Conditions for co-creation

By Gabriele Bammer

This is part of a series of occasional “synthesis blog posts” drawing together insights across blog posts on related topics.

Gabriele Bammer (biography)

What is required for effective co-creation, especially between researchers and stakeholders? In particular, what contributes to a productive environment for co-creation? And what considerations are relevant for deciding who to involve?

Twelve blog posts which have addressed these issues are discussed. Bringing those insights together provides a richer picture of how to achieve effective co-creation.

What makes a productive environment for co-creation?

A good starting point is to be working in an environment and organizational culture that support co-creation and to have sufficient financial, personnel and other resources, as pointed out by Kit Macleod and Arnim Wiek.

Dialogue-based processes are often an important part of co-creation and they need to be established as a generative space, focused on synergy, not conflict. These issues are raised by Doug Easterling and Gerald Midgley. From New Zealand, Rawiri Smith describes how co-creative processes between indigenous (Māori) and non-indigenous (Pākehā) participants often use ceremony as a framework for treating conflicting views respectfully and it is instructive to reflect on how stronger rituals might be used more widely in co-creation. There are already many rituals in dialogue such as introductions, setting ground rules and turn-taking and it is useful to think how these could be strengthened and added to, especially in situations where there is conflict. Gerald Midgley points out that systems thinking approaches already embed ritual for exactly this reason.

Dialogue-based processes require facilitation that achieves a sense of common community and purpose, where credit is shared, as described by Bob Dick, as well as Doug Easterling and Kit Macleod and Arnim Wiek.

Who to involve in co-creation?

Co-creative processes can be initiated in a variety of ways. One common way is for researchers to identify and invite stakeholder partners. In such circumstances there are two key overarching considerations.

One is to take into account that most problems are systems problems, with multiple interrelationships, as highlighted by Doug Easterling, as well as Gerald Midgley and Cristina Zurbriggen. The range of stakeholders who have something useful to contribute is therefore often broader than might be initially considered. Different participants will also frame the issue differently. As Gerald Midgley points out: “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.”

A second overarching issue is to take into account power relationships. Critical here is the understanding that co-creation does not just involve the different kinds of knowledge that stakeholders bring to the table, but instead that “knowledge is imprinted by power” as highlighted by Andy Stirling, Adrian Ely and Fiona Marshall. The same point is made by Cristina Zurbriggen, who emphasizies that “knowledge and information cannot be seen as separate from political struggles over the definition of ambiguous societal problems, goals, and values.”

Much more discussion is required about ways of managing power relationships. Gerald Midgley argues for identifying “who gets invited, who is excluded, who is marginalized, and how to address that marginalization.” Machiel Keestra identifies the value of long-term relationships between researchers and stakeholders, as do Andy Stirling, Adrian Ely and Fiona Marshall, who argue that these allow for the formation of particular kinds of social relations, where all participants are “afforded equal respect and agency in the knowledge production process.”

As a brief aside, a useful model for managing power relationships between researchers and stakeholders comes from cross-cultural research between indigenous and non-indigenous New Zealanders. Both Jeff Foote and Maria Hepi describe the interchanging of tuākana (senior/leader) & tēina (junior/novice) roles and relationships. This recognizes that one group does not have all the expertise necessary to deal with a problem and that leadership in investigating an issue needs to rotate to the group with the greatest expertise for the particular aspect of the problem. Researchers, then, will be senior when it comes to, for example, knowing the literature about the problem and bringing to bear relevant theory and research methods, while stakeholders affected by the problem will be senior in contributing lived experience of its effects and possibilities for adapting to or mitigating its consequences. This is a method that could be used for all researcher-stakeholder interactions.

A general consideration in selecting participants for co-creative processes is the importance of diversity, as highlighted by Quassim Cassam, along with Bob Dick and Doug Easterling and Gerald Midgley and Arnim Wiek. As Arnim Wiek points out it is helpful to consider including “those negatively affected, those benefitting, those involved in causing the problem or situation under investigation, and those with legitimate concerns.” Quassim Cassam suggests they bring “different perspectives, assumptions, interests, skills and thinking styles.” The challenge is to ensure that diversity leads to innovation, rather than bedlam.

Doug Easterling makes the case for avoiding disruptive people. There are also characteristics to look for. Quassim Cassam calls these “epistemic virtues,” namely humility, openness to diverse perspectives and interests, and willingness to listen. Kit Macleod suggests that relevant values for participants include “respect for different viewpoints and other sources of knowledge, and being flexible and open to different ways of doing things.” It also helps if participants are willing to abide by the following principles: “engage, commit, build trust, advocate, communicate, participate, build capacity, reflect and ask questions, deliver, share outputs, and review and evaluate.”

