Generating new economic knowledge with co-creative processes

Dr Svenja Flechtner talks about her experience with Open Science

Photo of Dr Svenja Flechtner

Three key learnings:

  • Co-creative methods and the involvement of stakeholders can generate new knowledge and improve research.
  • The biography of researchers affects their research, i.e. what kind of questions are being asked in the first place. That is why economic research must be diverse.
  • Open Science can play a part in anchoring economics more strongly within society.

You are a member of the editing team of “Developing Economics” and active at ZOE – Institute for Future-Fit Economies. What are the topics being discussed in future-fit economics and what is the role of methodology reflection and Open Science in this?

SF: Let me start with future-fit economies: I am a fellow at ZOE Think and Do Tank which arose from the question of what economics can actually do for society. Future-fit economies as a configuration of our economic system will be fit for the future if they successfully address and solve the conflict of goals between social, economic and ecological goals. That is the future-fit economy. The goal of future-fit economics is to contribute to an understanding of how future-fit economies can be designed. And that’s the connection between economy and society. First you have to ask yourself: Is it a proper task for economists, for social science in general, to shape society or do we simply analyse? In my personal perspective, the social sciences, among which I include economics, may very well take a shaping role. Of course this doesn’t mean societies should be designed by scientists. As regards myself, I don’t want to restrict myself to merely analysing what happens in the economy. I also want to try generating ideas about what a society can look like in different spheres. Which of these ideas are taken up and acted upon is a decision to be made by society, not by science.

What must economics be like to have a certain credibility and robustness, and to be able to actively tackle this design process?

SF: That is one of the big questions, how you can achieve this. I think there are many factors to be taken into consideration. And one factor, which I think we need to emphasise much more in our communication with society, is that we in the social sciences are not a neutral entity which finds out truths about the economy. What we do is very much influenced by our own personal and scientific perspectives. To me it is axiomatic that my biography as a researcher influences my scholarly work. Which questions am I interested in? Does it even occur to me to study social inequality, for instance? Social inequality has been neglected as a topic for decades, because nobody was interested enough. Gender problems have not been addressed in economics for decades until finally some women came and said this is important. And this is only one example showing how subjective perspectives influence science. It is vitally important to include different perspectives in science. This is a matter of “Who decides to study economics?” and “Who achieves entry to university?” All this impacts on science. Beyond this, we have different perspectives resulting from research methods and theoretical approaches. It is important to understand that some questions are better studied with quantitative methods, and others better with qualitative methods. And if a scientific discipline only relies on quantitative methods, as economics unfortunately does in my opinion, then there will be questions that cannot be asked very well and consequently will not be asked.  

About Open Science:Where do you create transparency in your work and where have you had good experiences?

SF: I am mostly active in development economics and inequality research. For me, co-creative stakeholder meetings are highly important. This means that ideally I involve people affected by my research topic, and not only as respondents in a survey, but as interview partners who can possibly tell me something interesting. This could happen in a workshop. At ZOE Institute we do a lot of work in workshops and co-creative processes. Which means the people who will have to work with the problem later on, or who are affected by some problem, have their say. And we don’t do this in the way research usually does: we interview a person who doesn’t really have an idea about what the issue of the interview is. That’s important, no question. But at the same time you can talk to people on equal terms and ask them how they view the issue. Instead of just talking about them. Especially in behavourial economics, which is my field in development economics, we often deal with analysis of people’s irrational behaviour. It’s important to find out what people themselves think about their behaviour. I believe that if you could close the gap between scientists and the people they are analysing, if you used different methods to work with people, you could generate lots of new findings.

What exactly is “co-creative working”?

SF: This can happen in quite different stages of the process, either during the creation of the research design or during the working out of a solution. Let’s take climate protection concepts in cities as an example: of course I can suggest solutions from my scientific point-of-view, but usually they won’t be implemented because there is opposition from practitioners. Co-creation means that you first try to understand the individual challenges facing the important stakeholders. Based on this, you develop solutions involving these stakeholders and which truly involve their challenges. This generates ideas which are innovative and viable. During other process stages, e.g. developing the research design or evaluation, you would take these points into consideration. You can apply this to all stages.

How important is Open Access to you?

SF: Here I need to refer to Plural Economics again which is my denomination and my area of work, as it were. There is an ongoing debate in economics about what research should be like, which methods do we use, which theories, etc. And I’m on the side of Plural Economics which advocates a certain measure of diversity in methods or traditions of thought. However, this means that I stand somewhat apart with my choice of approaches and methods which are not part of the so-called mainstream. This is a little restrictive when it comes to publishing. Nobody is going to prevent me from publishing in the usual renowned journals if I position myself accordingly. But if I want to work with highly unusual methods, it’s going to be difficult and I automatically publish in other journals. I have observed that among less highly-ranked journals Open Access plays a much larger role. Because journals who are not ranked among the top 5 cannot assume that most institutions have subscribed to them or that people will buy access. Which means that I as an author more often have the opportunity to publish in Open Access and thus to increase the visibility of my work.

Do you get more feedback through publishing in Open Access?

