Please login or create an account to join the discussion.

When worlds collide: Exploring tensions in co-producing food system transformations with communities and industry

Food systems actors are increasingly turning to stakeholder participation to ‘co-produce’ solutions to challenges. At a workshop on participatory research, blog authors Soujanya Mantravadi and Hannah Gardiner noticed differences in understanding of participatory concepts between their two disciplines - industrial information systems and food justice in communities, respectively. In this blog they consider the implications of those differences for community-industry collaboration and highlight some key practices for working across disciplines.

Hannah Gardiner (they/them) is a community activist and PhD researcher in food justice/systems and social science at the University of Plymouth. Soujanya Mantravadi (she/her) is an engineer and postdoc in industrial systems and supply chains at the University of Cambridge.

This flyer advertises a new blog by Hannah Gardiner and Soujanya Mantravadi called "When worlds collide: Exploring tensions in co-producing food system transformations with communities and industry" with an image of ants collaborating in tug of war.

We met at a workshop on Participatory Research at which Hannah, a PhD researcher in food systems and a community activist, was facilitating discussions and activities. At the end of the workshop Soujanya, a postdoctoral research associate in industrial systems and supply chains, told Hannah that the concepts Hannah had talked about are used in a very different way in Soujanya’s own discipline. The subsequent conversation sparked our collaboration on this article.

Participatory research, co-design and co-production are often used as umbrella terms for a suite of approaches to research which centre stakeholder collaboration and participation in order to deliver more system-aware outcomes. As our exchange illustrated, these are elusive concepts, with the same words defined differently by different people, and sometimes used interchangeably even within one project. The many methods captured under the umbrella may differ in their underlying philosophies, assumptions, and goals. These differences have the potential to exacerbate tensions that can arise when stakeholders come together.

Co-production and food system transformation

Addressing the complexities of food system challenges requires the collective efforts of diverse stakeholders to drive meaningful change. We are both part of projects funded by the UK Research and Innovation Food Systems Transformation Fund, which puts a large emphasis on stakeholder involvement. This mirrors a broader ‘participatory turn’ noted across academia, arts, health, and public policy. So, why is collaborative production or co-production with stakeholders beneficial in food systems transformation? 

By taking a co-production approach it is possible to uncover complexity, and to maximise the benefits of any one intervention. Let’s take the example of digital tools. Their application has proven effective within industry for supply chain management, such as reducing food waste in commercial settings. However, when it comes to using digital tools to improve healthy food access for communities, a systemic approach is needed. Consider, for example, designing a digital platform to connect residents with nearby farmers' markets. As technology increasingly becomes a part of how people navigate spaces, this may seem like an attractive community project with relatively low barriers, but by co-producing it with people with diverse life experiences, you may uncover multiple barriers which those without such experiences wouldn’t imagine. These might include being unable to afford mobile phone data, a lack of technology skills or trust, mobility challenges impeding the ability to carry heavy shopping, or low-income residents needing support to pay farmers market food prices. 

Even in processes with explicitly community-driven goals, industry is an important stakeholder to involve as it brings valuable insights on market dynamics and manufacturing and supply capabilities. Industry-community collaborations are possible and have worked before. Some examples are local food cooperatives, digital marketplaces to connect local growers with consumers, and partnerships between Non-Governmental Organizations and food manufacturers to develop sustainable sourcing practices (e.g. see the story of Divine Chocolate). In order to achieve their outcomes, though, stakeholders in such collaborations must be working from some common understanding of the co-production process. Here we share some of the divergences in understanding of co-production we uncovered in our discussions.

Divergent understandings of co-production

In Hannah’s world (community activism), co-production often focuses on people coming together to understand injustices affecting them (e.g. the poverty premium), and taking collective action to make change (Fine, M. 2022). This is about citizens collaborating for social change. It’s about process. Participatory Action Research (PAR) is a frequently used term, with origins in global south scholarship, but there is considerable diversity in terminology and methods. For example, a project that engaged youth to investigate their school food supply chain by taking and analysing photos (photovoice method) led to changes in eating habits, advocacy for healthier food in their school, and an increased awareness of ideas on justice. Another example features scientists collaborating with community gardeners to test fruit harvests for nutritional enrichment and lead contamination (citizen science) to support advocacy for urban produce.

In Soujanya’s world (industrial systems and supply chains), co-production often takes forms such as Participatory Design, which entails the active engagement of end-users and stakeholders throughout the design process to engineer more user-centric solutions. This relates to incorporating user input in the industry's product creation, sometimes also called socio-technical design (Simonsen & Robertson, 2013). While participation is a tool, the goal is focused on the product. For example, involving customers in co-designing a digital food delivery platform ensures that the user interface, features, and functionalities align with their needs. This collaboration results in a better product experience for end-users. The term co-production may be used for either of the above practices and many others! 

