Relinquishing the power…

The third Co-Creating Change Network gathering took place in the Arnolfini in Bristol on a crisp November day when the north of the country was being battered by rain. Attended by some 100 people from across the UK, the day was a great balance of practical workshops, provocations and networking.


The four provocations that launched the day shared a common theme – the necessity of relinquishing power and the vulnerability that is associated with this when seeking to generate change. We are all products of a system and working within the cultural sector means we are also encultered into the values and norms appropriate or necessary in that particular system. This brings challenges when we are seeking to effect change.

Dan Spencer, Chair of West End Million in Morecambe asked “what would happen if you made your end product less defined or not defined at all?” and Marcus Brown from Signifier in Bristol posed the question “how do you relinquish power to create true equity?” .

Both shared a perspective on ownership of both the narrative and the value created. Marcus suggested that goals are constructed by those of us who create schemes and that we use soft power to shape programmes of work to meet these goals. The challenge he threw down was to shift this and actively seek to facilitate equity by enabling our participants to become genuine stakeholders. Dan articulated some of the tactics deployed in Morecambe to achieve this shift – the need to create space for voices to be heard, to instill confidence and allow everyone to be a leader and to create value by building with people. Malik Gul asked us to consider our privilege and asked us to consider how we use this privilege and give up power to generate greater equity. Whilst Faidat Ope of Empowher in Manchester drew attention to the vulnerability implicit in this process: “It is very likely that the people you are working with will feel vulnerable in this process … you should be vulnerable too shouldn’t you? How do you do this and how does it feel?” Workshops throughout the afternoon furthered these questions through the practical exploration of different approaches to co-creation. Nic Green, an artist based in Scotland, led a workshop exploring the notion of ‘invitation’ while 20 Stories High from Liverpool shared their approaches to embedding ownership, responsibility and power with their co-creators and how this impacts on workforce development and change. Malik Gul explored the power of networks and Rhiannon White of Common Wealth Theatre took network members through a process of active co-creation.

Moving between these workshops provoked many new questions for me about the learning journey we are engaged with as a network. We know that co-creation as a term encompasses a wide range of practices and approaches and over the period of the programme of work we are seeking to reach a clarity on what co-creation is (and isn’t) and to better understand what makes for effective co-creation. We also want to reach a deeper understanding of the possible outcomes of co-creation.

In reflecting on the day, a few key observations have surfaced which seem to inform the learning journey:

  • There is an interesting relationship between co-creation and activism that challenges the systems within which we work;
  • Indeed, the very systems we work within may mitigate against effective co-creation in some ways. For example, funder accountability and constraints create a tension when trying to genuinely shift power and the need to ensure ‘quality’ outcomes for funders creates vulnerability and risk when relinquishing that power to co-creators;
  • Which returns us to the challenge of managing our own vulnerability when co-creating;
  • It is clear that active, deep and powerful co-creation changes the organisations and institutions who embark on it and we need to understand this;
  • The importance of creating trust, providing space and time, listening and hearing, accepting, extending the invitation and empowering people to take up the invitation were recurring themes throughout the workshops pointing to some common characteristics of effective approaches to co-creation.

The commissions programme affords further opportunity to explore and deepen our understanding of the learning that is already emerging and we have commissioned several case studies of programmes and projects that will also help to illuminate and extend our understanding. There is space for more and I am interested in hearing from anyone who would be keen to share their stories.


Susanne Burns

November 2019