What do you think of these conditions for co-creation? Do they resonate with your experience? Do you have others to share?

Blog posts cited:

Cassam, Q, 2016, Virtues and vices of real-world co-creation, Integration and Implementation Insights blog 26 May

Dick, B, 2016, Facilitating multidisciplinary decision making, Integration and Implementation Insights blog 17 May

Easterling, D, 2016, Five steps for managing diversity to create synergy, Integration and Implementation Insights blog 19 May

Foote, J, 2016, Cross-cultural collaborative research: A reflection from New Zealand, Integration and Implementation Insights blog 15 December

Hepi, M, 2017, Undertaking bi-cultural research: Key reflections from a Pākehā (non-Māori) New Zealander, Integration and Implementation Insights blog 26 September

Keestra, M, 2018, Overcoming a paradox? Preparing students for transdisciplinary environments, Integration and Implementation Insights blog 30 January

Macleod, K, 2016, Working together for better outcomes: lessons for funders, researchers, and researcher partners Integration and Implementation Insights blog 15 March

Midgley, G, 2016, Co-creation without systems thinking can be dangerous, Integration and Implementation Insights blog 7 July

Smith, R, 2016, Powhiri: An indigenous example of collaboration from New Zealand, Integration and Implementation Insights blog 8 December

Stirling, A, Ely, A, Marshall, M, 2018, How is transformative knowledge ‘co-produced’?, Integration and Implementation Insights blog 3 April

Wiek, A, 2016, Eight strategies for co-creation, Integration and Implementation Insights blog 12 May

Zurbriggen, C, 2016, The interplay between knowledge and power / La interacción entre el conocimiento y el poder, Integration and Implementation Insights blog 14 July

Biography: Gabriele Bammer PhD is a professor at The Australian National University in the Research School of Population Health’s National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health. She is developing the new discipline of Integration and Implementation Sciences (i2S) to improve research strengths for tackling complex real-world problems through synthesis of disciplinary and stakeholder knowledge, understanding and managing diverse unknowns and providing integrated research support for policy and practice change. 

7 thoughts on “Conditions for co-creation”

  1. Thanks for this high-level synthesis, Gabriele. I know all the bloggers are participating in a journal special issue, but I think there could also be a role for a synthesis paper (roughly following the structure of your blog here) that brings together ideas from the older literature, these blogs and the special issue. I am thinking that this could go into a top-level management journal.

  2. Gabriele, thanks for the invitation to respond to Bev’s post. I’m happy to do so. Your blog and Bev’s reply intersect with several of my interests.

    Bev, thanks for that rich response to Gabriele’s blog. I agree with Gabriele that it is an interesting response. And more than that, it’s important. For me it connects to a cluster of issues that are deeply interwoven with much that is happening now. I think our exploration of them can be valuable.

    Let me pick out just a couple of pieces of your response that connect directly to some crucial current issues. You said:

    “… conflict – and how to not only (or simply) manage it, but benefit from it.”


    “… how does the “co” part of the production come in, how does the transition (from an initiator to a shared model) happen …”

    I can illustrate the point I wish to make with a piece of my own history. In 1974, by accident, I became an academic. I came to it from a job in which I was required to be up to date with the literatures on employee participation and industrial democracy.

    My naive belief was that it would be easy to apply the principles from those literatures in the university classroom. If I invited class members to join me in designing a course, I expected them to respond with enthusiasm and engagement. Instead, it was too different to their expectations. Most of them engaged only sceptically and half-heartedly.

    Part of the issue, I now believe, was your point about the “co”. My aim was an egalitarian process. To initiate it I had to step into a catalysing role. My adoption of that role confirmed people’s expectation that I was the leader and they were followers.

    Eventually I escaped that dilemma by separating the timetable into different phases. For four weeks I facilitated activities to build a shared sense of direction and shared identity. During those weeks I also explained my goal: that eventually we would co-create and co-manage the class. An important component of this was building a sense of community in the class as a whole, and trusting relationships within small teams within the class.

    In week 5 we designed the rest of the course. In this activity I functioned as a facilitator. The decisions were made not by me, but by the class members.

    Within boundaries set by the general topic of the course we agreed on the themes we would explore. Then we agreed on the learning processes we would use. We negotiated roles — theirs and mine. From that point on, most classes consisted of experiential workshops designed and facilitated by small groups of class members. Other class members were the participants.

    Another way of explaining that experience is to view week 5 as a liminal period — a borderline phase separating two phases that operated under very different paradigms.

    Globally I think we’re experiencing a similar liminal period globally. We’re struggling to leave behind our history of 8000 years (or so) of bureaucracy, and leader as hero. However, for most of our existence as the species homo sapiens we were tribal. There is evidence that we lived in small egalitarian tribes.

