A speculative co-production of the future?

BLOG: Utopian Pulses

Photo of Josephine Chambers giving the opening keynote at NESS2024. On the slide 'To conclude. - How would you imagine yourself doing co-production otherwise? And how might we imagine this together? -What should we be co-producing? Knowledge of how the world is? Or explorations in how we can become (im)possibly togetherwise? -"We must live in this world as citizens of antoher. What is required of us is both specific to our distinctive situation, and the same as for every earlier and later generation..."'
Opening keynote of the 16th NESS—Nordic Environmental Social Sciences—Conference (photo credit: Sabaheta Ramčilović-Suominen)

“We must live in this world as citizens of another. What is required of us is both specific to our distinctive situation, and the same as for every earlier and later generation: Mourn. Hope. Love. Imagine. Organize.”
— Ruth Levitas, 2013 [1, p. 220]

These words by utopian scholar Ruth Levitas marked the end of my opening keynote for the 16th NESS—Nordic Environmental Social Sciences—Conference, held June 4-6 in Turku, Finland. The conference theme was “Co-producing knowledge for sustainability”. I chose not to focus on the dominant ways people have been co-producing knowledge and action for sustainability. But rather, to take stock of the field and ask: what exactly are we co-producing? Are we producing knowledge that reinforces how the world is? Or are we imagining and prefiguring explorations of how the world can be otherwise? Deeply inspired by Ruth Levitas’ introduction of a speculative sociology of the future in her trailblazing book Utopia as Method [1], this keynote outlines what a speculative co-production of the future might look like. What follows is a slightly elaborated account of what I shared live.

— by Josie Chambers

The keynote consisted of three acts:

  1. Co-producing what, by whom, for whom? The field of co-production has seen a turn towards power and politics. I argue that a second turn is deeply needed—towards radical imagination—to take this first turn even more seriously.
  2. Orienting towards a speculative co-production? Why does radical imagination so urgently need co-production? I consider what becomes possible when we orient co-production—a field deeply rooted in the ‘now’—also towards the ‘not yet’.
  3. Practicing a speculative co-production of the future? How can co-production better counter, rather than reinforce, the present? I explore how a speculative co-production might redress the ongoing colonization of collective imagination and enable the imaginary (and real) reconstitution of society.

1. Co-producing what, by whom, for whom?

Co-production scholarship and practice has exploded in recent decades, driven by the desire for research to matter more in the world. The concept initially developed across three separate academic fields [2]. First, in public administration, the focus was on the importance of citizen participation to enhance the quality and provision of public services [3]. Then, in the 1990s Science and Technology Studies scholars analytically expanded the concept of co-production to study how (scientific) knowledge and society are continuously (re)shaping each other, often in unintentional ways [4]. The growing use of co-production within sustainability sciences since the early 2000s saw a return to a more interventionist approach, focused on how knowledge can be collaboratively produced to enhance its impact in society [5]. This trend sought to actively counter the dominant linear transfer (or ‘loading-dock’) model of science [6].

The concept of co-production now encompasses nearly anything and everything at the intersection of science and society—linked to diverse terms such as post-normal science, action research, collaborative governance, transdisciplinary research, co-design, social learning, and much more. Out of this black box of meanings and approaches emerged the growing critique that co-production has become the new buzzword to promote a discourse of societal empowerment and transformation when in actuality it often fails to achieve such stated objectives due to insufficient attention to power and politics [7]. For example, the imperative to integrate across diverse perspectives and achieve consensus often conceals frictions and reinforces power relations among radically different ways of knowing [8], [9]. This has led many to question the normative assumption that co-production is always preferable, given this “dark side of co-creation and co-production”, including “seven evils” such as rising transaction costs, reinforced inequalities, and even co-destruction [10]. As Lemos et al. (2018) posed the question, “to co-produce or not to co-produce”? [11]

This was the basis upon which, in 2018, I gathered a group of 42 practitioner-academics experimenting at the boundary of co-production research and practice to reshape interactions between people and terrestrial or marine ecosystems around the world. We dove into the messiness of our diverse language, aims, framings, and practices, to interrogate the implications of our approaches. Our 32 initiatives of co-production spanned from local co-management processes through to international dialogue platforms, with many connecting across scales. The co-production (of our study of co-production) entailed 2+ years of identifying dimensions of difference across cases, meeting to discuss these dimensions and their implications, and reanalysing our cases accordingly. From a qualitative and cluster analysis of these differences we identified six modes of co-production for sustainability [12]. The six modes embodied distinct aims and theories of change, from assuming that co-producing ‘actionable’ scientific knowledge would be enough to generate change, to reshaping institutions as a core activity.

