Co-Production and the N8


By Annette Bramley


Co-production and co-creation are currently in vogue for research and research funders. The recent EPSRC call for Transformative Healthcare Technologies, for example, required applicants to describe their co-creation process as part of the proposal. So what is co-production/co-creation and why is it becoming required as part of research practice, and what is the N8 doing in this space?

As we will see, communication is an important part of co-production, and so in the spirit of pragmatism and for the purposes of this article I’m using this definition of co-production:

A collaborative, iterative process in which those affected by the research are active partners in conducting it; working together problems are defined and ideas are shared and improved”;

Or, more succinctly:

 “Nothing about us, without us”,

which is often used in biomedical and health-related research as part of patient and public involvement in research (PPI)- a type of co-production process.

Whenever we work in a team with other people to achieve something, we need to invest time and effort in the team itself before we all start pulling together. In management circles this process is often known as “storming, norming and performing”. This requires an investment of effort, time and other resources, without an immediate payback. The return on the investment, of course, comes in the longer term as teams achieve outcomes that one person couldn’t achieve on their own.

More and more funders outside of health are coming to recognise the benefits of co-production done ethically and genuinely. Partly this is financial; engaging business users of research can lead to leverage on government funds for example and a contribution to the 2.4% GDP target.

Co-production with research users gives a clearer understanding of how research outcomes would be used in the real world, and so can lead to better and faster impacts.  This again speaks to the need to demonstrate to their stakeholders that research and innovation is an essential investment for the economy and taxpayers. It also enables the research agenda to evolve through the programme in response to the insights of all the partners, and so can be responsive to situations where the research outcomes will be deployed in fast-changing and uncertain environments.

In co-production the problems themselves define the research agenda. Asking harder and better, more relevant questions can generate new fundamental insights which would not have otherwise been possible. Alongside this, co-production can enable access to information and data which would not otherwise be available to academic researchers.

There are more fundamental and timely reasons to look to co-produced research, in the context of the political context around the world and the recently published report from the Civic Universities Commission. The process of coproduction is explicitly inclusive, bringing in partners from diverse backgrounds. There are many more opportunities to engage people from marginalised communities and to conduct research in a socially responsive way. This exchange of knowledge and skills can engage communities more with their local universities, lead to cross-cultural learning, more open attitudes and in turn improve lives in the short and longer term.

The N8 Research Partnership takes co-production seriously and it is at the core of our flagship programmes in Policing and Agri-Food.

For example, co-produced research between the Universities of Liverpool and Lancaster, working with Merseyside Police and the charity Women’s Aid, as part of the N8 Policing Research Partnership, has led to a better understanding of coercive control and a new learning tool for the police to help officers identify this form of domestic violence and thereby better support victims.

In N8 AgriFood, researchers from the Universities of Sheffield and Lancaster worked with food hubs across the North of England to figure out the best way to set up food hubs, to find out what works for different cultures and places, and how to deal with the stigma around food poverty. Together the partners ran the food hubs, collected evidence on what worked and developed free action packs for people wanting to set up new food hubs elsewhere.

Cookery classes and local food cafes were also trialled and found to help deliver solutions that local people needed.

So why isn’t everyone carrying out co-produced research?

Well, of course, co-production isn’t suitable for every research project, so it is very important to select the appropriate methodology for the research being undertaken. There many challenges. Perhaps the most difficult of these to tackle will be the cultural norms that pervade academic disciplines and organisations, which can lead to unconscious biases and in turn impact on the broader innovation ecosystem.

Collaborative and co-produced research has to show rigour AND relevance; a bigger hurdle than for discovery research for which rigour alone is sufficient.

Co-production is a fundamentally different type of research, and this challenges accepted practices and definitions of “excellence”. It means that ALL types of knowledge and experience have to be respected and valued equally, that time and resource has to be invested in building relationships, managing power differentials and establishing trust. No longer are the research findings the sole output of the research programme; they are just one form of knowledge and impact that emerges from co-produced research.

And this in turn leads to challenges for universities, funders, publishers and peer review of how best to assess co-produced research and how to recognise the contributions and intellectual input of everybody involved. It seems clear that these criteria and processes themselves need to be co-produced through working with partners in the broader research ecosystem.

As we in the N8 Research Partnership develop our new priority areas of Clean and Productive Businesses and Child of the North; we will be looking to “walk the walk” of co-production. We want to engage with partners at an earlier stage than ever before in shaping our thinking. I am convinced that this will lead to better research programmes, better impacts, and better quality of life for people in the North of England and beyond. A win-win-win indeed.