Coproduction in a pandemic: listening to the voices unheard

Coproduction of knowledge and participatory research are all the more important in the context of COVID-19. Social distancing, emergency legislation, and a lack of institutional transparency and accountability are likely to exacerbate current inequalities and further disempower those voices historically excluded by society. At a time of extreme pressure on the welfare state, there are also opportunities to “shake up” the system and including marginalised voices in this process of change is all the more important. Research can play a crucial role in bringing these voices closer to the ears of policymakers.

In a recent event part of the ESRC’s Festival of Science, Sonia Bussu and Nigel Allmark from MMU spoke with Suzy Solley and Mat Amp from Groundswell about the opportunities and challenges for coproducing research at a time of social distancing. Groundswell is a national charity who provide people facing homelessness the opportunity to coproduce solutions to homelessness through research and advocacy. Their work has an impact on both public policy and services. 

The pandemic has been a time when the issue of homelessness has become central to public health. The spiralling economic crisis is putting many thousands of households into poverty and at risk of losing their homes. At a time of social distancing ensuring the voices of those experiencing homelessness are not lost is as important as it is challenging. The constraints imposed by the pandemic have forced the team to reinvent and develop some of their work in creative and powerful ways, which rely more on peer-led reporting and the use of new media, audio, photo and video to reach out to people and bring their voices together. A group of national reporters with experience of homelessness shared their own experience of COVID-19 and what was happening in their local area. 

There are several challenges when trying to achieve this, from digital exclusion (which right now can raise ever-deeper barriers to participation) to the difficulty of supporting people emotionally and physically from a distance. The current situation has also triggered new thinking to adapt old models of working while continuing to invest in building meaningful relationships with the people involved in the peer-led reporting research. Reporters are supported remotely by a Groundswell mentor and have all the equipment they need for the role (phones, credit and tablets) to ensure nobody is out of pocket. As it has become harder to reach out to people, methods have also adapted. For instance, Groundswell have introduced data capture methods to allow non-research staff to input what they are experiencing on the ground. 

Probably more than ever before coproduction of research is needed as an empowering process that can bring isolated people together around common needs and issues, contextualising what might otherwise feel like individual problems or ‘weaknesses’. In the typically risk averse homelessness sector, people with experience of homelessness often are not trusted. The opportunity to participate in research, and be trusted to do so, can be an important step in challenging unequal power relations. Issues of power differentials also exist within coproduced research and require careful negotiating of relationships, particularly when vulnerable people are involved. Vulnerability does not negate the fact that everyone has unique strengths. The word vulnerable can be problematic, because there is an assumption that participants might need protection and it promotes the self-empowerment of those who act as “protectors”. These ideas are often based on an underestimation of participants’ ability to resist power. The system often depicts people as ‘receivers’ of services so ‘giving back’, participating in research and feeding into responses to homelessness gives people an opportunity to correct the power imbalance.  Importantly, key stakeholders from the National Health Service and Department of Health and Social Care are keen to listen and the shorter feedback loop that comes with mobile reporting means that crucial insight can get to them in real time. 

Coproduction of research can help challenge the system of knowledge control established through mainstream research, as we try to change a status quo whose contradictions and unacceptable inequalities have been laid bare by Covid-19. At Groundswell volunteer reporters, researchers and advocates have a shared experience of homelessness and related traumas. These shared experiences mean that empathy and trust can be quickly built. Anyone who has faced homelessness has survived exceptionally difficult circumstances and has a great capacity to contribute new ideas to help rethink and strengthen the welfare state and the way society and institutions understand and respond to homelessness. In this way, we find that the process of conducting research for people experiencing homelessness can trigger current or existing trauma but revisiting those traumas can also be crucial in the process of healing.  As one of Groundswell’s peer researchers explains:

“So the experience of meeting homeless people like you – not only the research it helps on a personal level like … when you’re feeling down, it brings back memories when you were in that situation. And how far you have come away. It reassures you that I am not doing that bad. It gives you some motivation” 

What Groundswell has been able to maintain, in these exceptionally difficult times, is a team of people, many, but not all, with lived experience of homelessness, working together in an equal relationship where everyone’s strengths and vulnerabilities are equally recognised and valued. 

