Co-learning and knowledge brokerage

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Co-learning and knowledge brokerage is an approach implemented in cities with the objective to facilitate the circulation of ideas, understandings and cutting-edge research between a diverse variety of actors in society. It is closely related to the concept and practice of multi-stakeholder partnership, as it requires the convergence of people and groups from different fields and backgrounds, and it shares the aim of exchanging, "translating" and creating knowledge, for a richer reflection on how to address complex urban challenges.

This page is part of an ongoing, open-ended online collaborative database, which collects relevant approaches that can be used by city-makers to tackle unsustainability and injustice in cities. It is based mainly on knowledge generated in EU-funded projects and touches on fast changing fields. As such, this page makes no claims of authoritative completeness and welcomes your suggestions.

General introduction to approach

Co-learning and knowledge brokerage is based on sharing views, insights and experiences, but does not usually require a commitment to (long-term) partnership, or the uptake of concrete measures and actions in terms of policy or implementation. It emphasises sharing and transferring knowledge through unconventional methods and the development of adequate formats and common vocabularies (translation of technical terms, introduction of tacit knowledge, popularisation of research). This can mean the development of multi-disciplinary platforms of exchange for tackling urban challenges (bringing different academic disciplines together) or a more transdisciplinary approach which involves knowledge exchange between policy makers, technical experts, researchers, non-governmental organisations, civil society groups, including students, and activists.

Shapes, sizes and applications

Some examples of urban co-learning and knowledge brokerage are more explicitly about transferring societal demands and bottom-up knowledge on urban problems to academic institutions, and thus shaping research agendas (i.e. Science Shops in TRANSIT (2014-2017) project [1]) or bringing social innovations to broader light and thus inspiring policy (Living and Lively Laboratory in SEiSMiC (2013-2016) project [2]). These approaches are aimed at the exchange and brokerage of knowledge between geographically proximate groups (city level) but their knowledge outcomes and implications also aim for a higher level influence. In the case of the SeiSmic project, for example, it became clear that more open procurement policies for less traditional and less formal social innovators, and less cumbersome financing models for business, would strongly enhance EU efforts to achieve sustainable, inclusive and liveable urban futures. Other approaches apply the principles of knowledge transfer and brokerage more broadly between disciplines, sectors, academic and policy experts and civil society, users, end-groups etc. Of those, some begin with a more local focus, like Communities of Practice (CoPs) (see FOODLINKS project (2011-2013) [3]) and Urban Learning Labs [1] (ULLs - see GREENSURGE (2013-2017) project [4]), and thus have more concrete issues and potentially more immediate practical implications. On the other hand, Knowledge-Action Networks (KAN) of the FutureEarth initiative [5], for example, have a more international scope and thus bare the limitation of remaining too theoretical or abstract arenas of exchange and debate –although this will show with time, as these Networks are only now beginning to be established. Last, knowledge brokerage initiatives such as the ones of the PRIMUS (2009-2012) project [6] that are built around a series of events and meetings (Informed Cities Fora, European Round Tables, and Implementation Workshops) that aim at bringing together scientific partners with local councils and civil servants, can be limited in including more bottom-up views and perspectives.

Relation to UrbanA themes: Cities, sustainability, and justice

Although knowledge brokerage and co-learning is not necessary referring to urban contexts, we find most of the approaches to be implemented in the urban context. This is, it seems, also due to the complexity of challenges faced in the urban context, and the hybridity and high density of stakeholders and actors in cities. However, some applications of knowledge brokerage, as in the case of Communities of Practice for sustainable and just food systems (FOODLINKS), did not explicitly focus on the urban. Whereas the driving goal of knowledge brokerage networks and actions is to better understand and address urban challenges, this is not always necessarily done with the same attention to justice. Namely, whereas breaking institutional and disciplinary silos is likely to contribute to more integral understandings and timely reactions with regards to some existing socio-environmental inequalities and injustice, it is not guaranteed that these processes of brokerage will not also reproduce or ignore other types of injustice. This is particularly the case when knowledge about complex issues of sustainability is shared and asserted mainly between high-level bureaucrats, academics and policymakers, excluding more grassroots demands, experiences and knowledge.