Graphical abstract of Chambers et al. 2021, showing the presumed power of co-production to navigate towards a more sustainable future, yet differential advantages and risks entailed for each of six identified modes

My doctoral research (2014 – 2018) was one of the 32 initiatives in the study. It fell into mode 4: reframing power. I had examined ‘win-win’ conservation and development projects in the Peruvian Amazon, which led to insights on why joint conservation and development projects often fail [13], yet are given the right to fail and ultimately reframed as ‘successes’ [14]. Having employed co-production approaches relatively late in the process, I felt the limits of trying to speak this (political ecology research) truth to power. I came to realize that it’s not simply a matter of what knowledge is created, but crucially how it is created and embedded in social processes of change. Yet I had received almost no training on how to do this. Through our co-production work, I learned how other modes were explicitly designing for social learning and institutional change. For example, the SeaBOS initiative (in mode 3: brokering power) created a safe space for some of the largest global seafood companies to question and reshape their values and approaches to ocean governance, precisely by avoiding the defensiveness that multi-stakeholder platforms can provoke [15]. While an initiative in mode 5: navigating differences showed the power of arts-based social science methods to democratize an initially state-imposed marine protected area plan in Scotland by articulating people’s diverse relations to the sea [16]. In both cases, the decision to exclude particular actors at key points in the co-production process was justifiable.

By studying how such initiatives neither ignored nor suppressed tensions, but instead productively navigated them to open up possibilities for transformation (of knowledge, values, practices, relations, institutions, etc.), we arrived at our concept of co-productive agility. Co-productive agility refers to the willingness and ability of diverse actors to iteratively engage in reflexive dialogues to grow shared ideas and actions that would not have been possible from the outset [17]. This means not just allowing those with power and funds to choose the destinations, how to get there and who can join. But rather, creating spaces in which people with very different views on what is valuable in the first place can challenge their assumptions, recognize power dynamics inherent to their positions, and be willing to journey together—even if they are not yet sure of the destination(s). As ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu once said: “if you do not change direction, you may end up where you are heading”. Many would agree that our current global direction is deeply troubling, in a world rife with climate change, conflicts and injustices. Yet humanity is not so good at changing our collective direction, nor even our personal ones.

Graphical abstract of Chambers et al. 2022, showing how tensions in co-production can hinder or enable sustainability transformations

In co-production processes, I’ve seen how people often cling to predefined directions and goals in ways that undermine this more radical potential for collective reorientation. This even applies to the very goal of scientific knowledge production. Across all 32 co-production cases, we surprisingly found no correlation between initiatives achieving their stated knowledge production objectives and other desired outcomes such as reframing, empowerment, institution building and policy uptake [12]. This was partly because the amount of time required for creating papers, reports, etc., often detracted from more action-oriented activities. But it was also because presenting knowledge of alternative destinations and paths did not necessarily make people want to go there, if sights were already set elsewhere. The fact that many refer to co-production as knowledge co-production illustrates this bias. This made me realize just how critical it is that science and society find better ways to share power in collaborations.

Where, then, lies the potential of co-production to reorient our collective direction? I would argue that while we have seen a turn in co-production theory and praxis towards grappling with power and politics, we urgently need a second turn, to take this first turn even more seriously. A turn towards radical imagination. Co-production processes often begin by employing scientific methods to accurately describe problems in the world, to then use that understanding as a roadmap for desirable pathways and destinations. Kenneth Gergen (2014) calls this a ‘mirroring’ approach, in seeking to see the world as it is. Of course, in practice, this is always only from a partial vantage point. While he sees the merits of this, he claims that greater transformative potential lies in a ‘world-making’ approach, which seeks to imagine and prefigure what our world could be. This is a future forming orientation to research, where research actively participates in the construction of (a possible) reality, rather than a past reinforcing orientation, where research assumes that (the one true) reality already exists. Instead of taking the present reality as a starting point, which can further ensnare us in centuries of baked in biases and power dynamics, we can start by imagining how society could be, even if it is not yet.

