering critical social sciences and humanities instead. She also suggests that we promote collaborative and transdisciplinary research. Lastly, she believes that remaking the science policy contract to recognize the politics of knowledge and knowledge-policy relations can help. Additionally, she has two proposals that can help in carrying these suggestions forward.

Dr Turnhout recommends that we attempt to pluralize and decolonize knowledge. Pluralizing knowledge creates a space where diversity or inclusion does not only mean consensus but also disagreement. To decolonize knowledge is to practice epistemic disobedience or disempower dominant western forms of technical natural science and production.

Understanding these concepts and practices can help us improve the pace at which progress is made via science and policy.

Watch the conference here:

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