SF: My impression is thatmostly people from neighbouring disciplines are interested. This could be due to my kind of research, in which I try to be relevant for related disciplines, and to be thematically close to other social sciences. Even though I cannot prove that Open Access generally means other disciplines read more, I find this is true for my own research.  

Do you also publish insignificant results?

SF: I try to. I’m currently working on a paper with a colleague where we are getting results that are totally different from what we expected. And we’re discussing right now if these are correct or if we have made a mistake somewhere. And we don’t find mistakes, we checked and cross-checked and we think, okay, we have this insignificant result and are considering publication. It’s also a question of framing, of the perspective you choose to view it from, whether it is a zero result or not. We are studying which subjects people eligible for university admission select with regard to gender differences, reproduction of social inequalities in the professional field etc. And we looked at a lot of factors. But something which plays no role is expected income. This is so contra-intuitive for economics that my co-author says no-one will ever believe us. Everyone will think there must be a mistake because in economics you take it for granted that expected income is important. Once we ourselves are quite sure the result is robust we must think about how to present it.

Do you share teaching materials?

SF: Definitely, in principle. There is a huge platform in Plural Economics which has been founded by a student initiative. The name of the platform is “Exploring Economics” and it bundles teaching materials, such as curricula, texts or lecture videos. That’s where I make my teaching materials available to others if I am satisfied with the quality of my documents.

You are active on the blog “Developing Economics”, you give presentations to non-scientists, are active in schools or write guest articles for the press. What are the effects of these communication activities on your work?

SF: One effect is that people from other disciplines contact me, for example at the university, from the natural sciences. When colleagues from related disciplines get in touch with me, for example about climate topics, I draw great benefit from it for our research.

Where do you see overlaps between Plural Economics and Open Science?

SF: I see science communication as the essential link between Open Science and Plural Economics. I generally find science communication very challenging. The Covid-19 pandemic has shown how easily science can be  misunderstood, because the general public simply doesn’t know how science works. That’s a problem yet for the natural sciences, and so much more for the social sciences. We just have to explain more and that’s where Plural Economics comes into play. Because it states very clearly, and constantly reminds people, that we have different perspectives in science, that different methods give different findings, that there are different traditions of thought which result in different focuses. It directs our attention to different questions and results. If you manage to keep this in mind both for science and communication, it can make Open Science much easier in my opinion. Because then it’s obvious why not all scientists play the same tune. The theoretical framework of Plural Economics is well suited to this in my opinion, because it explains how the social sciences work and that this is the way it has to be and there’s nothing wrong with generating objections. That’s unexpedient at first, and inconvenient, but that’s the way it is.

Do all scientists reflect about their biographically coloured and subjective perspective? Do you have to lay open your biography in the spirit of openness?

SF: No. What matters to me is that you make yourself aware of having a subjective perspective, that you cannot rid yourself of it – and then consider the structural consequences. The point is to reflect on this: if all researchers come from a similar socio-economic milieu, they are interested in certain problems and other problems won’t get addressed. When research is dominated by institutions and people from the global North, and there is plenty of evidence for this, then perspectives of the global South will simply get lost. However, this doesn’t mean that other questions are not interesting or not relevant, but that dynamics can emerge in scientific communities. It doesn’t mean the question won’t be asked or the issue can’t be studied, but that there is a gap. And these gaps exist if people just do their own thing in research. There’s no guarantee that science will do all that society wants it to do.

May only people who have a biographical relation to an issue study that issue?

SF: In my opinion different perspectives are always enriching and the so-called outsider perspective can be interesting, too. I do not believe that only Ugandan women should study Ugandan women. I think that multi-perspectivity is useful for all questions: for some findings local knowledge is needed, for others an outside view is helpful. Of course it matters how you approach this. A few months ago I published an article about perspectives in development economics. And there are many research papers in development economics from the global South. But they aren’t noticed because they are not published in the important journals, for different reasons. So these publications exist, but nobody reads them even if they are easily accessible, and instead those five articles writen by US researchers in the top journals are read and so on. More interaction would be welcome here and also respect for local research output, to read what is written on the ground.

Where do you see the future of Open Science, especially seen through the lense of Plural Economics?

SF: I’m afraid there are many dynamics in the science system that are detrimental to changes happening in the direction of Open Science, because there’s little here to advance your career. But I do hope that Open Science can contribute or be used as a tool to take economics closer to society, to anchor it in society, and to foster dialogue between science and society.

Thank you!

The questions were asked by Dr Doreen Siegfried.

The interview was conducted on August 23, 2021.

About Dr Svenja Flechtner

Svenja Flechtner is Junior Professor for Plural Economics in Siegen. Her research focus is on questions of economic and social development in the context of socio-economic inequalities. Her special interest is in behaviour-oriented development economics. She is interested in interdisciplinary research and the philosophy and practice of pluralism in economics. Dr Svenja Flechtner is a member of the editing team of the Developing Economics blog and a fellow at ZOE-Institute for Future-Fit Economies and the Forum for Macroeconomics and Macroeconomic Policies (FMM).


Twitter: @SvenjaFl

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