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Co-producing Doctoral Urban Research in the Global South?

Reflections from the first KNOW Doctoral Training Course

By Julia Wesely (WP5) and Christopher Yap (WP6)


Knowledge co-production can be a challenging undertaking, even in a programme like KNOW which has been developed based on longstanding partnerships of trust. But how might knowledge co-production work in Doctoral research? How might you, for instance, build partnerships in a short time span? What strategies and tactics allow for developing, conducting, and sharing research that reflect the values, ethics, and principles of co-production processes, yet remain compatible with the rigid requirements of conventional Doctoral research that is assessed as an independent body of work?

These were some of the difficult questions that were raised in the first KNOW Doctoral Training Course, entitled ‘Co-producing Urban Doctoral Research in the Global South’. From 18-21 January, a diverse group of 22 Doctoral students from across the UK and KNOW City Partners, CUJAE and Ardhi University, met online to examine different aspects of knowledge co-production, including issues of epistemic justice, positionality and partnerships with equivalence. We share here some of the key themes and learnings that were discussed transversally over these four days.

Figure 1 Participant feedback to the question: Which key idea or learning do you take away from the DTC for your PhD research?


The first theme relates to the issue of mapping and positioning ourselves within the wider political economy of knowledges. In the first session of the week, each of the participants contributed reflections to the idea that knowledge is not neutral, that it is situated in time and in place, and that it exists in the relations between, and is embodied by, a diversity of actors. In discussing the political economy of knowledge production surrounding the different PhD research projects, we elaborated together how power differentials between these actors are the reason that some knowledges are elevated and others are marginalised.

We recognised, then, the very real need to challenge the mainstream approach to Doctoral research. One participant encapsulated this as contesting “the idea that there are undiscovered territories of knowledge out there. And that your role as a doctoral student is to pluck this knowledge and make it your own.” Rather, we discussed the ways in which each process of knowledge production – the field work, analysis, theory-building – can be thought about as sites of politics, which relate to what Jazeel and McFarlane (2010) term our responsibilities as researchers.

Critically, assuming these responsibilities requires us to reflect on, and recognise, the intersectional character of our identities and positionalities; how our language, country of origin, insider-outsider status, amongst others, influence the ways we produce knowledge. This is especially important when we are talking about research within and across the unequal relations between the global North and South.

A second transversal theme of the week related to the conscious crafting and curating of relationships, and the particular quality which partnerships with equivalence can bring to PhD research. Participants and KNOW investigators discussed ways to mobilise principles of mutual trust, honesty, transparency, and accountability, while recognising that partnerships require constant nurturing.

The diversity of actors involved in partnerships can be incredibly generative – between sectors, institutions, disciplines – but it demands that we recognise and bring out into the open and reflect on the different priorities, mandates, and trajectories of institutions and individuals. It further demands that we recognise how our relations are embedded in colonial and post-colonial contexts, in a political economy of higher education and research, and for those of us working in planning, in the context of the professionalisation of planning education, theory, and practice.

Thirdly, the week clearly established that there are multiple spaces and roles for knowledge co-production in PhD research. However, Doctoral students face a series of challenges as the vast majority of research conducted in UK Higher Education Institutions is not done in this way.

For example, conventional institutional frameworks often do not recognise the agency of PhD students and their research partners in making collective decisions, they often follow a mechanistic approach to evaluating physical risk, and have a universalist or disciplinary understanding of what conducting ethical and responsible research means. Moreover, publications on knowledge co-production currently draw heavily from large-scale research programmes, while the challenges, opportunities, tensions and strategies of alternative, smaller processes such as those of a PhD are rarely examined. Hence, Doctoral researchers have an important role in documenting their reflection-in-action not only for the purpose of their PhDs, but for consolidating these reflections collectively to enable learning from their experiences.

In efforts to contest and stretch these conventional institutional moulds, knowledge co-production and partnerships with equivalence have to be considered not only as useful approaches to doing PhD research, but as challenges to hegemonic systems of knowledge production, to epistemic injustices, and crucially, as a response to growing inequalities we see within and between cities around the world.

Throughout the DTC, participants and facilitators demonstrated how a certain professionalisation of knowledge co-production comes with a range of responsibilities, one of them being the responsibility to avoid watering-down the concept of co-production, the responsibility to engage critically with its limits and potentials, including saying ‘no’ to it. Co-production is not the only way of engaging ethically in Doctoral research with communities, nor does it come with a manual or one widely agreed approach to follow. Hence, Doctoral researchers are challenged to be clear about their specific individual contribution to global conversations. Moreover, we identified multiple avenues for nurturing future collaborations with this DTC cohort as part of KNOW’s UK Urban Learning Hub (ULH), to collectivise these contributions and stimulate translocal and transversal learning within and across cohorts and ULH’s.

We want to thank the KNOW-DTC team and especially all DTC participants for their commitment, dedication and thought-provoking contributions to this first iteration of the course.

Looking forward, we are excited to develop versions of the DTCs with KNOW City Partners, and to host the next UK-based iteration in late 2021. For more details about the KNOW Doctoral Training Course, including announcements about the next courses, please visit:


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