Such an approach also requires a shift in language. We typically refer to people as stakeholders in co-production processes. Collins et al. (2007) argue for a performative shift to stakeholding as a verb to acknowledge how people construct (and thus can reconstruct) their stakes over time. I would argue for a further shift from stakes to dreams, to recognize how we are continuously dreamholding—by re(constructing) dreams of plausible and desirable presents, pasts and futures, with crucial real-world effects. This is essentially a Science and Technology Studies take on co-production. However, I argue we must push the methodological boundaries of how we collectively interrogate these dreams and take responsibility for what they do in the world, to create (new) shared dreams (and realities) that are more radically just. Otherwise, we risk falling back into the same ‘loading-dock’ logic (albeit packages of critique instead of packages of solutions), which the growing praxis of co-production seeks to redress in the first place.

This leads back to the central question: what exactly are we co-producing? Are we reinforcing the present? Or are we fulfilling the radical potential of co-production to imagine and experiment with the kinds of societal transformations that are so urgently needed? In the rest of this talk, I will explore how we might orient co-production towards radical imagination, and what this could look like in practice.

2. Orienting towards a speculative co-production?

I have argued that co-production needs radical imagination, but why does radical imagination need co-production? Society has long been (re)imagining the world in radical ways, even before the concept of ‘utopia’ was introduced by Thomas More in 1516 [21]. More’s imagined Island of Utopia depicts a society operating under a radically different (socialist) logic in comparison with the increasingly capitalist English society of that time. There is public health and education for all, and no money, private property, or lawyers. The society is even absurdist, with chamber pots made from gold, and contains things we would challenge today, such as slavery. It is unclear whether More is sketching out a ‘good place’ (to strive for) or ‘no place’ (to be dismissed), given the ambiguous original meaning of utopia. Yet, the radical possibility of how things could be otherwise provoked critical reflection on how society was at that time [21]. This still functions today, even if our collective baseline of what is deemed ‘radical’ has shifted. In this way, utopias and radical imagination force a juxtaposition between existing societies and alternative possible versions. This serves to illuminate the extent of injustices that exist in society, while also showing the contingency of the present—as after all, it can be changed!

Woodcut map of Thomas More’s Island of Utopia (Louvain, 1516), in Open Utopia
Woodcut map of Thomas More’s Island of Utopia (Louvain, 1516), in Open Utopia

The concept of utopia is now ubiquitous in society. However, its ambiguous origin has since morphed into resolute propositions that either inevitably turn dystopian, or are dismissed as preposterous fantasy [22], [23]. Yet utopias also have real world effects. The radical imagination of desirable places or ways of living have motivated countless projects and programs, whether abandoned historically (e.g. Fordlandia; Jonestown) or under present development (e.g. The Line; SpaceX). As such examples show, there is a real risk that the unquestioned ‘dreams’ of an elite few steer changes in society that compound power inequalities and ‘nightmares’ for the majority [24]. Such mobilization of utopia to reinforce rather than challenge the present has led some to declare utopia as colonial [25], and even dead [26]. This present reinforcing role of utopia does not only apply to how we imagine the future, but also the past. For example, the book Retrotopia shows how a temporal turn back towards nostalgic imaginary pasts is implicated in the rise of authoritarian and populist politics [27].

This critique of radical imagination relates to the dominance of one particular form—an ‘absolutist’ notion of utopia, which emphasizes static models of an ‘ideal’ society to be rationally planned and attained [28]. The focus is on spatial form, blueprints, and harmonious end-states rather than navigating conflicts and social processes [29], [30]. Yet, a more open, reflexive, ‘relationalist’ approach to utopia is also possible [28]. Utopian scholar Ruth Levitas elaborated such an approach in framing utopia as method—turning utopia into “the beginning of a process rather than a statement of closure” [1, p. 219]. Yet, Levitas claims that sociology has often failed to embrace this imaginative openness, as the focus tends to be on creating explanatory models of how society works. While indeed building such models necessarily requires imagination, utopia as method can enable “society imagined otherwise, rather than merely society imagined” [p. 84]. Levitas advocates for utopia as “an explanatory sociology of past and present and a speculative sociology of the future” [p. 83]. By speculative sociology, she does not mean predicting or prescribing potential futures. But rather, expanding the realm of imagined possibilities; allowing preferred futures “their proper causal role in the emergent future, rather than leaving this to the potential catastrophe of projected trends” [p. 218].

