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After the intense work in the Fall semester, devising a strategy and building a collaborative action research trajectory in lockdown times in Belgium with my promotor, master student Sharmada, the IASP students and some of the actors engaged in the development of the Food strategy in Leuven, the Spring semester presented many opportunities to keep advancing my research about governance innovation in Leuven. The objective for these months was to evaluate what we’d achieved so far, reframe our research questions involving more the actors we had approached for the IASP Leuven Gymkhana and moving forward with a new round of action research interventions with the new students of the International Module of Spatial Planning and Developent (IMSPD). In this semester, the ambitions were even higher, envisioning further exchange and engagement of the local stakeholders but also the broader international academic community researching on governance innovation. Also, Lariza Castillo, a new master thesis student that would focus on the specific role of Leuven 2030 in governance innovation in Leuven joined our team. The challenge was not low, but neither were the energies and the expectations!

Since the work of these months can’t be understood without the steps already taken with IASP, let me continue my chronicle were I left it in my previous post.


As I already anticipated, the making of the Leuven Gymkhana Webinar report was already valuable to reflect about the points of view shared, the common agreements achieved and to keep fine-tuning our action research objectives learning from the process of collective problematization during the event.

However, I (or we, the editorial board consisting of me, master student Sharmada Nagarajan and my promotor and IASP and IMSDP coordinator Pieter Van den Broeck) did not make sense of the event alone. Instead, we organised a meeting with the stakeholders that had been accompanying us all along to check together the learnings and conclusions we drove from the webinar and the best way to approach the following intervention with the new students from IMSDP. At this point, we all agreed that three statements or agreements had been highlighted and were worth being taken over as objectives for the next action research round:

  • The critical discussion about how Leuven 2030 and the food strategy have evolved through time, from being citizen-led initiatives to a current institutionalised framework supported by the City and larger institutions, helped identify the beginning of a new stage in which to bounce back the strategy to citizens, realign and restructure the goals and functioning of the strategy to be more inclusive of the perspectives of alternative practices as well as diversity of consumers.
  • Stakeholders had also agreed on the need to address conflicting and ‘uncomfortable’ topics pertaining to food and agriculture that had been left out in the process of building consensus in a fair and inclusive manner. Such issue was somehow related to the fact that citizens and alternative practices had “vanished” from the daily management and governance of the strategy, and so their specific concerns.
  • Consequently, questions were raised as to how to re-open broad debates to discuss and improve upon these aspects, who should moderate these debates, how they should be conducted and so on.
“From IASP to IMSDP” meeting in early March 2021


The first challenge with the new set of students starting IMSPD was how to transfer all the experience and knowledge built with the IASP team, with the extra challenges of the semi-lock down situation in Belgium, the fact that part of the team was not even in Leuven (attending online) and none of them were familiar with Leuven in the first place! We so decided to devote IMSPD Session 1 to play the gymkhana (visiting every poster set and discussing the statements, content and questions each one raised) and finish with a kind of final pizza&movie session watching the IASP webinar.

Reflecting about the role of such sessions within the broader action research trajectory, we had strategically decided to take the opportunity of our physical visit to the stops to ask for some extra time to discuss the Food Strategy and its governance challenges directly with some of the actors: one of the farmers at Boerencompagnie and Bar Stan. These meetings turned out being key to get to learn from the inside the interests, struggles and already ongoing collaborations among these actors and establish a hard relationship for the rest of the semester.

The day turned out to be a success, although exhausting. Everyone, be it in person riding around Leuven or following the explanations and visits through the Teams online room, had the chance to get familiar with Leuven, its food strategy, the challenges of its food system and some of the actors involved in this process. And also important, we got to experience the gymkhana we had designed. Until then we didn’t even know it took a whole day to visit all 14 locations by bike and check their content!!

The IMSPD team playing the Leuven Gymkhana in Session 1 (12 March 2021)


The IMSDP team had two weeks to recover and so the next session started with a series of presentations by Sharmada, Clara and Pieter to explain, in a different format, the work that had been done already and the theoretical background behind, as well as to shed light on what was expected from the team during the action research workshop that we were starting: developing a new intervention in Leuven that kept learning from and influencing the process of governance innovation in Leuven through the development of the Food Strategy.

