”We are not in the room”: Co-Creation in a Digital World: A Provocation by Susanne Burns

“We are not in the room”: 

Co-Creation in a Digital World: A Provocation

On January 30th 2020, the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus outbreak a Global Public Health Emergency. Since then we have been living in totally unchartered times facing one of the most widespread public health emergencies we have ever faced as a worldwide community. In this context, we are having to navigate without maps and in a sector that has suffered long term lasting damage to its structures and systems. 

As our cultural buildings and our schools closed, many artists confronted the immediate loss of income. Initially funders were fast to act in supporting the sector and the government put in place measures but these have proven to be primarily of benefit to the employed and to the buildings within which activity takes place. Many within the self-employed workforce have been left adrift – independent of and yet dependent on the building based infrastructure we have waited for the so-called trickle down of money from the major recipients. 

So, initially we raced to set up home offices, found new ways to do business on line and Zoom took off. It is arguable that we placed pressure on ourselves to continue to be productive as we raced to buckle down for a short stint until things get back to normal. But, of course it was not to be a short stint and we are now in it for the long haul.

As Aisha S. Ahmed wrote: “ …as someone who has experience with crises around the world, what I see behind this scramble for productivity is a perilous assumption. The answer to the question everyone is asking — “When will this be over?” — is simple and obvious, yet terribly hard to accept. The answer is never. Global catastrophes change the world, and this pandemic is very much akin to a major war. Even if we contain the Covid-19 crisis within a few months, the legacy of this pandemic will live with us for years, perhaps decades to come. It will change the way we move, build, learn, and connect. There is simply no way that our lives will resume as if this had never happened. And so, while it may feel good in the moment, it is foolish to dive into a frenzy of activity or obsess about your scholarly productivity right now. That is denial and delusion. The emotionally and spiritually sane response is to prepare to be forever changed.”

If the change that we are facing is potentially permanent, our sector must recalibrate and reset itself to adjust to the new realities we are facing. Lockdowns, easing of lockdowns, introduction of tier systems have led to 10 months of ‘coronacoaster’. Social distancing has changed the way we relate to each other, the way we move and walk in public weaving our way across pavements to attempt to stay 2 metres apart. Our artists have adapted and proved to be incredibly resilient in the context of such uncertainty and increasing precarity.  

But, the sheer physicality of our work has been dramatically curbed over the last year.   Almost a year to the day I was flying back from Budapest after a mini break exploring a new city where I ate in restaurants, visited galleries and spent a day in a thermal spa. I once took such things for granted. But now, these things have disappeared and have been replaced with a host of new things that we take for granted – face masks, handwashing, no contact deliveries of parcels and food, social distancing and of course zoom. The implications of this are massive for our sector where interpersonal interactions and collaboration are key to making work, where ‘touch’ is so important and where being together in a space is the starting point for so much of what we do. Artists have mentioned loss of spontaneity, their inability to take the temperature of the room, not being able to read people and energise them. It changes the way we work.  


Before exploring the implications of co-creation in a digital world, it is perhaps worth exploring the meaning of co-creation. It is a contested and shifting term that perhaps relates to a scale of interactions and approaches that are seeking to shift agency. The term is now used so widely and is shifting in meaning as a result of being used to describe established processes of participation and engagement that are not necessarily co-created. There is a difference between a co-created programme of work and work that has elements of co-creation within it.  The working definition used by the network is:

Co-creation is a co-operative process in which people with diverse experiences, skills and knowledge come together and work in non-hierarchical ways to address a common issue, and which enables people and communities to be actively involved in shaping the things which impact their lives. It shifts power, resource and ownership towards the people the work is intended to benefit, as opposed to the traditional ‘top down’ approach. It encourages every individual to activate their creative potential and realise their own ability to make change.

Our learning to date across the network and the projects and activities that have taken place has highlighted more refinements to this definition as we have sought to determine what co-creation is and by implication what it isn’t. It has also highlighted some of the conditions and needs for effective co-creation. Again, this is a working and emergent set of principles: 

Co-Creation is ….

… a set of processes and working methods and approaches that seek to generate change

  • It takes place ‘with’ and not ‘to’ 
  • It has not set outputs but is outcome focussed
  • It focusses on the ‘how’ and not the ‘what’
  • It is process driven not product driven
  • It may be facilitated but leadership shifts  
  • It may use art to generate changes but is likely to apply to all stages of programme development, design and evaluation
  • It shifts agency and power and challenges privilege
  • It brings partners together on an equal footing
  • It is relational and not transactional
  • It empowers and includes  

Co-Creation needs ….

