Who sets the rules around co-creation?

By Lorrae van Kerkhoff

Lorrae van Kerkhoff (biography)

When we talk about co-creation, co-production, and co-design as exciting and productive alternative ways of approaching collaboration, it often doesn’t take too long for the conversation to turn to the challenges. Barriers, roadblocks, and disincentives appear and are lamented, or perhaps we celebrate that they have been overcome in a research-practice equivalent of the triumph of good over evil.

For every project the triumph may look a bit different – from the support an innovative funding agency, to a policy-maker or practitioner who understood the value of research, to the dedication, energy and sheer persistence of people who enjoy working together – the solutions are many and multi-faceted. These achievements should indeed be celebrated, and the lessons from them should be harvested.

But is there more to this story? I focus here on recognising and unpacking the more structural issues that make co-creation and co-production hard: specifically, knowledge governance. Knowledge governance refers to the formal and informal rules that shape the ways in which we engage in knowledge-based activities (Clark et al., 2016), including:

  • Knowledge production,
  • Research agenda-setting and financing,
  • Sharing or protecting knowledge,
  • Access and availability to knowledge, and
  • Implementation and use of knowledge.

Some of these are familiar and easily recognisable: intellectual property law is a clear example of a formal rule shaping access and availability, for instance. Others, however are more implicit and some are even, we might say, insidious. These include social expectations about how decisions should be made, or what people regard as more (or less) legitimate knowledge in any given decision-making context.

Investigating knowledge governance helps us to put barriers and opportunities for co-creation, co-design and co-production of knowledge into a more systematic institutional context. It can help us to recognise how our project-based work can be crafted to better fit the internal and external demands placed on practitioners to make sound decisions.

As an example, in our research examining knowledge governance in the cross-cultural setting of Palau, we were surprised to learn that Western ideas of transparency in decision-making (where ‘evidence’ and ‘objectivity’ are prioritised and publicly displayed) ran counter to traditional modes of ‘whispered’ decision-making, where conflict is avoided through procedures that were carefully crafted to respect the wisdom of elders. Overt displays of expertise and contests over whose knowledge counts most were frowned upon, as they potentially undermined the knowledge embedded in the experience of traditional leaders (van Kerkhoff and Pilbeam 2015).

While the lessons from this example are not surprising (treat indigenous knowledge-holders with respect, seek appropriate permissions and endorsements from leaders, learn rather than tell, and so on), understanding the specifics of a given decision-making context can help to generate more targeted, specific approaches to co-design and co-production.

Beyond the project scale, understanding the broader institutional context can also help researchers and practitioners to identify which parts of ‘the system’ may need to be tackled to generate significant support for co-creation, co-design and co-production.

In Australia, for example, a major review of research policy and funding arrangements (known as the Watt Review (2015)) identified that traditional measures of research impact through publication citations and impact factors were inadequate. Watt and fellow reviewers noted that “Notions of ‘technology transfer’, where one party supplies and another receives, have been replaced by the more relationship-based ideas of mutual engagement and ‘co-production of knowledge” (2015, p.66). Associated recommendations include combining new metrics for measuring impact and engagement with qualitative case studies.

These changes, if fully implemented, create an opportunity both for existing co-production work to be recognised and supported, as well as a wider cultural shift in academic institutions to build experience and capacity in co-productive approaches to research. Knowledge governance research and analysis can help to identify such leverage points, and build a case towards their implementation.

It is these bigger shifts that will ultimately help to move us from situations where successful co-creation is no longer regarded as the triumph of good over evil, but just a normal way research ought to be done. By systematically seeking to understand and recognise the important roadblocks, and the biggest opportunities for change, we can work more effectively to foster these transitions. Knowledge governance is a conceptual tool that can help us get there.

Comments are welcome: can you add good examples of particular knowledge governance interventions (rules, funding arrangements, problem-based programs…?) that facilitate co-creation, co-design and co-production in research?


Clark, W. C., van Kerkhoff, L., Lebel. L. and Gallopin, G. (2016). Crafting usable knowledge for sustainable development. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 113, 17: 4570–4578. (Online) (DOI): https://www.pnas.org/doi/full/10.1073/pnas.1601266113

van Kerkhoff, L. and Pilbeam, V. (2015). Science, culture and community-based environmental governance: A pilot study of Palau. Fenner School of Environment and Society, Australian National University. Final report (FR2015-14), Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research: Canberra, Australia. Online: https://www.palaupanfund.org/pdf/ANU-Stakeholder-ReportLvK221215.pdf

Watt, J. (2015). Review of research policy and funding arrangements. Commonwealth Department of Education and Training: Canberra, Australia. Online: https://www.education.gov.au/download/2981/review-research-policy-and-funding-arrangements-report-november-2015/4161/document/pdf (PDF 1.49MB).

