Co-creation without systems thinking can be dangerous

By Gerald Midgley

Gerald Midgley (biography)

Why does the theory and practice of co-creation need to be informed by systems thinking? Co-creation without a thorough understanding of systems thinking can be deeply problematic. Essentially, we need a theory and practice of systemic co-creation.

Three key things happen in any co-creation:

  1. It is necessary for a diversity of perspectives to engage.
  2. There is the synergistic innovation that results from this engagement.
  3. The innovation is meaningful in a context of use.

This is already a systemic definition, up to a point: parts (perspectives) are engaged in a whole (a dialogue or other form of collective engagement) that generates an emergent property (synergistic innovation), which is meaningful in context (it is useful).

However there are three problems with this, and they point to the need for a deeper form of systems thinking. The solutions to these problems then suggest principles for the effective practice of systemic co-creation.

Problem #1: synergy or conflict?

When diverse perspectives come together, this can either give rise to synergistic innovation or conflict and stigmatization. How do we enable the former rather than the latter? Or another way to ask this question: there will inevitably be tensions, even conflicts, but how can we make these productive rather than destructive?

All the participative processes that systems thinkers and social scientists design have one common characteristic: they seek to establish a productive context for the meeting of different perspectives which is the antithesis of destructive contexts that are known to stimulate violence (Collins 2008). According to Collins, there are two such contexts.

First, when one party believes that his or her peers expect violence, he or she is likely to oblige. Systems thinking workshops usually start with a discussion of principles of respectful listening, setting up the exact contrary expectation. There are also many ‘rituals’ embodied in the use of systems modeling methods, and these govern the order and form of people’s interactions. As such, they set new, demanding expectations that override any other peer expectations outside the room.

The second context that stimulates violence is when one party spots a fatal weakness in the other: ie., in lay terms, there is a collapse of the ‘balance of power’. The principle of ‘fair participation’ is common to all systemic processes, and we go to inordinate lengths to preserve it, thereby nullifying the potential for destructive conflict and stigmatization (the extreme form of which is violence), making the path of synergistic innovation much more likely.

The first principle for systemic co-creation is therefore to establish a generative context.

Problem #2: what if the synergistic innovation is not fit for context or has unforeseen side effects?

So, we have facilitated a synergistic innovation that people are committed to acting upon. Is this enough for us to say that the co-creation is beneficial? I suggest not, because people may have reached an accord on the basis of an insufficiently systemic understanding of their context: ie., the innovation might not actually be implementable or might not be effective if implemented. Alternatively, they may have an insufficiently systemic understanding of the possible consequences of their actions: ie., when the innovation will have unintended, unwanted side-effects. Referring back to the earlier definition of co-creation, these are issues relating to the context of use.

This is where a range of systemic modeling methods are of value. There are many methods for qualitatively or quantitatively modeling problematic situations in ways that increase awareness of complexity and multiple perspectives, and there are even more methods for modeling potential responses to this complexity (policies, service designs, etc.). These methods increase systemic awareness of possible actions and their consequences. They structure the dialogue process, supporting people in gaining systemic insights along the way to emergent, synergistic innovations. Because contexts and potential consequences have been explored, the resultant innovations are more likely to be useful and without unintended side-effects.

The second principle for systemic co-creation is therefore to use methods that enhance systemic awareness.

Problem #3: is the right issue being tackled, and are the right people being engaged?

So if you have used systems methods to facilitate a synergistic innovation, will this guarantee an effective co-creation? The answer might depend on who you ask! In the 1990s and 2000s, the emphasis in systems thinking shifted from systemic dialogue processes, of which there are many, to how a dialogue is constructed in the first place – who gets invited, who is excluded, who is marginalized, and how to address that marginalization. An important insight is that no participative process can include every possible perspective: comprehensiveness is impossible, and we need to think about how inclusions and exclusions (of both people and the issues they are concerned with) can be justified. Judgements on this, and how to address conflict and marginalization through the design of participative processes, are the essence of systemic intervention. (Werner Ulrich and I have both written on this topic, references below.)

The third principle for systemic co-creation is to reflect from the outset on the remit, who needs to be involved, and how to address conflict and marginalization – and revisit these reflections as new systemic insights emerge.