Just the cascade of presentations, one building on the previous one, and putting them to test with the questions and different interpretations from the students was already extremely valuable to make better sense of what was at stake and to reorder our ideas and insights about the process.

As a wrap-up of everything we’d shared, we started our new IMSPD miro board with a hybrid brainstorming “post-it” session in which each of us could share the doubts that remained and the things we valued so far as most interesting and/or worth further exploring with our workshop and intervention.

Hybrid “post-it” brainstorming in Session 2 (26 march 2021)

A step forward in the process of taking ownership of the IASP work and moving forward as a team to collectively define a follow-up action research intervention, Session 2 started with an evaluation of the Leuven Gymkhana. First, I got to “list” the objectives and strategic decisions behind the design and implementation of the Gymkhana and Webinar events to illustrate the multiple dimensions, negotiations and co-creations behind such an intervention. The group then evaluated, from their experience in session 1 and previous presentations, to what extent they considered the objectives had been met. The discussion about the results already helped the team grasp the complexity and possibilities of such a collective trajectory and the reasoning behind the specific definition and mobilisation of specific artifacts and/or events in relation to the broader research and action in governance innovation in Leuven.

Evaluation exercise of the Leuven Gymkhana with IMSPD students in Session 3 (2 April 2021)

After this warm-up exercise, the group split in smaller teams that had some time in the afternoon to already start thinking about what would be an appropriate way to learn from the IASP experience and move forward this semester. In this case, the team would have a full week in May (17-22 May), the Workshop week, in which our intervention would take place, and a total of 5 more sessions until then to design and get ready for it. The only “condition” decided by the editorial board was to continue with the Leuven Gymkhana concept to take advantage of the connections, partnerships and “brand” we had already built.

It was interesting seeing how some teams focused on evaluating an improving specific aspects and objectives of the previous gymkhana, like the communication strategy, while others questioned and proposed alternatives in the “gymkhana concept” in itself, for instance, advising to split the gymkhana in several thematic ones, or to guide tours along them the way we had experienced it in Session 1 (instead of asking people to play “alone”).

And so, along the Plenary session when all teams got to share their ideas, the Leuven Gymkhana 2.0 was born as this beautiful sketch. Well, to tell the truth, the scheme already shows a lot of “digesting” of the group discussion during the 2 weeks of spring break that followed and editorial board meetings, in which we enriched the scheme with post-its that organise better the ideas and tasks to move forward…

Leuven gymkhana upgrade ideas and tasks to be developed after the spring break


As part of the multi-level collaborative research trajectory this year, I also mobilised (already back in October) a network of academics as to further enrich my and our collective research about governance innovation with input from different disciplines and contexts. To do so, we applied for UnaEuropa Seed funding with the idea to set up two hybrid spaces/seminars in which different researchers and students could exchange, learn and enrich each one’s perspectives and approaches. For this experiment, my two research groups – the Planning and Development Unit from KU Leuven and the Lab IPPU from UCM – joined forces with researchers and professors from University of Bologna (UNIBO) and University of Edinburgh.

Although we did not get the funding we had requested, the making of the application raised enough excitement among the parties to keep on with our idea for the first seminar in April 2021, planned as a hybrid Seminar combining lectures, presentations and collective discussions and writing sessions. We could do so since we already had the tools (Microsoft Teams online rooms, a MIRO board and collaborative writing tools) and people to go on: IMSDP students “attending” together in Leuven and 4cities students and all other researchers joining online. The second “physical” encounter we had foreseen in May integrated in the workshop week, however, we decided to skip.

And so, the 1st UGaDI International Hybrid Seminar on Urban Governance and Democratic Innovation took place between 19 and 20 April 2021. You can check the full programme here.

