Co-creation: A practice at the intersection between culture, empathy, power and ecosystem.

Lessons learnt from the SISCODE project

  • Jun 10, 2021

In this crazy time when we are challenged by the complexity of our society, where we attempt to understand and reshape our deep relationship with the natural environment while we keep on living our own daily experiences, reacting to expectations, changes and crises, through unceasing physical and digital interactions…. May we take time to reflect on:

What is co-creation and how can its practice change us as individuals (researching, designing, working, living), as organizations or ecosystems when impulsing societal changes?
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About co-creation

Co-creation is at the crossroad between design, people and societal changes, frequently framed as a mix-approach to promote more creative, inclusive and transparent societies.

When asking people about co-creation, many discourses and opinions can be found as it  is one of the trendy concept-words that have gained popularity over the recent years. It is worth being defined and explored in its diversity.  

It is about…

…designers and researchers caring about users and citizens opinions and needs,

...people daring to create something together for change,

…creating safe spaces for expressions for all types of stakeholders,

…bonding one with another about common interests,

…collectively researching, designing, creating, producing, assessing,

…bridging the gap between policies and grounded realities,

…exploring and experimenting with an evolving group of people for a variable duration of time from brief moments to life adventures. 

From those expressions, we can easily interpret co-creation as a value-driven process, strongly sensitive to the intrinsic motivations, beliefs and behaviours of people taking part in it. And from our recent experience with Remix el Barrio, we can say that the strength of co-creation relies on the sincere engagement of people that are open to enter in a vortex of interactions, dosing efforts to conciliate people’s values, intentions, knowledge, emotions, uncertainty and actions.  

By many forms, co-creation can be associated with open design and innovation processes. It can be seen as collective experiences that can emerge spontaneously within a group or be impulsed by enabling actors and places, it can be self-organized or more directed by organizational processes. 

Thanks to the H2020 SISCODE project, which we have followed during the past 3 years, we could enter into the intimacy of co-creation processes, discuss the core concepts with partners, researchers, consultants, labs, coming from different fields such as policy design, social innovation, and service design. We have experimented locally in Barcelona and support peer-learning exchanges between the 9 other lab pilots. It was a rich experience with many insights to share.


Let’s dive into the basics of co-creation 

Co-creation is a non-linear process that involves multiple actors and stakeholders in the ideation, implementation and assessment of products, services, policies and systems with the aim of improving their efficiency and effectiveness, and the satisfaction of those who take part in the process Rizzo et al., 2018
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A model based on experiential learning and design

The SISCODE design-based learning framework originally presented co-creation as an open iterative design process that allows participants to navigate through the diverse dimensions of experiential learning, between action and reflection, analysis and experimentation, abstract interpretation and concrete experience. When practicing co-creation, you will go through different stages, from analyzing your local context, reframing your challenge, envisioning new possibilities, and starting to develop and test solutions until all stakeholders’ expectations are satisfied.

The design-based learning framework inspired by (Kolb, 1983)

Three core functions to facilitate the co-creation process

Engaging and facilitating interactions with stakeholders

People are the epicenters of co-creation processes. When starting to open research processes, you cannot entirely anticipate who will take part in the journey and you can prepare yourself to be surprised by the flows of interactions that will shape the path of your project. Nevertheless, you can activate synergy-making and propose some safe environment to foster interactions, supporting the extension of the network of agents, or strengthening the bonds between engaged people. A first step will consist in identifying the core stakeholders to engage with co-creation and strategizing how to reach them, envisioning how they can engage in the process. This will highly depend on each context and challenge. In any case, one of the strengths of co-creation is to integrate the quadruple helix of stakeholders to be more inclusive and have potentially more impact. When co-creating, it is important that you think of creating dialogues and new forms of interactions between civil society, academics, public agents and industrials. Each of them is playing a role and is concerned by the future practices emerging from the co-creation. One piece of advice here: dive into your existing network, but do not limit yourself. Try to find ways to disrupt classic practices, go out of your comfort zone, follow your intuition, meet and connect with people that could really help to better understand your context and give new insights into the challenge you are facing. 

Once the process is well-advanced, facilitating stakeholder engagement will be a matter of caring, using your creativity, perseverance and openness to adjust individual’s expectations and availabilities with the strategic orientations of the project. 

Organizing co-design and co-production activities

Co-design and co-production can be instrumentalized through many tools and methods coming from existing practices. Co-creation practitioners benefit from being skilled in the diversity of existing tools and methods that accompany collaborative design processes. For the SISCODE toolbox, we were inspired by the 101 design methods book, the social innovation learning platform and many other practices. Our own guide for Citizen Sensing developed in the Making Sense project also serves as a key reference approach for the co-creation labs. Facilitators can create learning spaces to test design methods and tools, help in defining the best approach that fits with the context, setting up the activities, and co-organizing workshops’ dynamics.

