Fostering agility to diversify science, music, and society

Tensions often emerge when research and practice come together. These tensions can either hinder progress or be constructively engaged to enable transformation of thought and action. In a new publication, a group of researchers, including from CDE, outline critical processes for turning tensions into new relations that foster sustainability transformations. They reflect on what it means to navigate differences in agile ways at the intersection of science, music and society.

Humans often think and act in ways that strengthen and polarize their internal narratives. Just like the repetitive loops that dominate today’s pop music, we are caught up in our own “loops” of knowing and acting in ways that entrench our views. These loops provide coherence and meaning. They confirm the “rightness” of our thinking, but they also fundamentally constrain our collective imagination and action.

Co-production, as a collaborative way of knowing that seeks to transform issues that matter to us, promises to disrupt these loops and diversify perspectives. In a new study “Co-productive agility and four collaborative pathways to sustainability transformations”, a group of researchers led by Josie Chambers of the Wageningen University examines the potential role of co-production to transform science and society.

To explore this, they collaboratively studied 32 initiatives from around the world that brought together diverse scientific and societal actors to address complex social-environmental challenges like climate change, biodiversity loss, wildfires, and unsustainable supply chains. The researchers looked at whether and how initiatives managed to transform people’s narratives, practices, and even broader policies and institutions towards sustainability.

Beyond the hero, genie, woodpecker, and host

In their analysis, they identified four archetypal roles in collaborative processes – the hero, genie, woodpecker, and host. They found that the initiatives in their study that struggled most to transform situations tended to either exacerbate or suppress tensions among these common roles.

Chambers J.M. et al. (2021). Co-productive agility and four collaborative pathways to sustainability transformations. Global Environmental Change. Graphic by Visual Knowledge VK

The hero is the solution maker – (s)he knows what the problem is, and solves it. Heroes can play a vital role in addressing simple and/or urgent societal problems, such as a firefighter or corona vaccine developer. However, when this model is applied to complex issues, the hero’s solution can turn into the cause of different kinds of problems. For example, amidst biodiversity loss, simplistic assumptions are often made about the cause of the problem, such as economic poverty or lack of knowledge. This has also led to a focus on strategies that exclude and undermine local values and agency.

Three additional archetypes often interact with the hero – either by exacerbating or suppressing tensions. For example, the genie unquestioningly supports the hero’s agenda – by producing data or taking action. This role is enabling, but the outcome is contingent on the merit of the hero’s agenda, and often these agendas are directed by those who hold more money and power.

The woodpecker is the person who calls out the hero – pointing out the many issues their solution overlooks and potentially worsens. Examples of this person might be the critical social scientist or climate activist. While this role can spark change, it can also exacerbate tensions that result in further polarization, stalemates and delayed action.

Finally, the host seeks to create safer spaces where everyone’s voices can be heard. While people typically see this role in a positive light, there are also risks. For example, the effort to give space to all views can stifle critical evaluation of power relations and differences.

Interactions between science and society often compel us to step into these four archetypal roles without questioning their usefulness in certain contexts. This can serve to reinforce our existing ways of seeing and addressing problems.

Towards co-productive agility for transformation

What then, is the alternative? In their analysis, the researchers identified processes that created conditions for better interactions among people with very different interests and goals. The examples show in practice how to cultivate spaces where people genuinely listen to and (re)shape each other in agile ways – even across large differences in power – to spark collective action and transformation. They do not provide universal advice, but show how agility can be fostered in different ways, for different purposes.

Music illustrates scientific publication

A musical summary accompanying the scientific study is meant to illustrate how these archetypes can interact in ways that hinder transformation: The hero’s loop (“problem--solve it”) is strengthened by the genie (electric bass). The host (percussion) contributes rhythm but does not substantially alter the loop. The woodpecker (electronic distortions of the hero’s voice) tries to disrupt the loop, but struggles to create a dialogue.

The musical abstract offers one possible pathway towards plurality, by making the instrumental lines more responsive to each other as the song progresses. During the song, the music transforms from monophony to polyphony, from predictable to unpredictable, and from comfortable to uncomfortable.

In the scientific paper, the authors represent this dynamic through the concept of “co-productive agility” – referring to “the willingness and ability of diverse actors to navigate different agendas for change to grow ideas and actions which were unforeseen from the outset”.

Contacts for media requests

Dr. J.M. (Josephine) Chambers, Wageningen University 
At CDE, University of Bern: Dr. Julie Zähringer