  • Time and resources
  • Trust 
  • Authenticity and generosity
  • Preparedness to change and flex at individual as well as organisational levels
  • A balance between making and holding a space for people whilst providing a scaffold for those who have less confidence 
  • All voices to be heard
  • Clarity on expectations and motivations
  • Clarity on any parameters that will inform decision making 
  • A commitment to shifting power and agency and an acknowledgement of where the power and privilege sits 
  • Transparency and honesty and the ability to talk about failure as well as success
  • Risk taking   

So, if that is the process with which we are concerned, what are the implications of our shift to remote and digital delivery? How has Covid-19 impacted on co-created work? What is the impact of these changes for the health and civic role of our sector? 

As Maddy Costa stated in a recent blog for Brighton Peoples Theatre: “People being in a room together is pretty fundamental to theatre, no? So, what happens when that basic ingredient is neither safe nor allowed? What is live performance if it can’t be experienced simultaneously by humans breathing the same air? And is participatory theatre even possible when all the potential participants are stuck inside their own homes?”

It seems timely to be posing these questions and at the recent network gathering of the Co-Creating Change network in December 2020 we asked attendees to contribute their learning to the network. We asked:

    • Is it possible to co-create on line? What enables it? What hinders it? What tactics work? 
    • How important is proximity and physical contact to the notion of co-creation? How do we generate real intimacy in an online setting?
    • Where do power and agency sit when working remotely? 
    • What might hybrid models look like that make the most of what we have learned? There are undoubtedly good things to take forward into a post Covid world but equally my guess is you will want to leave some things behind. 

In the sections that follow the quotes are drawn from delegates attending the Network Meeting. 

Co-Creation in a Digital World – benefits and challenges:

“It is possible to co-create online but we need to remember that digital does not necessary mean accessible. The barriers are still there but manifest in a different way. Digital Poverty is an example of this and needs to be planned and budgeted for. It also requires more infrastructure and time to enable it to be meaningful.”

“I think you can work closely with participants but that does not necessarily mean you are genuinely co-creating.”

There are clear benefits of digital working – reduced travel and costs, more time, greater geographical reach and for some, greater accessibility:

“Why has it taken so long to get to these ways of working. Previously disabled artists have asked to attend conferences online but have been told that was not possible, but now, obviously we see that it is. What else do we need to break down into the possible that we’ve been resisting?”

But, there are undoubtedly limits to what we can do on-line. Not everyone has access to the technical resources to take part on line – digital poverty is real whether it be technology, data, equipment or connectivity. Not everyone has space at home for a home office or a working space which is separate from the family.

“Some people are working with participants that do not have any digital access or even telephone access (especially those with complex needs, or in prison, or in temporary/sheltered accommodation) physical art packs have worked well, but sometimes the gatekeepers of partner orgs do not have capacity to work with us at this time, also the technology is just not the right platform for some people even if they could get access.” 

“It is hard to get people to engage in the same way, it is not technology that people are used to using and some people have needed to be supported to use it.”

Further many children have suffered from what could be called general ‘zoom fatigue’ with school work having moved on line and there are some very clear signs that children and young people are experiencing some mental health challenges as a result of lack of social connection. 

For established groups online sessions appeared to work well, whilst it is harder to establish new groups. “Online just isn’t for everyone, there are lots of issues regarding digital poverty with 16 + and community groups. The most vulnerable young people and disadvantaged communities have slipped through the net. Older people who were initially phobic regarding online working are now confident online.  Longer running projects persistently going through phases of digital fatigue.”

It is perhaps about making choices as working in a digital way may not be appropriate for all work or groups:

“ …. making choices not to co-create when the conditions aren’t right, and when trying to do so means leaving people out, may place pressure on communities who are already dealing with some real challenges and maybe starting things which can’t be finished.”

“The barriers are still there – they are just different barriers. Increasing access for some has actually excluded others for whom the real-life room is the driver, for whom social contact is key to the experience.” 

Generating Intimacy:

The intimacy of being in the room was a recurring theme in discussions with many people feeling it was possible to generate it remotely:

“It is possible to create intimacy by creating a physic moment of connection – posting something to participants, finding something which we all have in our homes.”

“Zoom has allowed, in some circumstances, more intimacy (perhaps due to being in our own homes?) and less mingling – which allowed deeper conversations. However, we all felt the lack of “ideas contamination” – the incidental conversations you would have in a room, at the coffee station, at the end of a workshop.”

Inhibiting factors included the difficulty of generating and holding space and the non-verbal aspects of being together in a room:

“It was very hard not having a safe space to check in with people with different needs.”
“Not being able to make those small humble touches of welcome that we are missing and can’t be brought into online methods.”