Biography: Lorrae van Kerkhoff (@ANUsustsci) is a Senior Lecturer and Research Fellow in sustainability science at the Fenner School of Environment and Society, The Australian National University. Her research focuses on understanding the role of science in governance and decision-making for sustainability, with a special interest in cross-cultural settings. She teaches in areas related to the social and political dimensions of sustainable development, and practical approaches to tackling complex environmental problems. 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 US National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC).

8 thoughts on “Who sets the rules around co-creation?”

  1. Thanks for such a interesting approach. At P&I (the ‘thinknet’ Politics and Ideas) we have developed a conceptual framework (see [Moderator update – In December 2021, this link no longer available: (politicsandideas[dot]org… contextmatters/index) – instead try following the links in this post: https://i2insights.org/2020/02/25/theory-u-and-unknown-unknowns/)] on how context, at the level of public institutions, affects the generation and use of knowledge in policy. I think we would include knowledge governance as part of the macro-context as well as management and processes within each state agency from the more formal perspective and under culture from the informal one. The complexity of our frameworks stems partially from the fact that in reality knowledge is indeed co-constructucted though individuals and organizations continue to isolate their own contributions. Developing a collaborative approach is a challenge across the whole development sector: my take is that we need new leaders that push for it.

  2. This is a great piece. I have done some work on community based processes and the politics of knowledge. More specifically, I looked at the way not only our own experiences, but how systems and culture shape our expectations and how we design or participate in processes. It’s a work in progress but one aspect of co-creation I suggest is the ability to critically inquire into our own assumptions and expectations, to challenge ourselves and each other to see things differently. There are other key qualities, which can be cultivated, but without which co-creation becomes shaped by unconscious bias and power relations. Would love to hear how you progress with this.

    • Thanks Joanne, you have hit the nail on the head regarding the importance of critically analysing our own assumptions, and I would add critically analysing the contexts in which we and our collaborators work. I am very much seeing knowledge governance as a tool to enable deeper, more targetted reflection on the dynamics of knowledge and politics rather than a tool to facilitate specific instrumental goals (“better environmental management” for example). Feel free to follow me on twitter @ANUSustSci and I will post when the theory paper is available.

  3. Thanks for the positive feedback Anil. Building deeper, more reflective engagement between holders of different experience and expertise (wisdom, yes!) can be hard when we do not know what the parameters for judgement are. I hope this idea helps us navigate these complex conversations.

  4. Thanks, I find this quite a promising research direction. As I understand it, this fits with the idea that rather than simply discovering a truth, knowledge has to be held in place (e.g. Latour 2004, http://winteranthology.com/?vol=5&author=latour&title=critique). The push for rules that facilitate co-creation then reflects the realisation that knowledge is more likely to be held in place when those who do the holding are involved in its creation. Stepping back to knowledge governance seems to be a nice lens to understand the maintenance of co-created knowledge in its broader context.

    • Thanks Joe, perceptive comments indeed. I am currently thinking in terms of “knowledge as judgement” where the conditions under which we make those judgements are indeed ‘held in place’, which I would probably call ‘situated’. Will let you know when that paper is published 😉

    • Thanks Joseph for the Latour reference – stimulating not only in the context you raise, but also more generally in his analysis of the need for new approaches to critical thinking.

  5. Wonderful information about co-creation phenomena, rules and statues that need to be explored for further refinement and wider acceptance. We have to bridge the gap between introvert and extrovert participants in a group discussion. People usually tend to gravitate towards the person who talks more and wants to dominate the conversation with whatever knowledge they may possess. We have to give due credence to the old saying “empty vessels make much noise”. It is usually the person who has more wisdom and imagination, has learned from their vast prior experiences tend to listen more and understand other view points and perspectives. There is another cliché that when tree is full of fruit, it becomes humble and so do the wise folks at the co-creation table. In summary there ought to be mixed blend of thinkers in the planning process of projects “Brain storming” or Think tank” scenarios that values, listens and give equal time to all members from diverse generational representatives (baby boomers, generation X, millennial) to have construct and narrative for any cooperative, collaborative and team science effort.


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