In sum, the degree of involving civil society in knowledge brokerage varies between the approaches and is expected to define how they include or address justice in their objectives and outcomes. The focus of each approach is related either to the overall question of sustainability (e.g. KANs, PRIMUS knowledge brokerage), or to specific aspects/themes of sustainability (such as food or green infrastructure), or to domains such as social innovation (SEISMIC) and heritage regeneration (see ROCK project [7]) but with sustainability-oriented goals. In most cases, questions of sustainability are addressed at local scale, but require or promote the 'glocalisation' of knowledge. The connections between sustainability and justice are not clear in this overall type of approach of co-learning. It is shown, for example, that more participatory processes (procedural justice) through community based design do improve the outcomes of cultural heritage actions. In most cases, distributive justice is more an assumed outcome of better sustainability policy (trickle down of benefits), but justice as such is not necessarily brought into question, neither as an outcome nor in the process of knowledge brokerage around sustainability.

Narrative of change

Achieving environmental and social sustainability is a multi-faceted and multi-layered challenge which requires the joint work and synchronisation of efforts from a number of institutions and actors, at multiple scales. In order for this process to bare fruits, knowledge needs to be translated, circulated and reflected upon collectively, breaking professional, institutional and social boundaries. Co-learning and knowledge brokerage aim at enabling communication, collaboration, stimulation and motivation for diverse stakeholders and can help towards urban sustainability, building national and international bridges for mutual learning between society, the scientific community and policy makers. This can have implications for research and innovation agendas, the development of policy recommendations for real social needs, and the creation of platforms for dialogue and mutual learning among citizens and urban actors in order to strengthen innovative governance for urban sustainability.

Transformative potential

Knowledge brokerage and co-learning through innovative methods of building multi-stakeholder platforms of exchange allows for ideas to be circulated faster and thus increases the potential for their creative application. The uncustomary bringing together of stakeholders from different backgrounds, with communication, translation and transfer of knowledge as the central objective, opens up opportunity for accessing and debating certain types of knowledge for actors who might be typically excluded from it. This can alter, change or even challenge dominant institutions, as knowledge becomes more accessible, manageable and implementable. In the example of participatory design (ROCK), local demands find place in urban planning. In CoP, civil society organisations are better positioned to long-term dialogue with policy makers, shaping the creation of concrete measures. Research-policy networks of knowledge brokerage are also created (such as Science Shops, or in the case of the PRIMUS project) and barriers to transformative futures are identified, thus enabling a shift of research agendas and policy directions towards more sustainable and just directions. It has been shown also in the context of the Experimentation Labs approach, that integrating students in transformational partnerships promotes the coupling of education, research and community engagement with sustainability challenges.

Illustration of approach

In the example of the Knowledge Action Networks (KANs) of the FutureEarth initiative, collaborative frameworks facilitate highly integrative sustainability research on some of today’s most pressing global environmental challenges. At a global scale, bringing together experts and stakeholders from various regions, they aim is to generate the multifaceted knowledge needed to inform solutions for complex societal issues. In the theme of health, for example, a research agenda was set for a better integrated understanding of the complex interactions between a changing global environment (such as pollution, disease pathogens and vectors, and ecosystem services) and the health of human beings (including livelihoods, nutrition, and well-being).

In a more bottom-up example, the SEiSMiC project mobilised a wide range of urban actors from civil society in 10 countries (Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Germany, Hungary, Italy, the Netherlands, Sweden, Turkey and the United Kingdom). It identified a number of social innovation good practices that enhance the inclusive, sustainable and liveable future of European cities. These good practices include concrete tools to stimulate social innovations; new approaches to exchange via Internet cartographic tools used by groups of citizens; hotels run by migrants; the stronger involvement of women in the governance of cities; charters for the use of public space; and a focus on storytelling as an essential element of community building at the beginning of projects. Through a Living and Lively Laboratory approach [2], it experimented with multi-level dialogue and mutual learning processes, showing how not only are alternative methods useful in creating better innovation dynamics (walkshops, narratives, case studies, filmed meetings, visualisations) but that visualisation and the “language” of civil society is complementary and an added value to the traditional policy discourse of experts.