Shifting Agency and Power:

A major concern of working on line to co-create is around agency and power: Where does agency sit when working remotely? Who is in control of the setting, the agenda and the ‘room’? When a virtual zoom room replaces a real building whose space is it? Is the space more democratic when your co-creators are in their own homes? Or is zoom a hierarchical medium a place where someone talks and people listen and we take turns but where genuine conversation is tough even in breakout rooms? Where anything more than a two-way conversation is hard – it is one way traffic.

Interestingly, there were few contributions to this debate and it seems that we are all grappling with it as we move forward with digital working. 

Moving Towards Hybrid Models:

What might hybrid models look like that make the most of what we have learned? There are undoubtedly good things to take forward into a post Covid world but equally we will want to leave some things behind. A blended approach of face to face and online practice may be an effective model moving forward.

Practitioners have welcomed some aspects of working digitally:

“ .. the online migration of his project really transformed my own working practice, and making a horizontal structure where I could give agency/ownership to collaborators.” 

What might hybrid models look like that make the most of what we have learned? Alongside its many challenges, the experience of digital delivery has brought positive discoveries in terms of its longer-term sustainability for practitioners: “I found it initially very daunting but I now see it’s an opportunity to work with these private spaces. I’m enjoying the creativity in these little spaces. Bringing positive attention to the space by moving through it, owning it.” 

And for our communities and institutions there are no doubt benefits of hybrid models as more people can be reached – one dancer I worked with in Wales was reaching 10 times the number of dementia patients in care homes using digital delivery than she had ever been able to do in real life. 

But, caution is needed. Digital spaces are no permanent substitute for real spaces. We are human and we thrive on touch. Remote participation is no substitute for face-to- face contact: “we need to affirm the importance of the embodied experience”. The value of sharing a physical space in which to dance together, make music together, act together thus holds firm, whatever the success of digital projects might be.

A hybrid model of working has the potential to increase participation and strengthen cross-sector partnerships. But, if we are to realise this potential we must draw from what works best in each: the deep personal relationships and shared live experience of offline working, along with the accessibility of online working.

So, if as it seems likely, in future the “new participatory work” we carry out will incorporate a great deal more digital and online provision, this implies a major push to develop capacity within the workforce. It is one thing to use online learning as a stopgap for keeping things “ticking over,” with an expectation that “real life” will be back soon.  It is quite another to structure and develop longer-term online learning solutions—something that most artists aren’t trained for. So, in addition to the practical delivery modes being developed, we need simultaneously to consider the pedagogical strategies we use in them.  We need to work out how artists might adapt their approaches to online delivery, where the immediacy of presence and community is absent, and where body language and face-to-face connection are missing. These are new skillsets and we must future proof our workforce for the new challenges we face in terms of capacity to deliver hybrid and blended models of delivery. 


Our work as artists and those who make art possible feels like it has become so much more important over the last year. Bluntly, we are living in traumatized societies. The shock of the pandemic cannot be underestimated. Many people have suffered directly, they have been ill themselves and have lost people they loved. People have lost work, many young people have lost their aspired for futures. We have been shocked to discover how fragile our whole political, social and economic system is and are now facing a further shock wave of a post Brexit society. Most of us will come out of this poorer. In other circumstances artists who work in socially engaged practice or who facilitate participation in art would feel they are able to help people process, live with, work out their feelings about this through the kind of work that we do. But, we are not in the room so how do we make this possible?

It is clear that we have all been working to continue to co-create in a context where the process is of even greater relevance than ever before, where social change is not only desirable but essential to reconstruction and resetting our systems.  There is a strong sense of purpose and commitment: 

“  ….what people do and want to be able to do with communities using co-creation feels maybe more important than ever, even if some activities have to go on hold or be undertaken differently at this time.”

Arts organisations and artists have already adapted and responded to support and strengthen the role they can play in their communities moving forward. And it is important to acknowledge that this role goes far beyond the digital provision of creative experiences to supporting vital social infrastructure and community resilience. Cultural activity has a unique and specialised role to play in sustaining hope and human connection as well as helping to create imaginative solutions to collective problems. As we look forward, we must consider how to continue to play this role within our communities, society as a whole and within the cultural ecology and system. Co-creation will be critical to all of this. We will need radical collaborative approaches to develop solutions to the shared problems we face as a society. This is likely to mean changing the way that organisations work and who they work with.  

What aspects of delivering differently will we hold on to? 

What will a hybrid model look like and feel like for co-creators?

What new skills, insights and learning could, and should we carry forward? 

How can we ensure the ‘new normal’ benefits from all we’ve explored, rather than discards it? 

Susanne Burns

January 19th 2021