Sonia Bussu, Suzy Solley, Nigel Allmark, and Mat Amp

Urgent, meaningful and delightful; aspirations for coproduced research with babies and families during physical distancing

Ruthie Boycott-Garnett, Abigail Hackett, Katy McCall, Naomi Kendrick

This blog emerges from conversations about how participatory research should respond to the seismic shifts in communities and everyday lives that are unfolding as a result of Covid19. Our thinking emerges from a working group we have belonged to for the last 18 months, in which staff from Manchester Art Gallery (Katy, Naomi), MMU (Abi, Ruthie) and local Children’s Centres and nurseries explored ways in which we could work more closely with local families with babies. The pandemic has offered huge and unique challenges for new parents, babies, and those who work with them. At the same time, by challenging traditional ways of doing research, lockdown and physical distancing measures might create new spaces to question established orders of power, such as academic knowledge (Roy, 2020, Skeggs, 2020). Therefore, as a group we were interested in asking; could this challenge to settled ways of doing co-production also provoke us to imagine new ways of researching together?

Tacit knowledge, partially articulated things and the importance of what goes unsaid

Many methods of data collection have had to be adapted because of Covid19, and in the early months of lock down, there was an outpouring of knowledgeable, creative and innovative responses to the question of how to do participatory research alongside physical distancing. However, one of the things that started to nag in our minds was the extent to which many of these methods relied on knowledge that was fairly definite, explicit and easily conveyed in words. Classic participatory methods for working at a physical distance might include things such as interviews conducted over a video call, asking participants to keep a visual or written diary of their experiences, or shared spaces where participants can upload responses to prompts and questions. Whilst these methods can be incredibly powerful in some research contexts, they run up against many of the ways we are used to supporting, researching with and building relationships with communities, families and babies. These ways have tended to centre on time spent physically together, creating beautiful and immersive spaces that invite different kinds of interactions and conversations, tracing small moments (Stewart, 2007), bodily experiences and sensations, things that can be known through the body and partially articulated in writing. These aspects of lived experience with babies and toddlers are rarely articulated and often hard to explain. So what might we need to consider then, in terms of working in communities and with families with young children, during the time of physical distancing? Working with families often involves engaging with sensitive and complex family relationships and it is important to be able to account for things that go unsaid or are not fully explicated in words.

Our work together at Manchester Art Gallery

Since September 2019, a team of arts and early years practitioners and researchers have been meeting at Manchester Art Gallery to think about how babies and young children use the space. Until March 2020 we met regularly in the gallery to share research and experiences that helped us think about the space. We looked at artworks that might be exhibited, we followed routes around the gallery that children had taken before us and we shared examples of nursery visits. Our focus was to support Katy McCall, MAG’s Family Learning Manager, to create a new space for families in the gallery, due to open in May. When the gallery shut during the initial Covid-19 lockdown in March, building work had already begun to open up the space. Heavy shutters that had stopped the light from pouring in were pulled back, changing the quelled, quiet, low light gallery into a sunlit, open space.

When lockdown temporarily closed the gallery doors, we all held enough enthusiasm to continue meeting. We turned to Zoom, like so many other people around the world, but our conversations changed. We tried to continue our original track discussing how the new space could be used in response to what families would need ‘after lockdown’. We considered how to document family’s experiences, perhaps exhibiting a collection of ‘lockdown art’: NHS rainbows, window trails or home craft activities. 

As the pandemic continued this thinking trailed off into the fog. Perhaps this was because we knew that these dominant narratives of children crafting away, joining Joe Wicks and zooming with friends were not everybody’s stories. We knew there were families without scissors and glue or wifi. Perhaps also because we felt too much was unknown. We felt the frustrations of the increasingly complex restrictions and plans for ‘once this is all over’ became faded and far away. Perhaps we changed direction because focusing on the space, whilst it was empty, was not urgent enough. Haraway suggests that ‘urgencies’ rather than emergencies ‘have other temporalities, these times are ours. These are the times that we must think; these are the times of urgencies that need stories.’ (Haraway, 2016:37).

