Is co-creation more than participation?

Katrin Prager
Katrin Prager (biography)

By Katrin Prager

Co-creation, and related terms like co-design, co-production, co-construction and co-innovation, are becoming increasingly popular. Upon closer scrutiny they share many characteristics with participatory processes. Is there a difference between the two – co-creation and participation – and if yes, what is it?

Let us first look at participation. Not all participatory processes are the same. They differ with regard to who is involved, who initiated the process and for what reason, the anticipated outcomes, the duration, the context in which it takes place, and who has control over the process and outcomes. A well-known classification of participation is the ladder depicted below (from Arnstein 1969), which was developed for citizen participation, but applies equally to any stakeholders. The ladder has eight rungs, associated with increasing shifts in power towards the participants. A succinct description of Arnstein’s ladder is provided in The Citizen’s Handbook.

Manipulation and therapy are not actually forms of participation although sometimes justification is sought for them by labeling them as participation. Informing, consultation and placation are weak forms of participation, since they allow only token stakeholder contributions, with those ‘running’ the participatory process retaining power over which pieces of information influence their decisions. Power sharing and joint decision making, which I suggest constitute genuine participation, only occur at the level of partnership and above (rungs 6-8).

Arnstein’s ladder

Arnstein’s ladder focusses on the distribution of power in policy discourses and distinguishes the powerful from the ‘have-nots’, albeit lacking a recognition that neither are homogeneous groups. The typology is helpful in analysing and understanding outcomes of processes that are initiated by an entity that is perceived as powerful and authoritative such as a government agency, university or church. It is helpful because it draws attention to the importance of power relations, and who holds decision making power and the funds to implement policies and plans.

Now let’s compare genuine participation and co-creation. Both denote a process that involves active doing. Co-creation involves a collaborative process in which diverse stakeholders take part. Just as the involvement in a participatory process is voluntary, so too is partaking in a co-creation effort. Both involve the participants learning from each other. The aim of the learning is to produce “actionable knowledge” – decisions about what needs to be done about the problem and how to do it. These can include a joint action plan or an agreement to redistribute funds, for example. Neither co-creation nor genuine participation are, therefore, ends in themselves; both processes aim for an outcome that is the product of the collaborative effort of those involved.

As with participation, co-creation is more likely to be successful if there is a shared problem that:

  • has some degree of urgency,
  • stakeholders have an interest in solving, and
  • stakeholders feel they can do something about and cannot solve on their own.

There are, therefore, many similarities between genuine participation and co-creation. What are the points of difference? We have already seen that genuine participation is only one category of participation and that not all forms of participation are appropriate for co-creation.

The main difference is that co-creation does not stop at actionable knowledge. As Arnim Wiek points out in his blog post ‘Eight strategies for co-creation’, co-creation also requires practical outcomes and this is a step that is not necessarily part of genuine participation (although there are participatory processes that also go beyond actionable knowledge, eg. where stakeholders participate in the implementation of decisions). Wiek describes these practical outcomes as “emotional, behavioral, physical and other changes in the real world”. They move from actionable knowledge to real change, for example from developing a joint action plan to implementing it or from agreeing to redistribute funds to actually redistributing them.

In conclusion, genuine participation is a precondition for co-creation, with co-creation taking a further step in producing practical outcomes.


Arnstein, S. R. (1969). A Ladder of Citizen Participation. Journal of the American Institute of Planners, 35, 4: 216-224.

Biography: Katrin Prager is a senior social scientist at the James Hutton Institute, Aberdeen (Scotland). She is involved in inter- and transdisciplinary research on agri-environmental policy making and implementation, collaborative landscape management, community engagement and farmer adoption of conservation practices. Katrin investigates these topics through the lens of institutional analysis, knowledge management, adaptive capacity and organisational behaviour. She 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).

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