‘In conversation with… : Co-designing with more-than-human communities’ – Funded by the Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC)

This project brought together representatives from over 17 Connected Communities projects to explore how a consideration of the ‘more-than-human’ approach, which recognises non-humans as active participants in the creation of our world, might extend our understandings of community and of participatory research.

The main objectives were to:

  • explore how work on ‘co-design’ and ‘co-production’ from with the humanities and social sciences might be transformed by attention to ‘more than human communities’;
  • analyse what might be the opportunities and challenges of such an approach;  – extend philosophical discussions about the role of ‘voice’, ‘communication’ and ‘agency’ in the construction of community;
  • reflect on the role of more-than-human communities in existing and previous CC projects;  – identify new opportunities for co-created research from within a more-than-human framework.

This research arose from a concern that ‘community’ has too often been thought of as only including the human, thus leaving out the wide range of interactions with non-humans that sustain and enhance our communities. Likewise, ‘research’ itself appeared most often as an activity that is quintessentially human. However, research practices have always been entangled with the lives, qualities and capacities of non-human actors. From the birds who demonstrated the vacuum in Robert Boyle’s air pump, the dogs who demonstrated the effects of insulin and the genetically modified OncoMouse, much research has relied extensively on the contributions of non-humans.

This project aimed to explore how both research and community might be rethought within a ‘more-than-human’ framework. Literature on the coproduction of research with communities emphasises the benefits of attempting to integrate a wide range of perspectives and experiences, arguing that this makes stronger research that is of more benefit to those the research affects. However, while there is some evidence that, in the context of climate change and biodiversity loss, proponents of participatory research have begun to recognise a need to extend the paradigm beyond the human communities it has focused on, this has not yet occurred. As a result, this project aimed to initiate an exploration into the possibilities of co-designing research with more-than-human communities. This was done through staging four ‘conversations’ with non-human actors and the humans who work with them. The researchers aimed to explore issues to do with power, voice and agency and so sought to test the boundaries of ‘polite conversation’ by working with dogs, bees, trees and water.

Dr Owain Jones worked on this project together with Dr Michelle Bastian, who is the principal investigator, from the University of Edinburgh; Dr Phil Jones from the University of Birmingham; and Professor Richard Coles of Birmingham City University. The project began on 1 February 2013.