Published 2018-11-22

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Mistra Urban Futures’ positive example in Nature

Two articles were recently published, in Nature and Nature Climate Change respectively. Among the co-authors were researchers from Mistra Urban Futures. One of the articles highlights Mistra’s model of working on co-produced research.

The researcher Beth Perry is named last in a comment piece in Nature of October this year. Perry heads the UK Platform of Mistra Urban Futures, which is a centre for sustainable urban development with six platforms in cities around the world.

In her article, she and her co-authors argue that co-produced research is needed to solve severe problems in society. Further, they believe that the traditional research system does not create sufficiently good incentives to promote this kind of research. One problem raised by the article’s authors is the difficulty of measuring the quality of co-produced research using today’s bibliometric methods, since these measurements rarely capture the relevance of the research, or how much it actually changes.

Co-produced research, where the recipients of research results are involved in the research process itself, is a trademark of Mistra Urban Futures. Most of the work follows this pattern. The basic idea is that it leads to research results that have better prospects of being used.

So far, however, not enough general conclusions can be drawn since there are only a handful of examples of well thought-out collaborative research. One notable exception, the authors write, is Mistra Urban Futures, which has developed workshops to disseminate knowledge about co-production, started an interdisciplinary research school and also written a handbook on co-production. Mistra Urban Futures is also working to develop methods for systematically reviewing such research. The article’s authors particularly emphasise the fact that ‘Mistra’s criteria for high-quality co-production include relevance, credibility and legitimacy.’

The article was published in a Nature special issue on co-produced research. According to Professor David Simon, Mistra Urban Futures Director, the choice of theme is a sign of the times. Co-produced research is seen as increasingly important for meeting humanity’s major challenges, he believes.

Simon is himself a co-author of another debate article in the September issue of Nature Climate Change, addressing the importance of an expanded focus on urban research. The spotlight has been on urban environments, as in the IPCC’s latest reports, where several chapters are about cities.

‘Clearly, cities are being emphasised as key aspect of development towards a sustainable existence on the planet. But then it’s important for urban environments to develop favourably,’ Simon says.

So far, he and the other article authors believe, the focus has been too narrowly technical. It has been more about technical solutions, and less about how various forms of governance affect how cities develop. These can include decisions at various levels, land ownership, conflicts of interest and how good decisions can be slowed down.

‘We thought there was a lack of social-science perspectives and, for example, socio-institutional factors, that may explain why some stalemates arise,’ Simon says.

The article mentions ‘path dependence’. This means that when a decision is made, for example on infrastructure, energy supply or waste management, it may characterise urban development for generations. One example is that the construction of cities based on private cars is one of the reasons why many of today’s cities are sprawling instead of concentrated, which would in many ways be more beneficial. Another example is the construction of socioeconomic enclaves where people with low incomes are excluded.

‘It’s also important to ensure that new cities that are built don’t repeat our mistakes. Unfortunately, there are signs that this is precisely what’s happening,’ Simon says.

Mistra Urban Futures is an eight-year Mistra initiative. Its funding ends in 2020.

Urban transformative potential in a changing climate, Nature Climate Change, September 2018

Craft metrics to value co-production, Nature, 3 October 2018

Text: Tomas Heldmark