Growing, replicating or rebuilding?

Growing, replicating or rebuilding?

 Susanne Burns reflects on the Co-Creating Change Growth and Replica Commissions. 

In late 2020, the Co-Creating Change Network selected five programmes of work that would be commissioned to grow and replicate their co-created methodology. The selected programmes were very different and were exploring ways in which their work could be developed and shared with the wider network. Each programme of work included an emphasis on the methodology being deployed and in some, the emphasis was on being able to articulate this in a more structured way so that it could be replicated by others through the development of resources or through training. Each programme had social change at the heart whether that was by empowering young peoples’ voices, developing new approaches to health or exploring new ways to co-design housing environments or public buildings.

The two-stage selection process which commenced in October 2020 was rigorous and robust and focussed on identifying five programmes of work that would generate learning and would provide exciting case studies highlighting the power of co-creation. The commissions were unusual as there was no pressure to deliver an output. Importantly, accountability was to peers rather than the usual funded model of accountability to the funder and the five commissioned projects were viewed as a cohort and network. Learning was placed at the heart and this was supported by an evaluation process that was reflective and cross learning was shared across the cohort. The programmes were risky and open ended so it was critical that the cohort felt confident to discuss what wasn’t working as well as what worked well, as well as discussion about what didn’t work. Through group round tables at start up, mid-point and end of the commissions alongside one to one conversations at key stages, the programmes of work were tracked and learning was surfaced.

Today we are publishing the case studies produced by the commissioned organisations. They tell the story of their very different journeys. However, there are some shared themes and learning that can be extrapolated:

  • Systematising and surfacing the methodology so as to ensure a deeper understanding and better articulation of it to others was a recurring theme across the commissions: One project lead referred to this as “a kind of professionalisation of the process. We knew what we did but we did it intuitively and it was interesting to try to break it down to be able to share it with others.”
  • The notion of placing the individual at the heart of the process was felt to be key “The central thing is the needs of the individuals not the programme of work or the project.” “Paces and needs are different and must be accommodated.” One programme that worked with young people highlighted this “For some young people there was structure that didn’t need to be there but others were baffled by the lack of structure. They were asking ‘Am I doing the right thing?’ and ‘Is this what you want?’ They needed a goal to mobilise behind. They were also being paid to come along so they thought it was a transaction and we wanted something in return.” One project leader spoke about giving permission to individuals who may not want to co-create but prefer to be guided. “People have little experience of having power and when they get it they might not know what to do with it.”
  • Managing the expectations of the co-creators as well as those instigating the programme of activity appears to be key but often these expectations are unclear. “What I wanted them to get out of it at the beginning wasn’t actually what I wanted them to get out of it at the end and it took time to realise this.”
  • There are tensions in leadership when co-creating. “As the facilitator, when do you show leadership, when do you hold people? What are the conditions for leadership to emerge from within the group?” Shifting agency is partly about shifting leadership but this can be challenging.
  • There is a need to hold people and hold spaces which appears to be crucial to effective co-creation. Project leads talked about taking time to build relationships and trust, being authentic and open in sharing power and agency. “What we need for successful co-creation is a village of support. What does the village look like and who needs to be in it?”
  • This need to create safe spaces connects to a need to find a balance between having some kind of structure and retaining flexibility. This tension echoed throughout the programmes of work and pointed to a need to have “something that grounds you.” It doesn’t have to be an output but can be a set of criteria or parameters. Further, open-ended processes require shifts in mindsets as when the end is undefined it can be challenging to build momentum. “During the pandemic when there was so much uncertainty, this need to have an anchor was also perhaps more acute.”
  • Co-creation takes time, it is messy, unwieldy and risky and things go wrong. “How do you pace and budget in time and money for the uncertainty and fluidity of the process?” Co-creation needs funders to recognise and be sympathetic to the durational and open-ended nature of the work. Budgets need to be able to accommodate “reactive funds” that allow them to reflect the working processes.
  • The people driving co-creation are key to its effectiveness – “Skills, knowledge, continuity, trust and connections – the things that don’t go into the job description.”
  • Co-creation impacts on the organisations instigating it no matter at what stage of development or scale. “working with artists with lived experience brings learning back into the organisation and affects how we work.”
  • The open-ended nature of the work is often long term“This is a journey that is going to take years.” So the time needed should not be underestimated – “double your time allocation and double it again.” It can be slow and for people used to working in a project based mentality and system this is a tough transition to make. “The end of co-created projects can feel like the beginning.”
  • Linked to this, some co-created programmes of work are less about action and more about research and piloting and this requires different mind-sets from those instigating the programmes. “I am trying to be OK with the fact that the programme is less about action and more about research as this is not the way I normally work.”
  • Some programmes of work concluded that the outcomes of co-created work may not be much different from other types of participatory processes but the process may feel better for those involved. This may generate longer term impact on the individuals. “The what is less important than the way you feel as a co-creator.”
  • Placing value on the lived experiences of co-creators – “Co-creation repositions lived experience as something one can draw from as knowledge and expertise that is valuable and important” – and investing in their development as artists, community leaders and as people. One project leader commented “The skills learned impact deeply on people’s lives.”
  • Co-creation is not one thing. “It can be so many things and they all look different – turning on the Xmas lights, an encounter on the stairs, a consultation.” What these things have in common are connections, listening and conversations. They are all two-way processes and engender two-way relationships that are collaborative rather than transactional.

The learning that has accrued is deep and profound but it also raises many questions about the process of replication of co-created methodologies.

  • Is the demand there for co-created methodologies and if it is how do we as a sector communicate what we can offer better to agencies that might want to commission our approaches to co-creation and social change? If the market isn’t there yet how do we grow it?
  • What formats can we use to replicate our approaches? Services, franchising the models or selling products are some formats in which we might be able to make our offer but do we have the expertise and skill to support our sector in being able to work in this way?
  • How do we embed processes of co-creation in mainstream cross sector provision? How do we gain traction and generate momentum in order to work with other statutory bodies?
  • Can we articulate the purpose and use of the methodologies we use better to other sectors so that the potential outcomes are clear?
  • Does the scale, capacity and maturity of organisations affect our ability to take something to scale? One programme stated, “We realised we weren’t quite ready.”
  • How do we fund co-created work? Existing funding and support structures tend to be output driven and time bound.

The Co-Creating Change Network is approaching the end of its funded period of activity at the end of March 2022. Two years of this activity took place during the Covid-19 Pandemic and this provided a backdrop for all of our explorations of what co-creation is and how impactful it can be. These programmes of work were developed and implemented in a context of huge uncertainty when lockdowns and restrictions often mitigated against face to face contact and activity had to take place remotely. Not being in the room had a major impact on format, delivery models and outcomes. Further, because the programme took place during the pandemic, there was also a sense that rather than replicating and growing methodologies and ways of working, there was a need to rebuild first. One project leader observed “Many services and providers have collapsed or been reduced and this had a dramatic effect on provision and on our partnerships – services have been overwhelmed and there were already gaping holes prior to Covid. Whilst this may present opportunities for us there are also serious challenges as we pivot to meet needs.”

Maybe the time is right for us to open conversations with funders and commissioners that are premised on increased recognition of the power and role that arts and culture can play in rebuilding our systems. There is an argument that our collective understanding of the power and role of the arts in social change has been galvanised by the pandemic and we can grasp the opportunity to enshrine our approaches in policy and practice.


Read the Growth and Replica case studies here.