While the cliché of the scientist hidden away in an ivory tower persists to this day, it has long ceased to reflect reality. Quite the contrary, conveying research and its contents to target groups outside of the scientific community is now an important and routine component of scientific work in many disciplines. Young scientists in particular are ever more frequently slipping into the role of entertainer, intermediary or science journalist in a broad variety of formats, including science slams, podcasts and blogs. But how far should the dialogue between the scientific community and society extend? Is it enough to communicate methods and results and to make them accessible to the public? Or should the public also be involved in defining research questions, with dialogue playing a far more central role in the relationship as a whole? In several applied research fields on topics such as sustainability and environmental protection, there is an increasingly widespread view that in order for scientific findings to actually become incorporated into policy and practice, collaboration is required both in designing research (co-design) and producing knowledge (co-production).
Co-design has its origins in the participative approaches to research that were developed in Scandinavia in the 1970s. It involves the attempt to actively involve all stakeholders – e.g. customers, citizens and end users – in design and work processes to ensure that research is guided by their needs so that the end result is truly useful. Co-design thus represents a fundamental change in the traditional relationship between designer and client – or between the scientist and the user. In this context, design is understood broadly as the general planning or development of a (scientific) method or a (research) project.
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The co-design process is inclusive and participative, meaning that it involves representatives from as many stakeholder groups as possible. Their ideas, advice and feedback are given equal weight and placed in dialogue with scientists’ experiences, expert knowledge and research ideas. In the best cases, this dialogue accompanies the entire process – from the formulation of a topic to the development and testing of solutions. Stakeholders and researchers often possess complementary skills and knowledge, all of which can make key contributions to finding a solution to a problem. So it makes sense to capitalise on these synergies, as successful and ground-breaking work in software design, architecture and medicine has already demonstrated.
But what role do scientists play in the co-design process? Initially the co-design process poses many new challenges: As scientists, we are accustomed to developing new ideas and approaches to research and presenting and discussing our results with an expert audience. But how do I explain how research functions to stakeholders who have never worked in the field? What do I do if my – in my opinion brilliant – research idea is rejected by stakeholders as irrelevant? How do I balance the sometimes considerable diversity (of experiences, backgrounds, interests, etc.) that participants bring to the process and how do I ensure that this diversity is productive? Without a doubt, openness, curiosity and a readiness to engage with others in an open discussion, to assume different roles (e.g. scientist and moderator) and to step outside one’s own comfort zone are needed.
In other words, nothing ventured, nothing gained! But what exactly is gained? The direct benefits include generating new, creative ideas with clear practical applications, being able to immediately validate ideas and concepts and (in many cases) achieving better differentiated results or products. On the other hand, co-design is an iterative process, not a single event. Ideas and solutions are tested and evaluated with participants as part of an ongoing process. Such a process requires time and resources, which is why these types of research projects almost always take longer and need more funding as well as especially dedicated participants. Is investing the time and money in the co-design process ultimately worth it? What opportunity costs do I have as a researcher? For example, does the additional time I invest prevent me from doing something else? Is co-produced knowledge truly more easily accepted and implemented? What are the key factors that determine the success of a project? There is a lot we can still learn together – let’s keep the dialogue going!
Anna Cord is a professor of computational landscape ecology at the TU Dresden. She joined Die Junge Akademie in 2019.