I’m on my way back to Sweden from Diani, Kenya after the second major SPACES stakeholder workshop, “Using the future to make better decisions in the present”.  The SPACES researchers, local community representatives, government officers, and two visitors from Southern Africa Partnership on Ecosystem Services and Society (SAPECS) explored possible future developments of ecosystems, ecosystem services and poverty and used this to reflect on priority interventions. We enjoyed three intense and fascinating days of dialogue and exercises structured around feedback of preliminary SPACES research findings and four scenarios of the future from the previous workshop. Finally, thanks to a collaboration with the SAPECS project on “Seeds of a good Anthropocene” we searched for ‘bright spots’ or ‘seeds’ of a desirable future from the knowledge and experience of the participants.

The rich dialogue, both within the organised sessions as well as during the informal conversations, gave a richer understanding of the issues, but also highlighted with the potential to contribute to a brighter future. For example, I was struck by my dinner conversations with Riziki Mwasoza, ward representative for the SPACES study site of Vanga. She is part of the new devolved county government structures created by Kenya’s new constitution. Riziki described to me the extensive community consultations they are having over the county administration budget, an experiment in unprecedented levels of accountability. When I asked about how well women’s or marginalised people’s views are captured in this, she responded that they had specific provisions to consult with women, youth and disabled because it is legally mandated in the constitution. This is clearly an exciting time in Kenya as the progressive constitution, democratically voted in despite the resistance of powerful interests, is implemented according to a strict timetable. Riziki agreed that this is indeed an opportune time for research to support the new county administrations as they develop their newly mandated policies and strategies.

Mercy Mghanga, a fish trader from Mombasa gave powerful explanations of the links between gender equality, fisheries, spending and saving patterns and the challenges for fishing communities to achieve economic security; a discussion prompted by initial SPACES research on basic needs met and unmet at our sites. But  Mercy is not only a knowledgeable witness to the challenges, but an inspirational example of someone who has overcome gendered power structures and potential poverty traps and now helps her community by her own networking and fundraising for initiatives, and is keen to understand how our research can inform her own efforts.

Most of the participants attended our previous workshop, and many had been part of interim dialogues. As we developed closer friendships and deeper understanding of each other’s knowledge and perspectives, I could feel the boundaries of the SPACES project – between researchers, subjects, fieldworkers and impact partners – blurring as we jointly explored the challenges and sought solutions. So this is how the buzzwords of ‘transdisciplinarity’ and ‘co-production’ actually feel. At times it could be somewhat disorienting because it is unpredictable and hard to fit to structured research planning and log frames, but the messiness is full of opportunity for new connections and understandings and for research to contribute to real world problems. Moving towards this type of collaborative transdisciplinary means relaxing from the pursuit of reductionist  scientific questions that give partial glimpses of a system, and embracing a fuzzier but more holistic endeavour, where our specific datasets dialogue with the experiences and concerns of multiple stakeholders inhabiting the real multifaceted world beyond our data.