Usable knowledge for the XXI century metropolis

Most of our daily actions, from the most trivial throughout the most sophisticated, in cities are embedded in thick networks and circuits of knowledge and decisions taken (at least partially) based on that knowledge. The who and the how of the production of this knowledge is critical both to understand cities and to govern them in ways that have to fully recognise the increasing, fascinating complexity of their workings. Co-production practices involving researchers, social movements, inhabitants and city government are spreading in Europe and elsewhere based on the assumption that linear models of science-policy interfacing are things on the past.

From urban professionalised bureaucracies and corporativist regimes during the Keynesian era to new public management project organisations and entrepreneurial regimes during the neo-liberal era, each episode of urban reform has implied a profound reconsideration of the sources of knowledge, the professional profiles and stakeholder engagement tools employed in the government of cities.
Across these shifts, social movements and citizens’ participation have represented critical sources of contestation of established science-policy interfaces, putting up front the need of a different articulation between the social demand of knowledge, its production in specialised organisations and its use by more or less democratic institutions in the design of public decisions.

Just to make a renown example, think to Jane Jacobs’ grassroots initiatives and writings: what was she doing if not challenging entrenched and institutionalised ways to theorise cities, shape expertise and design important decisions that drew their legitimacy form these theories and expertise? Many more examples could be found around the globe of how the theory and practice of urban planning were deeply affected by popular and community claims of the partiality, unsoundness and incompleteness of the knowledge created by the experts in support of certain, contested, public decisions.

But in recent years, besides these social and bottom-up pressures, it’s been the own complexity of cities and of the many exogenous and endogenous factors that shape their daily workings and long-term trajectories that have come to be the proof that to govern cities we need not only more but also a different knowledge. Challenges as climate change, global migrations, socio-demographic and other structural transformations linked to increasing global inter-dependence have increasingly been portraited as “wicked problems”. Problems that are hard to understand and treat by recurring to the theories and tools of one scientific discipline or to the practice of one sector of government. Furthermore, the traditional linear relationship between science and policy and, even more, between private consulting and policy seems to be widely unsatisfactory as well in this new climate. On one side, scientific knowledge produced by specialised institutions often fail to address essential problematic dimensions that are instead visible to policy-makers, urban actors and grass-roots activists. On the other, the profit-making motivation and adherence to mainstream solutions that is typical of large consulting firms make the knowledge they provide not in line with an advanced understanding of the “public interest”.

To respond to this challenge, so-called co-production approaches have come to the fore with the idea that a new form of science-policy interface could be established in cities by opening up “boundary spaces” where researchers and practitioners could create knowledge together. The experience of Mistra Urban Futures – a consortium of academic and public institutions based in Sweden but reaching out, through its global network, to other cities such as Manchester, Kisumu and Cape Town has been experimenting with co-production since 2010.

In this context, my Short Term Scientific Mission at the Gothenburg centre of Mistra Urban Futures focused in particular on one of the most relevant organisational devices developed by the Consortium, the Local Interaction Platforms (LIP). LIPs are good examples of a “boundary space” where mostly scientific and public institutions – in the case of Gothenburg’s LIP actors such as Chalmers University of Technology, University of Gothenburg, the Region Västra Götaland and the Göteborg Region Association of Local Authorities – get together in order to collaboratively frame research questions and produce evidence aimed at responding to these questions. Projects focusing on relevant issues for local policy-making – from intervening over increasing spatial segregation to transit-oriented development – are agreed by members of the consortium and oriented at the production of critical but usable knowledge that is supposed to inform the action of public institutions and other actors.

All actors involved have to commit time and resources, sharing an understanding of what research is and mutually adjusting their skills and preferences to the actual process of “co-production” of the research projects. Such a dynamic and turbulent space of collaboration comes, of course, with various challenges.
Different approaches to knowledge – most commonly, the essentially theoretical-one of academics on one side, and the essentially grounded-one of practitioners on the other – have to be tempered to ensure the legitimacy of the results produced. And, at the same time, it is clear that while actors involved gather a significant amount of knowledge – more than the one that traditional, linear approaches would allow – most probably many more actors across the city such as informal groups, activists and businesses to just name a few may be contributing to co-production exercises.

In other words, if co-production will consolidate as the emerging paradigm for knowledge creation alternatively to both research and consulting linear models, it will have surely to face more challenges of these kinds. Essentially, it will have to understand what are the mobile boundaries of its own boundary spaces.

This text was first published at the Intrepid project website. The Intrepid project aims at a better understanding of how to achieve a better and more effective and efficient interdisciplinary research.

The Gran Sasso Science Institute (GSSI) is an international PhD school and a center for research and higher education, supported by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).
Located in central Italy, the school welcomes professors, researchers and students selected internationally following the best graduate schools standards worldwide. The PhD program is organized in the scientific areas of Astroparticle Physics, Mathematics, Computer science, Urban Studies and Regional Sciences.

Alessandro Coppola is a Research Fellow at the Gran Sasso Science Institute. As part of the EU-funded Intrepid project, Alessandro spent some weeks at Mistra Urban Futures in spring 2018.

Photo (Malé, Maldives): ishan-seefromthesky at


Disqus Comments