To enact utopia as a speculative sociology of the future, Levitas distinguishes three essential modes: Architectural, Archaeological, and Ontological, which together enable the imaginary reconstitution of society [1]. The architectural mode—the dreaming up or depicting of better worlds—is perhaps most often employed [31]. Yet Levitas shows how utopia need not entail the total construction of new places or worlds, but is embedded in everyday life, such as in experimental and prefigurative politics [32], [33]. She finds greater value in ‘utopian’ as an adjective and general orientation rather than ‘utopia’ as a noun or other worldly place [1]. The second archaeological mode excavates this built ‘architecture’ by showing how any social and political pursuit (real or imaginary) implicitly contains utopian models, which must be subjected to thorough social critique. The third ontological mode is crucial to the other two modes because the act of imagining and interrogating possible futures is necessarily a deeply cognitive and affective process. The ontological mode recenters the nature of what it means to exist and flourish in any utopian proposition [1]. This enables proposed (un)desirable (im)possible futures to become experienced and felt; and for conflicting perspectives to be unpacked and explored with understanding and grace [34].

Overview of Ruth Levitas’ three modes (Archaeological, Ontological, Architectural), adapted from descriptions in Utopia as Method (2013)
Overview of Ruth Levitas’ three modes, adapted from descriptions in Utopia as Method (2013)

Yet there is a deeper layer of utopia as method which merits careful consideration. After all, surfacing, questioning and transforming what we imagine and desire is much easier said than done. How can we come to truly know our deepest desires, in ways that question them, and also enable a politics of transformation? While a speculative sociology is especially well suited to critical pursuits, it may be enriched by artistic, immersive and prefigurative threads of co-production practice, which foreground the active engagement with and transformation of imagination. There is always a danger, however, that imagination is never quite as free as we would like to believe it is [35]. And in fact, efforts to imagine possible futures often reproduce dominant ways of seeing the world, unless sufficiently critical about what is surfaced or created. This occurs not only through intentional imaginative acts. We are constantly engaged in speculative projects, whether or not we acknowledge this, in how we construct memories of the past and (fictional) expectations of the future, and how we perform these into being [36].

This is where a speculative co-production might potentially deepen our methodological practice of radical imagination. At its core, co-production seeks to move beyond the assumption that scientific expertise alone will transform society, towards facilitating spaces that democratize who holds power to create change in the world. Co-production scholarship not only reveals the historical and political nature of what we (seek to) know or imagine, but also hosts a rich array of methodological approaches to reshape these relations in practice, linked to a range of critical social theories and scholar-activism [37], [38]. It is therefore not only important produce critical knowledge that reveals our hidden utopian imaginaries and their origins and effects in society, but the form of critique also matters. This includes consideration of who is engaged in processes of critique and how—for whether knowledge is ultimately transformative of powerful interests, or becomes ignored or co-opted. Beth Perry similarly argues for the importance of “co-producing critique as an epistemic praxis”, noting the false binary often constructed between co-production and critique [39]. Yet, co-production is not a silver bullet; an ecosystem of politics and publics of critique will likely be crucial, including more oppositional forms.

A more explicit orientation of co-production towards the speculative also quickly reveals the limitations of co-production processes that do not sufficiently attend to the politics of who has the power to imagine better futures. In our study of 32 co-production initiatives around the world, only one-fifth of cases were both located in the global south and led by citizens of those countries [12]. While it has often been tolerated (or even unquestioned) that scientists from the Global North use mainly Western methods to study social-ecological dynamics in the Global South [40], the injustice of such imbalances of power is even more striking when we move into the realm of imagining desirable futures. After all, why should someone in one culture have the right to imagine a ‘better’ future for someone in another culture? Yet given our collective imagination has become deeply colonized by powerful interests across cultures, what are culturally sensitive ways of jointly acknowledging and challenging this? It is crucial to diversify co-production methodologies away from the hegemony of Western scientific methods (designed to reinforce Western values, interests and imaginaries) to unleash the radical potential of co-production to pluralize whose imagination matters and how it matters politically.