The need for urgency was balanced with the need to build something meaningful, useful and delightful. The nature of our meetings changed to something more immediate. We met more regularly, our talk changed from thinking about the space to thinking about the current experiences of the families that would usually be in it. Step by step we made 100 boxes of sensory gifts and art making materials for babies and toddlers living within the city centre. 

Though it was unintended, each box has become greater than the sum of its parts and, as the pandemic continues, has become significant in building relationships across the city. Delivering the boxes has become an opportunity for human contact. For some, this was a catch up on the doorstep, a chance to ask that niggling question or a moment to meet a new face. These moments on the doorstep between parents, possibly babies, practitioners, the boxes and the gallery tune into Kathleen Stewart’s (2007) work on tracing the flows of energy and intensity between people, things and places. These moments will continue as the boxes become the focus of social distanced play sessions for families to play with their own boxes in a shared space. As restrictions fluctuate, more boxes are being made and will likely be used in ways that we cannot yet imagine, moulded by the alive, immanent and unpredictable forces that will occur between the boxes, gallery and babies.


Haraway, D. (2016). Staying with the Trouble. Durham: Duke University Press. 

Roy, A. (2020). The pandemic is a portal, Financial Times, April 3rd. Available online:

Skeggs, B. (2020) Introducing Solidarity and Care During the COVID-19 Pandemic, The Sociological Review, Available online:

Stewart, K. (2007). Ordinary Affects. Durham: Duke University Press. 

An Afrofuturist Outpost: Re-imagining co-productive from beyond the university

This blog emerges from the Imagination, Margins and Tacit Knowledge ESRC Festival of Social Science event. For more information click here.

This is an attempt at an origin myth. A speculative writing of a future history. We aim to talk something into being. In lay person’s terms, this is a project that has happened yet. Starting co-produced projects is not impossible under lockdown and physical distancing but it is a gravity that works against the quality of emotional, relational and temporal investment in a project. There was a funding application but it fell at the last minute due to issues with partner commitments. 

We begin with an 18-month dialogue between MMU and the Niamos theatre in Hulme. Our concern is the disparity between the rich cultural achievements of Hulme and the simplicity, lack of care and imagination of the various institutional and social policy interventions aimed at the area and those that live in it. Hulme has made profound contributions to the arts, cultural and political vibrancy of Manchester and without exaggeration through at least its music and fashion the world. So, as we encounter an issue we are interested in thinking, What Would Hulme Do? 

This orientation suggested an approach to the issue of, from one perspective, increasing the diversity in the university and, from the other, expanding opportunities for young people in Hulme: 

SODA, MMU’s new School of Digital Arts is looking to create educational spaces to increase the diverse of its students and so skills pipeline and so the future workforce of the region. SODA aims to be the region’s home of next generation storytelling so whose stories are told and who tells them is crucial. Unfortunately, many of the existing approaches to increasing diversity often fail to scratch the surface. 

WWHD? Co-produced projects often begin in messy places and well set sail and navigate other messy spaces. So, one co-author (Duggan) thought the other (Ali) had produced an Afrofuturist pantomime at Niamos titled Snow White Privilege. As it turns out, the panto was not Afrofuturist but this error led to an interesting place. The idea was to co-produce an Afrofuturist intervention in SODA where the aim is not to integrate or accommodate racialised young people into an educational space but instead re-imagine the places, spaces, relationships and temporalities of digital education. The prospect of co-producing an Afrofuturist project to transform the university raised concerns of the ways in which co-production itself might work to shape, constrain and resist these research processes of imagining beyond the university from within and without. 

It might not feel like it to those of us struggling with the lack of recognition for the emotional and relational labour involved in developing co-produced projects within the university but co-production is an institutionally sanctioned discourse, like participation, inclusion and diversity. Co-production is typically constituted from project management technologies, contractual relations, upholds liberal Intellectual Property rights and so on. We might question whether these dynamics constrain the bases on which co-production is advanced, to empower, enact equality and democracy, contribute to social justice. The point here is not to nitpick. Inspired by speculative pragmatic approaches, we seek to identify and explore new propositions that are interesting, work to situate us otherwise. 

