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There is not yet a definitive answer to this question. But a few of us in the FRACTAL project (Di Scott, Anna Steynor, Alice McClure and I) have worked together to develop an answer, the best we can for now based on the literature we have reviewed and the experiences we have accumulated to-date. Seeing as knowledge co-production and co-exploration are core concepts in FRACTAL, we intend of revisit the question and this first answer again in the latter stages of the project, to reflect on and document what we have learnt while implementing FRACTAL.


The first thing that became clear when developing our current answer, is that knowledge co-production shares many qualities and traits with ideas and practices of transdisciplinarity. Basically it’s about recognizing, valuing and working to integrate various ways of knowing to confront the complexity and uncertainty inherent in contemporary questions and problems facing society. The aim is to bring people with different types of knowledge together to collectively produce new knowledge that is socially robust, as well as being scientifically robust. Knowledge that is socially robust is more readily applicable to addressing real-world problems in a given context than knowledge developed and evaluated only on the basis of scientific robustness. The thinking goes that in order to achieve this requirement of both scientific and social robustness, the boundaries between science, politics and practice need to be blurred or transgressed based on deep engagement and collaboration between academic and ‘non-academic’ or ‘non-scientific’ actors. Co-producing knowledge requires working through a number of challenges, including:


  1. Breaking down entrenched power imbalances regarding who gets to steer and shape the research agenda and knowledge economy;
  1. Integrating different types and scales of knowledge and worldviews across multiple boundaries – between science, policy and practice, between disciplines, across organizational levels, between the public and private sectors, and between formalized, codified and informal, tacit forms of local knowledge;
  1. Dealing with multiple and contested normative agendas, in the sense that each actor holds a view on what they consider to be the desirable outcome or goal of producing knowledge and the correct or most appropriate way of doing so, and this will differ between individuals and groups participating in a knowledge co-production process;
  1. Negotiating the products or deliverables of a knowledge co-production process – often participants have their own requirements for what these might be, for example a scientific journal paper, a policy or strategy, a practical handbook, or a decision-support tool, and so an important step in the process is agreeing to how the jointly produced knowledge can and will be used, by whom, using what resources and to what end.


Co-exploration, while sharing many attributes with transdisciplinarity and knowledge co-production (notably the diversity of participants and the aim of meeting societal needs) does not suggest the same depth of engagement required to transgress boundaries and integrate different types of knowledge to produce new knowledge. Partly in reaction and resistance to the focus on new knowledge products, the idea of co-exploring knowledge and decisions has emerged, particularly in the (sub) field of climate services, and been propagated by CSAG. Co-exploration is still in its formative stage as a concept. Co-exploration is currently used to mean a participatory process that brings scientists, policy-makers and practitioners together to ask questions of each other, share knowledge, and develop a joint understanding of what is potentially needed of climate science by decision-makers and what is scientifically feasible and defensible in terms of meeting that need. As such, the process of co-exploration does not have the primary intention of using the engagement to inform research and the (co)production of new knowledge. Rather the focus and main aim of co-exploration is to build the relationships and understanding needed to package, provide and communicate existing scientific data, information and knowledge in a way that is more relevant, accessible and useful to decision-makers. However, and importantly, co-exploration does not begin with the assumption that climate data, information or knowledge is necessarily needed. Rather it begins by exploring the development and resource management context in which the decision-makers are operating and then whether climate data, information or knowledge is needed, and if so what is specifically relevant to the decision(s) and how can it be most effectively provided. Co-exploration thereby goes beyond conventional disciplinary science to engage various societal actors outside of academia on questions of what they need from science (particularly climate science), how scientific knowledge can be made more relevant and accessible to decision-making, and what the (current) limits of science are. Co-exploration refers to operating at the interface between science, policy and practice, but not deconstructing or blurring the boundaries between them. Co-exploration does not insist on the construction of new hybrid forms of knowledge being the result of the engagement. The FRACTAL project is intended to be a key arena in which to test and further develop the concepts and practices of both knowledge co-production and co-exploration with the partners and stakeholders involved.


The full version of our answer to the question that is the title of this blog post is in the form of a FRACTAL Working Paper that is currently out for review. Please do get in touch if you’d like a copy! From this Working Paper we plan to distill a short, accessible briefing note to share widely, as well as a longer academic journal article to add to the peer-reviewed scientific literature.

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