It was an amazing experiment of online-hybrid collective debates and co-creation and really helped us reach the objectives we had set of setting up an international network, exchanging and learning together and collectively developing some texts that will be included in the next INSIST Issue on Governance. On top of that, the event was specially useful for our research, since it “forced” me, and Sharmada and Lariza to improve our understanding of the on-going processes and share them with the IMSDP team, and it also helped making clear the focus of our collective interventions in Leuven in terms of governance innovation and avoiding getting lost in the “details” of the transformation of the food system. In addition, the full experience of managing the application, the programme and the logistics of the Seminar, plus performing as coordinator and facilitator during the event were a huge learning-by-doing experience for me!

As a teaser for what is to come in INSIST, you can check the “video-report” of the Seminar developed by one of the teams during the collective writing exercise:


The whole IMSPD team thanked for the presentations and discussions of the UGaDI seminar and was ready for a new set of group-work sessions to move forward together in the design of an action research intervention that could be meaningful for the process we were studying. Luckily enough, such session was also preceded by the IMSPD workshop on action research with Barbara Van Dyck, that already set their minds and clarified on what was action research entails. In addition, for the group brainstorming we counted with the support and tutoring of another two experts in action research from the Planning and Development Unit: Seppe de Blust and Michael Kaethler. Little by little our collective research was gaining momentum and perspectives. Also, as an outcome of the exchange during UGaDI, Alessandra Manganelli, expert in governance in food systems, was enthusiastic about the work we were doing and offered to help with the Leuven Gymkhana and tutor whenever needed.

This complex mix of inputs was an extreme challenge, but also vastly enriching for designing meaningful further steps. As part of the maze of this stage of co-creation with IMSPD and master students and researchers, moving from theoretical discussions to practicalities, the brainstorming sessions in small groups were an impulse of energy and push in work. But then the “plenary sessions”, were we got all ideas together, were extremely challenging too. Especially the plenary session in Session 4 left us a bit low and lost in the way, and we all needed an extra week to digest what had been discussed and what had been described in the miro board (not always matching what had been explained…). We learnt a lot about group dynamics, patience and flexibility.


Aware that the “content” (main learnings and statements to be communicated in the gymkhana) was the key aspect that was most complex and confusing the team, before the next session, the editorial board took the issue by the grip. In a separate meeting we further distyled the main issues at stake in the collective action, which would be the main messages to convey in the gymkhana, and developed a preliminary action plan for the Leuven Gymkhana 2.0. In this plan we advanced with the definition of 3 Gymkhanas as mediums to convey specific “statements”  and raise (or reopen) a specific debate with a specific target audience, as well as a preliminary calendar of work for the workshop week:

  • Gymkhana 1 was more targeted to young people and aimed to reopen the debate on what “sustainable and healthy food for all” is and means, addressing tough issues that had dissolved in the several steps of institutionalization of the Food Strategy;
  • Gymkhana 2 would focus more on spotting the actors that are already building an alternative food system in Leuven, while discussing also the obstacles they are encountering, so to inspire other practices to follow their example as well as further steps in the implementation of the food strategy;
  • Gymkhana 3 would only run on the last day, and would be a wrap-up of the discussions raised in the first two plus reconnecting with urban governance and the broader process of development of the Food Strategy and the actors involved, aiming to inspire a collective reflection among those working in the implementation of the strategy about the whole process and inspire ways to move forward together.

IMSDP Session 5 was to be quite unusual, as the part of the group attending live in Leuven would have a physical workshop, and only the online team would join the Action Research workshop session. We though about how to make the most of this situation and decided to set the online team the target to develop a prototype of one of these gymkhanas as a basis for the whole group to better understand what we were talking about and to use it as inspiration for designing all others. During this session, Sharmada and I worked as “content experts”, guiding the team about the messages to convey along the stops and clarifying the role and meaning of the stops (and actors) we were to include. Again, collective intelligence surprised us, and after a difficult “theoretical and abstract” discussion while explaining the proposal, once we got “hands on” in the miro board, the team got to prototype the gymkhana stops and main content for Gymkhanas 1 and 2 and further detail specific content, challenges and more practicalities for the second one! We noticed how, being part of this detailed co-creation process changed the mind-set of the students participating, who got to really understand what we were doing, take full ownership of the intervention and fully engage for the rest of the IMSPD workshop.