Re-imagining the practices of co-production through Afrofuturism is, if nothing else, interesting. It enables us to learn the lessons from moves to decolonise research methodologies and the university and apply this to research co-production. This is the work of co-production but it is not a neutral and apolitical set of practices in this work. Hence reimagining co-production through Afrofuturism. 

Afrofuturism is not just a critique but a generative focus for co-producing research because of its diverse, live and lively practices and applications: For Womack (2013) it is… ‘Both an artistic aesthetic and a framework for critical theory, Afrofuturism combines elements of science fiction, historical fiction, speculative fiction, fantasy, Afrocentricity, and magic realism with non-Western beliefs.’ These lenses and inspirations kindle an Afrofuturist co-productive imagination which will begin moves to re-imagine the methodologies, ethics and practices and ways of valuing co-produced research. Co-production involves citizens in planning, collecting and analysing data but making theory remains the elite preserve of academics. Afrofuturism’s emancipatory politics inspires the attempt to co-produce theory with citizens, re-imagining what theory is and how it connects to everyday life. Co-produced ethics emphasise equality. Afrofuturism invites us to think of being alien and alienation rather than equality and participation posing profoundly different ways of understanding ethics, relationships of obligation, and the micro-social relations of accompaniment in research.

We are at the beginning of this adventure but we hope to develop an Afrofuturist-orientated co-production which involves collaborative theory building between citizens and academics, a process involving a lively encounter with music, film, technology and inspiring retellings of alternative pasts and (hopeful) histories of the future.

Elmi Ali and James Duggan 

Imagination, Margins and Tacit Knowledge: Co-producing research during physical distancing

Since the COVID-19 lockdown and physical distancing began many of us have been grappling with the challenges and potentials of rethinking co-produced or collaborative ways of working. Physical distancing measures make it harder to  develop the trust and quality of relationship needed to work together. At the same time, the pandemic, by challenging traditional ways of doing research, might create new space  to question established orders of power, such as academic knowledge (Roy, 2020, Skeggs, 2020). Could this challenge to settled ways of doing co-production might also provoke us to imagine new ways of researching together? 

This ESRC Festival of Social Science online event brought together on-going dialogues between academics, community organisations and the people and publics they work with to re-imagine what co-production is and it might become. The event featured short presentations on different coproduction projects, with time for group discussion on challenges and opportunities ahead for coproduced research.

We focused on cases each illuminating a new theme for co-production: 

Imagination: Co-production is often described using words such as empower, social justice, democracy and equality but these have all been stretched and misappropriated to mean just about anything. James Duggan and Elmi Ali from community theatre space Niamos are working to re-think co-production through the lenses and practices of Afrofuturism which offers a new imagination, where we might, for example, hold onto ideas of being alien and alienation rather than claiming we are equals in co-production. (You can read a blog about this session here.)

Margins: At a time when our welfare system is under unprecedented pressure and needs rethinking, it’s fundamental to include in this discussion voices too often left unheard. Sonia Bussu and Nigel Allmark talked with Suzy Solley and Mat Amp from Groundswell, a London-based charity doing research with people with lived experience of homelessness,  some of their recent projects during the pandemic, and how they are helping to create ethical spaces for homeless voices to be heard and contribute to societal change. 

Tacit knowledge: Working with families often involves engaging with sensitive and complex family relationships and it is important to be able to account for things that go unsaid or are not fully explicated in words. Abi Hackett joined with Ruthie Boycott-Garner (MMU), Katy McCall (Manchester Art Gallery) and Naomi Kendrick (Manchester Art Gallery) to discuss the potential of visual and material methods to access ways of knowing that extend beyond words, during times of physical distancing. 

This blog is the first in the series presenting these three dialogues. In the meantime please check out the event video and Wakelet:

Nigel Allmark, Sonia Bussu, James Duggan and Abi Hackett