3. Practicing a speculative co-production of the future?

A speculative co-production of the future can deepen our creativity and criticality in how we imagine and prefigure the world otherwise. It offers an institutional angle—in showing how infrastructures and institutions (including academia itself) can become embedded sites for radical imagination and solidarity rather than mechanisms for entrenching power and inequalities. While a speculative sociology of the future attempts the imaginary reconstitution of society, a speculative co-production of the future may deepen the intertwining of this with the real collaborative reconstitution of society.

What might a speculative co-production of the future look like in practice? In the spirit of utopia as method, I would not dare offer a clear picture or blueprint, lest I risk alienating or undermining your own imagination. Yet I would also not dare leave it open, acknowledging the risk we each hold of inadvertently reproducing dominant ways of doing co-production in our attempts to imagine it otherwise. This dilemma reflects a core tension in the imaginative logic that drives speculative co-production—between closure versus openness. However, imagination is not only a matter of logic. It is also a matter of relations. Here, another tension arises in the imaginative relationality fostered in speculative co-production—between friction versus solidarity. I will explain each of these tensions in turn, and then illustrate four forms of speculative co-production that productively engage these tensions in different ways. I hope this provokes ideas of how the field of co-production itself might become otherwise—to expand its potential to radically reimagine and remake the world.

What logics underpin the act of imagining possible futures? Peter Pelzer & Wytske introduced the concept of ‘imaginative logic’ to describe how imaginative approaches vary in how they bring possible futures into the present [41]. In evaluating submissions to the Post-Fossil City Contest, they identified a core tension between imaginative logics that are more closed (offering clear narratives and directions) and those that are more open (creating space for others to imagine). To be driven by an imaginative logic of closure is to seek to convince others that a particular (im)possible alternative is desirable and feasible. In essence, to try to steer the future in a particular direction. Otto von Bismarck referred to this as realpolitik, or the art of the possible. One can see how specific maps of more sustainable possible land use (e.g. NL2120) or databases of real life innovations (e.g. Seeds of Good Anthropocenes) might help people see that alternatives are possible (and indeed may already be happening somewhere).

However, this imaginative logic of closure has also been critiqued. There is often a lack of critical reflexivity over who claims power to envision radical proposals and make them politically possible. Some of the wildest most elite ‘impossible’ dreams are being turned into reality through such logic, such as The Line and SpaceX. Often more privileged groups in society claim the power to imagine and make possible, even if they are doing so because they see themselves as marginalized by some broader hegemonic project. Take the green energy transition, or efforts to map or model sustainability issues such as biodiversity loss. While these projects seek to advance a particular environmental notion of justice, there is growing evidence that many of these projects are proceeding in ways that compound injustices for communities who have long suffered from oppressive and extractive global relations [42], [43], [44]. One group’s step towards utopia risks becoming yet another’s real lived dystopia.

Ruth Levitas raises another reason to be cautious of such a closed approach to radical imagination. In Some varieties of utopian method, she critiques how an emphasis on what already exists is restrictive and potentially even counter-productive, as it orients people around smaller-scale projects which must prove their ‘success’ within broader restrictive state-economy regimes that are taken for granted [45]. In Stephen Duncombe’s Dream or nightmare: reimagining politics in an age of fantasy, he calls for an alternative to realpolitik, which he calls dreampolitik [46]. Dreampolitik is based on the idea that instead of trying to narrow the scope of an impossible proposition to what can be proven possible, it can be even more powerful to provoke with an impossible dream that activates people’s sense of injustice and desire to more radically dream of what does not yet exist. For example, by imagining public institutions or infrastructures radically otherwise, such as turning a San Francisco football stadium into a community garden, or reimagining Lund University in 2041. They are not designed as blueprints to implement but rather serve to problematize the present and activate people to imagine alternatives.

There are also dangers of such open imaginative logic. When does such openness actively problematize the present and when is it just pure fantasy? People may also unknowingly fill such ‘blank’ canvases with their pre-existing views, or even strategically co-opt them. To further confuse matters, processes may present themselves as promoting open imaginative logic, when really they are quite closed. Levitas claims that too much openness is precisely why the Occupy movement failed [1]. Its call to put people and the environment ahead of corporate interests was broad enough to mobilize diverse views, but they lacked specificity in their demands and proposed alternatives. This openness meant that while it became clearer that another world could be possible, there was nothing tangible to start working towards. Levitas argues that it is crucial to treat utopia in an open way, to spark more diverse forms of imagination, but to also translate these into real propositions, which even as they inevitably fail, can serve as ongoing critique of the present and the ongoing making of more just futures [1]. The role of openness versus closure in imaginative processes, and the value of ambiguity and iteration in how processes intertwine fact and fiction, or possibility and impossibility, merits much further exploration.