Before the next session with the whole group, the Editorial Board arranged meetings with our partner stakeholders (Boerencompagnie, Bar Stan and Leuven 2030) to test our ideas an drafts and start thinking of the organisation of the Gymkhana week in logistics and practical terms. These meetings allowed us to keep the broader action research and co-creation process going, making sure that the stake and interests of the actors informing our work since the beginning were still relevant and taken into account. These meetings were also illustrating in relation to the negotiations that these processes entail, since we also performed as a kind of broker of interests and needed to identify synergies between our work and possibilities and the expectations of everyone involved. For instance, Boerencompagnie agreed to host us in their premises to set up our “basecamp” for the workshop week, and we managed to combine our “Final event” on Saturday with a collective work and eating moment they were already planning with their harvesters for that day, a perfect opportunity to extend the reach of both!

Session 6 started with the online team explaining what we had advanced to the whole team and, together, we organised “practical teams” for the following stages of our work based on the tasks that needed to be conducted and our individual skills and interests. Experimenting in internal governance ourselves, each of us was allocated to a thematic group (G1, G2, G3, Final Event, Web & social media and Reporting) and specific roles (content, graphic design and practicalities) so that, depending on the objectives of each session, we’d work per groups or per roles. It has to said that as much as the online team has understood and engaged with the gymkhanas in the previous session, the rest of the group struggled to keep the pace of what was happening as felt ” washed by the current” of such intense advancements, a complicated situation that the editorial board struggled to deal with…

We started the afternoon session already divided in groups, a bit “chaotic” first deciding whether to work per roles or per thematic teams, finally in teams. It has to be said that no team had been formed specifically for the final event, but logic said it was pretty much linked to gymkhana 3. Indeed, after defining the stops and main statements and messages for gymkhana 3, the discussion in this group (including Team gymkhana 3 with the Editorial Board) moved towards practicalities related to the organization of the whole day. Therefore, the Editorial Board remained de facto in charge of the general coordination, including the planning of the Final event.

Definition of main questions and statements raised in each each gymkhana and how they connect in G3


Exceptionally, this week we had two days in a row to work on our intervention, so the following day (session 7) we moved to work per roles in order to develop the “minimum viable” that Sharmada and I could use to start spreading the word about the Gymkhana, only two weeks to go already!! Specifically, this required that the Content roles fully defined the stops and main statements in each tour together with a title and short description of each gymkhana to inform the leaflet; Graphic design roles finished a new logo, leaflet, invitation and program of the Leuven Gymkhana 2.0; the Practicalities roles got a registration form ready to start gathering participants, and the web and social media profiles were updated and running. In parallel, part of this last stage in the gymkhana planning had to take place on site, so we had a “last” planning meeting at Boerencompagnie to agree on the final arrangements for the setting up of our “basecamp” there during the workshop week. We also got to visit some of the stops we had not yet visited in person, like Content. Pictures about this stage in this Instagram post.

Still, some extra push from the Editorial Board was needed in parallel to the IMSDP meetings and work to finalise the posters and graphics for the gymkhana and engage in an intense social media and mailing advertising campaign to ensure participants for our tours. I also got to test my event organisation skills contacting providers and new partners to make sure we got all the infrastructure ready for the beginning of the workshop week, for instance, discussing catering and collaboration options for the workshop week with Bar Stan and arranging “Gymkhana hoodies” for the IMSDP team as you can see in this Instagram post.

In addition, as “content keepers”, Sharmada and I (together with Lariza) kept working in the updating of the “time-line” that summarised the learnings and insights we had obtained while building the narrative of the development of the Food strategy. This time-line was the true empirical outcome of the research trajectory all year long, and was printed as a 3-meter poster to be used either at the beginning or the end of each gymkhana to share with our participants the work done. Its development was a continuous dialogue with the action research itself, and so, the same way it had informed our definition of the gymkhanas, we kept updating it after fine-tuning the scripts (and even after the workshop week)!