We can now reverse engineer these principles to arrive at a methodological process for facilitating systemic co-creation:

  1. Start by reflecting on what should be the remit, who needs to be involved, and how to address conflict and marginalization, taking account of multiple possibilities for all of these (and revisit these reflections as new systemic insights emerge).
  2. As the necessary extent and nature of the participation becomes clear, choose appropriate methods to enhance systemic awareness (and there are many such methods for every purpose from evaluation through to strategy and service design).
  3. Use a process of applying these methods that creates a generative context: create expectations of mutual respect and solidify these in ritual, ensuring fair engagement.

Co-creation sounds like a great thing, but without systems thinking it can be deeply problematic.

Collins, R. (2008). Violence: A Micro-Sociological Theory. Princeton University Press: Princeton, USA.

Midgley, G. (2000). Systemic Intervention: Philosophy, Methodology, and Practice. Kluwer/Plenum: New York, USA.

Ulrich, W. (1994). Critical Heuristics of Social Planning: A New Approach to Practical Philosophy. Wiley: Chichester, UK.

Biography: Gerald Midgley is Professor of Systems Thinking in the Centre for Systems Studies, Business School, University of Hull, UK. He also holds Adjunct Professorships at the University of Queensland, Australia; the University of Canterbury, New Zealand; Mälardalen University, Sweden; and Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. He publishes on systems thinking, operational research and stakeholder engagement and has been involved in a wide variety of public sector, community development, third sector, evaluation, technology foresight and resource management projects. He is a member of the Co-Creative Capacity Pursuit funded by the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC).

This blog post is one of a series resulting from the first meeting in April 2016 of the Co-Creative Capacity Pursuit. This pursuit is part of the theme Building Resources for Complex Action-Oriented Team Science funded by the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC).

6 thoughts on “Co-creation without systems thinking can be dangerous”

  1. An interesting article, however, I become a little uneasy when people say: “The solutions to these problems then suggest principles”.

    Doesn’t ST also involve making an appropriate intervention into a problematic situation and the design and evaluation of options?

    • Yes absolutely, but this was just a short blog. If you look at my ‘Systemic Intervention’ book, you will see that those three principles mirror the methodology I propose for systemic intervention: deep exploration of boundaries and values leading to the creative design of methods for intervention. Perhaps we have a different interpretation of the word “principles”? I was using it as shorthand for “principles to inform systemic co-creation/intervention”.

  2. Yes, I agree on the necessity for this kind of innovation in the education system. However, the problem we have in the UK is that the curriculum is centrally micro-managed by government – and I use the term “micro-managed” advisedly, as every five minute block in the classroom is prescribed by the Ministry of Education. The purpose is to make education across the country as identical as possible in the interests of comparative evaluation, which is the tool that is supposed to allow the identification of failing schools (so they can be put into ‘special measures’ and improved). From my point of view, however, this ensures that the majority of schools fail their students because they cannot shape education with local needs in mind; and ALL schools (other than the most radical ones, which unfortunately have to be in the private sector) fail their students because nothing in the curriculum can be decided by children themselves.

    • Please forgive my ignorance, but surely you jest regarding “every five minute block is prescribed.” One must wonder how establishments such as Cambridge and Oxford because citadels of higher education before the Ministry of Education. Again I must apologize for my ignorance, being 60 years removed from the role of student in the British education system.

      • No I don’t jest. Higher education is not subject to this draconian system, but schools are. Every single lesson is designed centrally, with such a high degree of prescription that teachers have virtually no freedom. This is truly the factory model of education taken to its extreme. Unsurprisingly, teachers are leaving the profession in droves and there is now a national recruitment crisis in the UK – not just for maths and science (where there have been teacher shortages for decades), but also for English.

  3. Really really excellent Gerald. This is the approach we took with the Accelerated Schools Project developed by Hank Levin, at Stanford University, in the late 1980s and early 1990’s. See: The Accelerated Schools Resource Guide. Jossey Bass..I

    Similar approaches were taken by James Comer with his project at Yale University, and Deborah Meer’s successful innovation with the Mission Hill School. Vicky Colbert’s successful New Schools model in Latin America also incorporated the approaches you have suggested.


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: