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Originally, after the LeuvenGymkhana 2.0, action research in Leuven was meant to come to a halt. Yet, if there is something we learnt from the process it is that action research is a collaborative and immersive process, in which one cannot dream of what further stages will bring about, and so planning the “end” of it is better said than done.

As you remember, we left out out “stage 15” of the action research journey making sense of the Leuven Gymkhana and finding ways to valorize the work we had done, also among stakeholders. One of the ways to do so, was organizing a meeting with representatives from the City of Leuven that had not been able to attend the tours. For this meeting, we already had to develop a kind of report of Leuven Gymkhana 2.0, in which we moved forward from the description and analysis of the stages of institutionalization of the Food Strategy and the work of Leuven2030 to designing “recommendations” for the actors involved. We had one month to prepare for this meeting, which took place in early July 2021 at BoerEnCompagnie (the farm). In this meeting, the remaining research team (me, my promotor and the two Master Thesis students) and two of the people involved in BoerEnCompagnie had the chance to share our thoughts and discuss our concerns with decision-makers.

Post Leuven-Gymkhana 2.0 meeting with representatives from the city in July 2021 / Reunión post-gymkhana con representantes del Ayuntamiento de Lovaina en julio 2021

The meetings was surprisingly rich in discussions and meaningful for the stakeholders. As researchers, we realized that the effort and work devoted to the Leuven Gymkhana all year long had been valuable if only to manage to reach a moment where an Alderman and a farmer could discuss together the value, evolution and limitations of Leuven’s food strategy, and specially its governance. Along the discussion, the representatives from the city felt surprised by the results explained, empathic for the concerns of alternative practices, and eager to keep the conversation open to keep working on ways to reconsider the governance of the Food Strategy and improving the conversations between city and practices. An improved version of the report was drafted, including issues discussed with the City, and we shared it with Leuven Gymkhana partners and participants. Having reached this point and the willingness of the city to involve in the Leuven Gymkhana, it only felt wrong not taking the possibility to plan a Leuven Gymkhana 3.0 in Fall with a new group of IASP students.

Improving the report with recommendations was only the first of many stages of writing to make sense of the work we had done and about what we had learnt about innovative multi-actor collaborations (IMACs) in Leuven around Leuven2030 and Leuven’s food strategy. First came the Master Theses, Sharmada’s submitted in June and Lariza’s submitted in September, and my blog posts about Leuven Gymkhana. And then, I worked on two academic articles that have just been published in the open-access journal Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems: one about IMACs in Leuven’s food system and another one about how we conducted action research along the year. As you remember, I had the opportunity to got feedback on the draft of these papers in the ICPP5 Conference in Barcelona in July.

Screenshot of one of the papers published in Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems about IMACs in Leuven / Captura de pantalla de uno de los artículos publicados em Frontiers in Sustainable Food System sobre IMACs en Lovaina

The work with the papers extended more than I had originally expected (with several rounds of revisions between September and December), and juggling between the two of them was challenging. Yet, working and reflecting in parallel on the “process” and the “results” proved very valuable to keep increasing my understanding of what was going on in Leuven, about multi-actor collaborations, and also about my and our collective role as researchers in the processes investigated. What’s more, I got to understand how our action research process had been in itself an experiment of how to facilitate IMACs, and so had become part of the governance experimentation landscape of Leuven. This also meant that the learnings about the collaborative process within our action research trajectory also enriched our understanding of the collaborations we were investigating within IMACs. I know, it’s a bit circular, but extremely enriching.

One of the meetings with stakeholders to prepare the IASP 2021 brief / Una de las reuniones con actores de la estrategia de alimentación para preparar el trabajo del grupo IASP 2021

With these realizations taking shape in my mind, in October 2021 my co-promotor and I started a new round of conversations with the stakeholders from alternative practices and the city and proposed to design the Brief for the new IASP group together to make sure it would be valuable for all actors to keep improving the governance of the Food strategy. In these conversations we understood that our new contribution could dig further in experimenting in ways to reopen broad conversations among practices and the city, and facilitating the interaction among actors that have very different temporal, cultural and physical possibilities to participate in the governance of the strategy.

Like this, a new stage of action research started in November 2021, with the 12 students taking the Institutional Aspects of Spatial Planning (IASP) course, led by Pieter and me. Fun fact, although already graduated, Sharmada asked to keep engaged in this round, happy to see how the process evolved. In fact, she was in charge of presenting her Thesis in the first session.

Sharmada presenting her thesis to introduce the work done already in the first class of IASP 2021 / Sharmada presentando su trabajo Fin de Máster para compartir con los alumnos de IASP 2021 el trabajo ya desarrollado

As stages follow each other, the transfer of knowledge of previous learnings and experiences keeps gaining complexity, and the risk of “losing” participants in this stage also increases. To help in this, after Sharmada introduced the students to the work we’d done already, I created a “map of stakeholders” involved in the action research. With this map I could introduce the actors (us researchers included and differentiated from students and different urban actors), and also their points of view, concerns and role both in terms of the food system and the governance of the food strategy. It was also good that we already had some draft papers that we could share with students synthesizing our process and learnings. These came with many supplementary documents (all the reports from previous Gymkhanas) and the reader that had kept growing along the previous year. Yet, it was too much for each student to absorb in one session… and even in a month!

Map of stakeholders of the action research trajectory introduced in Session 1 / Mapa de actores de la trayectoria de investigación acción-participativa presentado en la primera sesión.

Seeing that it was too much to absorb. Pieter and I decided to organize a role-play to enable each student to specialize in one specific actor, and contribute to the groups’s joint problematization from such point of view. And for that exercise, I prepared a “reader” for each type of actor, including the papers/reports in which each one had participated, but also interview transcripts and other materials. Before introducing the exercise though, we used a morning to collectively brainstorm about what the Leuven Gymkhana 3.0 contribution and format might be, building on the conversations from the first session and the generic readings. Then, in the afternoon, each student had time to go through the specific references for their actor and prepare for a “feedback session with stakeholders” in which they would have to react to the proposal designed in the morning not as students but as the actor they had studied would. It took some time to warm-up, but little by little some interesting gaps in the story narrated in our results started appearing (research questions to move forward) and also potential contributions of our intervention to fill the gaps and to reopen a debate among actors of the food strategy (action plan). The relation between the city – Leuven2030 – and the Advisory Board of Food Agriculture (VLAR) was still unclear, and triggered the question “who represents alternative practices in this increasingly complex governance network so that the original concerns of the food strategy do not get lost?“.

Roles and ideas during the role-play in session 2 / Papeles e ideas durante la “representación” en la sesión 2

Reflecting on the intense debate with students, in the following session Pieter and I proposed the team to make a video out of interviews with the different actors in which we could raise these issues and get an asynchronous dialogue among actors started. By making a video, we could ensure all voices were included, attending to the availability of each type of actor to record the interviews, and, by interviewing each one in their working place, all others would get to know them better and understand the diversity of actors involved in the transformation of Leuven’s food system. Then, organizing an event where the video could be presented was the best opportunity to gather all those actors together and to get the dialogue going live.

As we discussed the idea with students, we also agreed taking one of the issues we had identified fading away from the original strategy into subsequent documents as the topic line for interviews and the discussion, rather than just talking of “governance” in abstract terms. We agreed that Food Justice was a good starting point from which we could also raise questions about different definitions, approaches and concerns among the cast. In relation to the actors to interview, collectively we mapped some people we could reach within each type of actor that had been relevant in the role-play.

Brainstorming about the Leuven Gymkhana 3.0 intervention in session 3 / Lluvia de ideas sobre la intervención Leuven Gymkhana 3.0 en la tercera sesión IASP

To deepen into how to make the intervention real, the group split in three groups according to the tasks needed for our intervention: (A) Infrastructure and Communication Team; (B) Event preparation team; and (C) Video team. Each of them had the afternoon to list the tasks they considered relevant, and to draft an action plan in their specific field. The idea was not, for instance, that the video team would make the video alone, but that students in such group would develop a general script and guidelines for others to contribute to the making of it. Having an idea of the script and the general message we wanted to convey was key to advance in further sessions with the invitation for interviews and with the design of the interview scripts. Same for the other groups. While the communication team had to update the LeuvenGymkhana web, take charge of the instagram and design advertising posters and texts, the event team drafted the agenda for the Première and checked options for dates and places that could fit our purpose. In the end we agreed that hosting the event at Hal5 (a community-led social space where already many food initiatives gather and collaborate) was better than organizing it at university.