While one can see how navigating the boundary between openness and closure could facilitate a deeply creative and critical approach to reimagining society, this concept doesn’t sufficiently attend to a more emergent variety of utopian method—what Ernst Bloch calls the ‘utopian impulse’ [47]. The utopian impulse signifies a deep feeling of lacking that the world is not as it should be, and longing for the world to be otherwise [45]. This is a different entry point from a primarily (de)constructive project of outlining the substance of better worlds, instead foregrounding the feeling of being utopian together in relation with others, and the unimaginable directions such a collective effervescence can generate. This requires a conceptual framing that considers what relationalities are being constructed through the process of reimagining and remaking society. I refer to this here as imaginative relationality, to offer a complementary concept to that of imaginative logic. This concept brings a second core tension in speculative co-production to the fore: between friction and solidarity.

What relations are constructed and felt through the process of imagining possible futures? In some sense, this is what the concept of co-productive agility attends to—the ability to span frictions in ways that build solidarity, and to build solidarity in ways that allow for continual (re)examination of frictions. While the concept of imaginative logic is most concerned with the intellectual project of dreaming up and critiquing alternatives, the concept of imaginative relationality foregrounds the emotional dimension of how such pursuits navigate the tension between friction and solidarity. Imaginative relationality extends the concept of co-productive agility by orienting not only towards frictions attached to existing political claims, but also those attached to hopes and dreams of more desirable futures. How to unpack, navigate, and transform conflicting dreams of futures, presents and pasts is something that perhaps a speculative co-production of the future can seriously grapple with.

What forms of speculative co-production might help us to navigate these tensions between closure and openness; solidarity and friction; to genuinely counter and gesture beyond the present? In their piece, Co-production: towards a utopian approach (2018), David Bell & Kate Pahl outline a utopian framework for co-production that operates simultaneously “within, against and beyond current configurations of power in academia and society more broadly” [38, p. 105]. However, they do not explore in methodological detail what is possible when utopian and co-production approaches connect in practice. I will offer a start through some glimpses at the boundary of fact and fiction that speak to the power of operating within, against and beyond—although I would add the fourth category across. Together, these forms of speculative co-production (and no doubt additional forms) may help radically orient our collective imagination towards countering and transforming the present.


This form of speculative co-production is like cultivating a seed that may hold potential to flourish more broadly. It seeks to create space for people to experiment with utopian alternatives [38]. This necessitates making the imagined possible and building a sense of solidarity around it, to see how it might work in practice—remaining open to the frictions and transformation that experimentation brings.

Imagine a world where… citizen–artist–government–research–social enterprise collectives create radically multi-purpose public infrastructures. Perhaps schools also serve as community gardens; universities as cultural event spaces; public transportation engages social imagination (instead of consumer adverts); cathedrals become (future) climate cooling centres. But hold on… why am I imagining this alone? Are these not just blueprint utopias? Why not look at how people are already experimenting with radically alternative infrastructures? One example (among many) is a set of 30+ initiatives featured on infrahub.africa which have created just and sustainable infrastructures across the African continent. This growing database was jointly developed by the African Centre for Cities in South Africa and the Urban Futures Studio in the Netherlands.

Screenshot of the infrahub.africa homepage
Screenshot of infrahub.africa, showcasing 30+ examples of just and sustainable infrastructure across the African continent


This second form of speculative co-production is like introducing rough textures to slow down a speeding car. It acknowledges that operating only within is inherently limiting, and that it is crucial to actively question the broader structural conditions [including within the university itself] that remain hostile to realizing co-production’s utopian potential. It therefore seeks to stage clear frictions between possible alternatives and the present social order, and in doing so, make the present order ‘impossible’ [38].