The IMSDP started the first day of the Workshop Week at Boerencompanie to set up (under the rain) the tents that would become our “basecamp”. We then moved back to the faculty and the IMSPD team rearranged once more so that gymkhana teams could keep fine-tuning their scripts and posters. Same for day 2 in the morning. But once the afternoon arrived… it was time to test the gymkhanas on site!

We were lucky enough that Rikolto accepted to meet all “gymkhana guides” together to test our message and solve questions about how they work and their involvement in the governance of the food system of Leuven. And from there, G1 and G2 teams spread to role-play the tours for real, meeting back together at Bar Stan, our last stop. You can check the graphic chronicle of the first two days in this Instagram post.

In this chain of testing, interacting with stakeholders and partners, adjusting and learning by doing, the whole team kept a parallel work of running tours, documenting the experience and sharing it life in the website diaries and social media. On Wednesday morning, we also moved to test gymkhana 3, the one that had been designed as a wrap-up of the week and the research, in which Sharmada and I were participating as guides ourselves. For this test we counted with fellows from the Planning and Development unit, which resulted in a super interesting extra layer of exchange and complexity in the action research trajectory. Here the graphic chronicle for this day.

Lariza, me and Sharmada with our 3-meter time-line set up in the Leuven Gymkhana 2.0 basecamp


Despite the huge effort displayed in advertising our Leuven Gymkhana tours and trying to reach as many participants as possible, the team was already happy with the development of the gymkhanas. They were in themselves a valuable outcome of the trajectory and artifacts that had enabled us distill our learnings and interact and collaborate with many of the actors involved in governance innovation in the city. And hopefully these prototypes were good enough so that other actors could replicate them in the future! Therefore, the performance of G1 and G2 on Thursday and Friday were just “an excuse” to test our prototypes with external participants, keep improving them, and managing to establish interesting debates with different actors and citizens in Leuven.

Having said so, of course we aimed at having an impact in the Leuvenese reality and were happy to count with several participants that joined us of the “real” tours. Some of them were actually members of the IASP team that got to realise what their initial contribution has led to and “managed to understand what they were doing” while joining these tours. In this Instagram post you can see the pictures from the final tours.

We even managed to spark the interest of 5 brave participants for gymkhana 3 and the final event on Saturday. Such a turnout that made us even happier regarding the short notice of our “advertising campaign”, the true Belgian weather we suffered all week long – and specially hostile rainy and windy weather on Saturday- and the fact that Saturday marked the beginning of a long week-end after months of confinement…

The IMSPD workshop week and the Leuven Gymkahna all came to an end in what had been foreseen as a “crowded but safe in bubbles” collective meal and discussion at Boerencompagnie with all participants and harvesters. Even if the terrible weather forced us to stay inside the tent for the final party, we did manage to keep some participants joining and further discuss the gymkhana and our research with some of the stakeholders that had supported us along these months that were also attending Boerencompagnie’s event. And to celebrate our experience and make our point clear, we ended up sharing publicly and in streaming the Gymkhana diaries and this video report co-created by the Reporting team all along the week:


The week was exhausting, a lot was left to filter, to document, to share, to reflect on… and to celebrate. This post is only one step in the further post-processing work that is only starting, as is Sharmada’s thesis that is about to be defended. In fact, I’m also working with Sharmada and Lariza in two academic papers to be submitted in the open access journal Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems in which we’ll reflect about the action research process and our learnings about the governance of the food system in Leuven.

But show must go on too! The Leuven Gymkhana 2.0 was not the end of the journey, just one further step in this action research trajectory in Corona Times in Leuven that guides my PhD. And so, conversations with stakeholders aren’t at hold, and we’re already looking for ways to keep sharing our research so far with the actors involved and facilitating and enriching the collective research about governance innovation in Leuven. Stay tuned to see where it leads in the coming months!


One thought on “Research in times of Corona (part 5): the IMSDP Leuven Gymkhana 2.0

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