What do we mean when we talk about co-creation?

Over the last few months I have attended several events that have led me to reflect on our understanding of this thing called ‘co-creation.’ It is possibly becoming the ‘thing’ and it is a concern that there is an assumption that it is what we should all be doing. It also is a concern that it seems to be interlinked – and interchanged – with so many other concepts such as power, agency, co-production, democracy, community governance, civic responsibility, involvement, consultation and so on. I wonder – do we know what we are talking about when using any – or all – of these terms?

Of course, these approaches and concepts and language have not just emerged from nowhere. So, how did we get here?


As far back as 2006, John Holden wrote in ‘Cultural Value and the Crisis of Legitimacy’:

“ ….what culture needs is a mandate from the public… professionals need to build greater legitimacy directly with citizens.”


This mandate is critical to survival in the times we are living in.  In our current economic and policy environment organisations need to generate solid public support and this will derive from strong relationships between themselves and the communities they serve and from the creation of deeper, meaningful and collaborative relationships with those communities. So arguably, this more recent emphasis on shifting power, agency and the development and delivery of a civic role stems from these notions of legitimacy and mandate. If we place people at the heart of what we do and enable them to take control, to create with us and not simply take what we offer them, we will generate greater support and relevance.


Of course, originally, the language of ‘co-creation’ was used in business to describe the strategy of developing new business models, products and services with customers, clients, trading partner or other parts of the same enterprise or venture. Its value in marketing was immense as it promoted and encouraged active involvement from the customer to create on-demand and made-to-order products. With co-creation, consumers get exactly what they want and have a hand in making it happen. One can clearly see the value of this strategy and concept in an arts sector seeking a mandate from the public that funds it and seeking to ensure meetings the needs and wants of its ‘markets’. At its most basic then, co-creation could be little more than a good marketing strategy.


But, the question must be asked, what if this goes deeper. When does consultation and involvement become genuine co-creation? Where is the ‘tipping point’? What is this deeper notion of co-creation and how does it relate to other notions of co-production or co- curation? Is it different or is it just semantics? Is handing over the programming of one evening to a group of young people genuinely co-creation? Or is it simply a project that explores group decision making and develops new skills? Is consulting on the development of a new programme of activity co-creation or is it involvement? Is asking “What happens when you start with people and not product?” any different to good participatory or community arts activity? Not that there is anything wrong with those approaches but let us genuinely seek to be clear about what we are actually doing.

When you hear someone say – “The first thing we wanted to find out was did the community want to be involved. Luckily they did” – you know you are not really talking about shifting power. When you hear people talking about how ‘we ran it’, ‘we provided’, ‘we led’, ‘we supported’ and ‘we wanted’ … or ‘we set off on a journey together’ you know you are not talking about co-creation or shifting agency but simply involving people in ‘our’ activity. The power still sits very firmly with the institution involving their communities in projects and whilst it may provide a good experience for the participants it is not shifting agency or empowering in any deep way.


It seems to me that genuine co-creation is not about small adjustments in how we work and engage people but about turning our practice on its head. It is about relinquishing power, it is about handing over control. The question is how do we genuinely shift power and agency? How do we relinquish power? How do we feel if we really do it? How do we manage the risk and the accountability challenges? How do we overcome the barriers to this?  Funder constraints, governance challenges and our complex relationship to risk are compounded by our own lack of clarity on what we mean and what it entails and requires.


The Co-Creating Change Network is seeking to answer some of these questions – to determine what co-creation is – and what it isn’t – to determine what makes for effective co-creation and to better understand what its possible outcomes might be. The second round of commissions launched this week are pilot projects committed to working collectively to address these questions and along with the first round we will be taking these questions forward to secure deeper learning and clarity around an emergent set of practices that builds on a strong legacy of participatory work and seeks to take this further. This work is important for our sector in times of uncertainty, change and policy shift. But most importantly, in times of social turmoil when our role in supporting social change is perhaps more important than it has ever been before.


Susanne Burns,

October 2019


Cover drawing by Tom Bailey