    This continued until the development of agriculture. At about that time hierarchy and regimentation, two key dimensions of bureaucracy, allowed us to escape our small-tribe limitation. Apart from the elites, this was at some cost to our well-being.

    Now, in the 21st century, we understand well enough how to engender co-creation within a small tribe setting. We’re struggling to find ways of scaling it up so that it applies to the large organisations we now depend on.

    Where does the conflict you mention come into it? As I said, bureaucracy depended on two inventions, hierarchy and regimentation. Within bureaucratic organisations, most teams consisted of similar people. They were led by someone similar, who also understood their work thoroughly. When I worked as an electrical draftsperson in an earlier life, I worked in a section with other electrical draftsperson. This was so even though my work depending on being able to coordinate with various other sections with different specialities.

    Nowadays, most similar organisations are structured as a collection of project teams. Within each team, different people do electrical, civil, mechanical and architectural design. Those different people have different education and experience. They speak a different technical language.

    The advantages of project team diversity are potentially substantial. The potential is achieved only if team members know how to work together collaboratively to co-create their shared project design. To do so requires either that they have learned some new skills, or have a structured process to help them make a virtue of their differences.

    There are some assertions made above that may seem to you to be poorly argued. Though I haven’t made a good case here, I believe one can be made. For anyone who wishes to subject this response to a more careful examination, here are some resources.

    I’ve described my classroom experience in a document at: [that URL is case sensitive]

    For a brief description of the application of some of these ideas to resolving conflict see:

    The ideas about hierarchy and regimantation I’ve mostly taken from Stafford Beer. His book “Platform for change” (Wiley, 1975) has more to say. For an analysis of our small tribe origins, a good starting point is Christopher Boehm’s book “Moral origins” (Basic Books, 2012). For evidence that we still retain much of the necessary mindset for an egalitarian existence see Felix Warneken’s review article “How children solve the two challenges of cooperation” in the Annual Review of Psychology, 2018, volume 69, pages 205-229.

  3. Thank you for this synthesis blog post on co-creation,
    Co-creation requiries deep innovation with shifts in mindsets and power structures; and issues that require capacity to work with complexity. It is very important to introduce our understanding of complexity thinking (Morin 1998) and critical systems thinking (Midgley 2000, Ulrich 2001). They explain how our conceptualization of co-creation focus on address complex issues connected with power in processes of learning.

  4. Thank you for this synthesis blog post on co-creation, a topic that is generating increasing interest (albeit under different names) in various parts of the world. There are two things I’m thinking about as I read this post and other pieces on co-creation. First, conflict – and how to not only (or simply) manage it, but benefit from it. I understand and am sympathetic to the importance of focusing on synergy rather than conflict (as noted in the post), but there must be ways to focus on conflict that are actually constructive. As Van de Ven and Johnson say in Knowledge for Theory and Practice (2006), “managing conflict constructively is not only important but lies at the heart of engaged scholarship [what I might call co-creation].” I love their point about there being huge opportunities in exploiting, as opposed to downplaying, differences. Of course that’s a difficult exercise when there may be a power imbalance, which brings me to my second line of thought. Co-creation presumably means shared power, but someone has to start the ball rolling. Assuming that in most cases a researcher or other professional is the person who invites others to work on a project (i.e. there is already a person taking the lead in this way), how does the “co” part of the production come in, how does the transition (from an initiator to a shared model) happen, and what does it actually mean? Any practical advice on either how to exploit differences and conflict, and how to define and set the scene for the “co” part of co-production?

    • Many thanks for these insightful comments, Bev. Your point about constructively managing conflict is well taken. Certainly exploiting differences (and conflict) can lead to innovative thinking about a problem. The important thing is to have a generative and respectful environment in which this can occur. Synergy may well not be the right word to describe that kind of innovation.

      I wonder if co-creation does mean shared power or if it can occur with respectful recognition of power differences.

      The key issue for me is that we need fine-grained descriptions of actual co-creative processes, so that we can tease out helpful ways of dealing with the issues you raise?

      What do others think?

      • Thanks Bev. In my own blog on co-creation (referenced by Gabriele) I discuss the difference between destructive and constructive conflict, and the potential for turning the former into the latter. One aspect of co-creation has to be the use of methods that channel people down a pathway of constructive conflict, so synergies can be realised without a descent into marginalization, demonizing and even violence. An insight I had when writing that blog was that all our systemic dialogue methods not only support participants in more systemic forms of exploration, but also set up the dialogue space in a way that is the precise opposite to what researchers on violence say triggers attack.

        Midgley, G, 2016, Co-creation without systems thinking can be dangerous, Integration and Implementation Insights blog 7 July


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