Pieter and I checked the idea with the stakeholders in our Editorial Board (from practice and the city) and they found the proposal valuable and feasible. The city even agreed to support the organization of the event sponsoring the rent of the Grote Zaal at Hal5 thanks to an existing agreement between the city and Hal5. The stakeholders were also very valuable reaching out our intended interviewees and requesting them to help in the making of the video, and also looking for alternatives when some were unable to host us. It was a bit of the “snow-ball” technique we used to reach out partners for the first gymkhana.

Plenary discussion of ideas from the Event team in session 4 / Plenario sobre las ideas del organización del Evento en la sesión 4

When the planning was a bit advanced, students reorganized in 4 teams grouped by types of actors, so that each team would prepare the interview script and conduct the interviews with such people. Four groups were defined: (1) Local politicians and administration; (2) Leuven2030; (3) Alternative food practices; and (4) Researchers. After choosing target interviewees, I introduced some basics on conducting interviews and explained an interview guide from my research to inform the further steps of the groups.

The following sessions we all juggled between the “tasks” teams and advancing in the organization of interviews with stakeholders, which took place in the last two weeks of the semester. We were thankful for the infrastructure KU Leuven sets in place to support academic and research activities, as we could book two professional recording sets for the two weeks of interviews. In the end, having to adapt to stakeholders availability, we had to merge and adapt the teams to be able to conduct interviews also within the weeks (IASP had Mondays to work, but it proved not enough). We recorded a total of 11 interviews, two of them to Pieter and me as researchers.

Aware that once the Christmas break started the IASP work would run fully online and in an asynchronous way (with some students event working from different time zones), in the last session the Video team was in charge of designing a work-flow and documenting instructions for all students to contribute to the making of the final video. We agreed that everyone would be in charge of transcribing one interview, and coding its content according to the categories the video team has defined matching the different sections envisions in the script. The most relevant quotes would then be compiled in an excel database, including the actor talking, the person interviewing, the topic of relevance (whether it was related to Food Justice or Governance issues) and the original file and minute where it comes from.

The Christmas break then advanced among meetings with the coordinators from Hal5, budget offers, instagram publications introducing the actors of the movie… but specially among checks of the interview transcripts and the selected quotes and supporting the video team making sense of them and drafting the final script and draft of the video. Originally, the team had conceived 5 chapters with an intro and a conclusion. But as we tested how interview extracts dialogues with each other, we ended up merging sections so that there was a general introduction, three intermediate chapters and a more dynamic conclusion. The first chapter introduced the birth and evolution of the food strategy, ending with our description of the “split of the IMAC”. The second one focused back on ongoing practices in Leuven addressing food justice, and exposed the different definitions and approaches from the different types of actors intervening. The third chapter then dived into the governance issue, illustrating some difficulties in keeping all voices involved in the implementation of the strategy, raising questions about the “fake” debate between efficiency and broad and diverse participation and about the role that different actors (shall) play in the governance of the strategy. The conclusion then became a more heated conversation among the actors drawing conclusions and exchanging ideas already on how to move forward.

IASP Planning meeting in the morning of the Première / Reunión de planificación la mañana de la Première.

And then the big day of the Première arrived. Although the event was to take place from 3pm, we gathered the team already in the morning to ensure we had time to set up the place and to plan properly the introduction and the debate facilitation by the communication team. Something interesting that occurred during this period was that the fact that the video and the Première were taking place already raised interest about the LeuvenGymkhana work from a broader expectrum of actors involved in the food strategy.

In total, 35 people registered to attend the event live and 14 online, from which 21 attended live and 5 online, including some of the actors participating in the movie, of course, but also neighbors, and other researchers and people from food practices. Judging from the reactions after the screening of the movie, the event did raise to the expectations of the audience, but also ours in terms of triggering further conversations live among actors that do not normally get together, both during the “formal” debate and the “informal drinks and appetizers”. You can read the full report about the event in the LeuvenGymkhana website. There, you can also get a link to re-watch the documentary 🙂

There were also contributions dreaming of LeuvenGymkhana 4.0 and up to 11.0! But I guess those will not be directly organized by me… or maybe… Actually, new questions keep popping-up in my mind. When I got to start discussing the learnings from previous stages of LeuvenGymkhana with decision-makers even before the Première, I proved again that the artifacts we were creating had an agency in themselves. This also means that, once again, what I may have conceived as the “end” of the action research might still not be it… For instance, I was already invited to present the LeuvenGymkhana to the next VLAR meeting. This will require further tracking what happens in Leuven in the coming months and assessing the impact of the LeuvenGymkhana in the longer term, exciting right?


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