Imagine a world where… we start to hold the rapid expansion of sustainability agendas—whether energy transitions, mapping exercises, or tree planting campaigns—accountable to their embedded coloniality? How might we make more visible the harms they are propagating against communities and nature around the globe? And how can we challenge the power structures and regulatory environments that currently order such agendas in ways that exclude attention to justice? Two PhD candidates I have the privilege of working with are exploring just this—investigating the coloniality of EU green energy transitions in Chile (Darko Lagunas) and the coloniality of how islands are mapped (Cara Flores). They are doing so by collaboratively working with indigenous or island communities to construct notions of alternative decolonial futures and stage these in friction with dominant international approaches to sustainability.


This third form of speculative co-production is like colouring outside of the cramped box of what’s seen as possible. There is always a danger that the very act of working within or against something will serve to reproduce it. This approach extends beyond this by building solidarity around utopia’s most radically wonderous impossibilities. Such radical praxis is exceptionally rare in co-production, perhaps due to a fear of it being too idealistic and disconnected. Yet, it can estrange us from assumptions of how the world has to be, which can orient critical debate and prefigurative efforts [38].

Imagine a world where… actually, I am cautious to indulge here, as this is a project best democratized to our collective wisdom and imagination. I will however gesture towards two broad approaches. Namely, the potential of culturally embedded creative and artistic practices, and reimagining of alternative/erased histories, to orient imaginative acts such that they do not reproduce historical injustices. In doing so, we can foster new (or remember old) ways of educating our desires and enjoying the world differently. Many groups are already experimenting with this; for example, the multi-media cartography experiment The World We Became: Map Quest 2350. This initiative presents a planetary vision of interspecies justice that intertwines ecological crises with Black, Asian, Pacific, Middle Eastern, Latin American, Caribbean, and Indigenous futures [48].


I would add a fourth form to David Bell & Kate Pahl’s typology—one that is often invisible, as it is less about the making or unmaking of worlds, and more about (un)making between worlds. This form of speculative co-production is like exploring the connective tissue between relatively dominant and marginalized dreams thought possible or impossible. It acknowledges the constructed nature of our dreams, and the potential for co-production methodologies to surface these dreams and put them in a shared space to interrogate and transform them into more radically collective dreams. This approach (linked to agonistic politics) builds necessary conditions for the active and deliberate exploration of frictions, rooted in people’s very real sense of what is desirable and possible in this world [49], [50].

Imagine a world where… when we implicitly call upon our own dreams, we are afforded the collective space and solidarity to empathetically engage with the frictions they impose on others’ dreams. In academia, we tend to be good at raising frictions in an intellectual way, yet we are not always so good at fostering generative emotional solidarity around them. Last month, I organized the PhD course ‘Transformative research for sustainability challenges’. All three times we have run this course, I’ve been struck by the level of critical solidarity that emerges. Participants bring their assumptions regarding what makes research transformative in society, and together we create a safe (enough) space to explore (often previously suppressed) discomforts within our dreams and frictions across them, to challenge our own role going forward. We urgently need such spaces (in academia and society) that enable us to become simultaneously more critical and hopeful together.

Students of the Transformative Research PhD course standing in a circle and together holding up a yarn 'web'
Participants of the PhD course ‘Transformative research for sustainability challenges’ on May 3rd, 2024, entangled in a yarn constellation of our emergent relations and dreams (photo credit: Jillian Student)

I have offered some possible shades of a speculative co-production, but I’ll leave you with a few final open questions:

How would you imagine yourself doing co-production otherwise?
And how might we imagine this together?
What should we be co-producing?
Knowledge of how the world is?
Or explorations in how we might become (im)possibly togetherwise?

I’d like to end with Ruth Levitas’ closing words in her book Utopia as Method: “We must live in this world as citizens of another. What is required of us is both specific to our distinctive situation, and the same as for every earlier and later generation: Mourn. Hope. Love. Imagine. Organize.” [1, p. 220]

[1]        R. Levitas, Utopia as Method. London: Palgrave Macmillan UK, 2013. doi: 10.1057/9781137314253.

[2]        C. A. Miller and C. Wyborn, “Co-production in global sustainability: Histories and theories,” Environ. Sci. Policy, vol. 113, pp. 88–95, Feb. 2018, doi: 10.1016/j.envsci.2018.01.016.

[3]        E. Ostrom, “Public Economy Organization and Service Delivery,” presented at the Financing the Regional City, Project Meeting of the Metropolitan Fund, University of Michigan, Dearborn, MI, W77-23, Oct. 1977. [Online]. Available: https://dlc.dlib.indiana.edu/dlc/handle/10535/732

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