Attending to differences in interpretation is crucial as choices about how to design and deliver co-production can affect what outcomes are achieved. A recent analysis of 32 co-production projects noted that these theorised the role of co-production in different ways, with purpose and motivation divided between those aiming to 1) more effectively solve predefined problems (e.g. initiatives to fill knowledge gaps) and those 2) who sought rather to reframe problems (e.g. ‘shifting people’s focus on ensuring sustainable production of a commodity to becoming an active steward of the ecosystem on which that product depends’). The analysis found that where project designs emphasised filling scientific knowledge gaps, this could restrict achievement of outcome types that support collective action (e.g. reframing narratives around power). Conversely, projects producing considerable reframing and empowerment outcomes had difficulty engaging solution-oriented actors and creating shifts in policy or practice. The authors of the paper suggest that different ‘modes’ of co-production (they identify six) have the potential to produce particular outcomes and risks, and therefore may be appropriate at different stages of a change process. 

This illustration depicts the co-designing process as imagined by the authors of the blog. Starting with analyzying aims and weighing priorities versus tradeoffs then flowing to the right on the diagram to collaboration and participation. Here the stakeholders are represented by sketches: community, researchers, designers and users. The next section to the right illustrates conversation on diverse experience, focus on process, focus on product, the last section on the right is an interlocking puzzle.

A visual flowchart of the authors' suggested path to co-production. Illustration by Marius Dihr.

What can help us collaborate and co-produce?

Defining the goals of co-production is complex, and may require dialogue in itself. Given that there may be trade-offs between different positive outcomes (consider the way that Green Revolution projects to develop high-yield crop varieties motivated by food security increased global food supply and reduced hunger but also led to major health and environmental harms), failure to recognise and communicate about differences in the goals of co-production can result in negative outcomes for some stakeholders. Even with good intentions, diverse stakeholders bring different values and priorities, and may face challenges finding common ground. For example, stakeholders focussed on diet inequalities may prioritize eliminating hunger or malnutrition, whereas stakeholders representing businesses may need to foreground profitability. Design of the co-production process is an important point of negotiation! 

Co-production is also messy, it takes time, and requires an ability to sit in uncertainty and critically reflect on one’s own ways of thinking and working. It is a challenge to Gantt-chart-driven structured work plans, and the rigidity of traditional research protocols. In order to create positive change in the food system at large, enough time must be given to bring our different worlds together, and in ways which allow habitual ways of working and thinking to be re-written. Negotiation of different priorities and trade-offs between them actually needs to start at the project design stage, when key decisions about resource allocation are made. Is this process about filling knowledge gaps? Designing a new product? Or supporting collective action? Perhaps the project needs distinct phases to achieve multiple outcomes? At minimum, consideration of how the process affects the outcomes achieved will mean co-benefits can be maximised. 

There are many useful resources and best practices to support co-production. We have picked out some that could be incorporated into participatory practices across disciplines:

  • Smith et al., (2022) suggest agreeing on what is meant by co-production at the start. They provide principles for co-production, including recognising that reaching consensus is not always possible or desirable as it may mean marginalising minority opinions.
  • UCL’s Co-production Collective defined useful ‘core values’ which could be adapted to your context:
    • Being human: valuing people as people, doing everything wholeheartedly, and working to make a genuine difference
    • Being inclusive: supporting everyone to be included and participate fully
    • Being transparent: sharing power, making decisions openly and collectively, and being accountable to everyone in the partnership
    • Embracing challenge: continually questioning both the status quo and ourselves, even when that’s the hard thing.
  • The Centre for Social Justice and Community Action (Durham University) published a Guide to Ethical Principles (2022), including how to create a working agreement between partners.


In this blog, we discussed areas where tensions could arise when communities and industry collaborate in co-designing food system transformation, particularly conflicting interests, and differing perspectives on what “participation” means in each of these worlds of industrial information systems and community activism. 

It’s so amazing that policymakers, funders, industry partners and so many more are already engaging in this work. We hope this blog is the start of a conversation, providing useful provocations for people and representatives of industry to reflect and improve. It’s a work in progress! We don’t claim to have the answers, although we provided some resources as starting points. We would love to see more conversation about these challenges in achieving sustainable food systems for all.

How are you overcoming such challenges in your work? What good practice have you seen? We welcome people responding through the TABLE community board or contacting us on or

Post a new comment »

Login or register to comment with your personal account. Anonymous comments require approval to be visible.