While co-design is well documented, practicing co-production remained more tricky and quite new for the labs. In practice, it consists of locally coordinating the interactions with the team lab for the co-creation project, agreeing on the right supporting infrastructure for participants, setting up a learning and interactive environment where participants feel part of a community, have trust and can express themself freely. It is about managing resources and emerging tensions, negotiating with time constraints, opening the network to find the right expertise while boosting the absorption of the shared values in operational practices. Exploring collaborative governance models, sociocracy, cooperativism, agile, inclusive and participative management strategies is then key to pursue with the goals of co-production.   

Scaling and communicating beyond, to keep the process alive and open

If you have already taken part in a co-creation process, you have probably already experienced the recurrent feeling of an unfinished process, a sort of frustration related to the existing gap between ideation and implementation, questions you can have in mind after finishing your post-it session…and now what? What next? What can we do with our insights? 

Another key function of co-creation facilitation consists in guiding and supporting participants to think about the sustainability of their projects and build possible scenarios for them to scale up, out, deep. A key learning from SISCODE is that thinking about possible  future opportunities and communicating outside about what has been done and envisioned, can be anticipated all along the way, and this takes an even part in better shaping the project itself. It is important to well position the cursor between making solutions more tangible and designing/showing possible futures. These are two interdependent activities that can benefit from each other. Still, there remain some risks of forgetting the necessary short-term implementation and being locked in ideation loops. Interesting tools have been tested by the co-creation labs in partnership with the team of SPI to support knowledge exchange among the labs’ community from social business modelling  roadmapping in diverse time horizons.  

Discovering co-creation and pledging about the future of policy-making

From Fab Lab Barcelona, we have participated and really enjoyed the final SISCODE conference “Co-creating human-centred policies – for a better Europe” that occurred from May 3rd-7th, 2021. The event put the nice outcomes of the project in perspective and discussed co-creation through 4 lenses: Culture, Empathy, Power and Ecosystem.

Co-creation as a Culture

Here, we were invited to question ourselves on what it means to integrate a culture of co-creation in science, technology and innovation processes (STI) and how labs such as fab labs, living labs and cultural centres could contribute as an interface to feed and diffuse this culture. 

Might we reflect on the emergent practices in the Fab Lab Network and in our own organizations: What types of activities are we proposing to connect citizens to science and innovation? How do makers organize themselves to face local challenges? How could we collaborate better with academics and industrial experts? How do we  situate our work inside the current policy frameworks? How could such processes change current organizational practices? 

Designing with Empathy

Here, the audience was guided in feeling the importance of empathy while co-creating. This attitude for listening, being capable of putting themself in the position of  others, to care about the point of views shared by participants were described as some of the seeds for practicing co-creation.

May we ask ourselves: Are we convinced by the power of empathy in design? How and when do we practice it? Would it be interesting to do some exercises in our internal sphere to diversify our experience of empathy? How could non-violent communication be beneficial to our co-creation processes?

Letting go of Power

The session was introduced by this sentence: “Giving a voice to everyone often means letting go of power, and this is not an easy task”. To complete it, we can say that it could also be unrealistic to have an exhaustive representativity of agents in co-creation processes while it remains sometimes difficult for people to play the role of representing a particular group. What was presented as the key here is the ability for the co-creation practitioners to create safe spaces where people are listened to and take part in decisions regardless of their formal power, their social conditions, letting the power and stereotypes outside the room. We have also learnt about the specificities that co-creation requires when so-called “vulnerable people” are involved. 

Can we think about our own practice for being more inclusive? Would it be possible and desirable to map out the power relationships at stake in our community? What kind of inequalities would we like to fight for? Do we already test and use any techniques and proactive attitudes that could help people let go of their power when co-creating?  

Acting as Ecosystem

The audience was invited to observe current co-creation practices with the lenses of the ecosystemic approach. The intervenants guided them to zoom in and out the different scales and dimensions that co-creation is playing with and acting on. We could understand better how co-creation can be influenced by contextual factors and participate to change from the micro-level (as a project with dedicated roles and specific challenges and practices), the meso level (as organizations with certain agility, value frame and sphere of influence) and the macro-level (as territory, with a specific culture, established norms, regulatory and political frameworks). We made the exercise with the case of Remix El Barrio. It gave relevant cues for understanding our journey and helped a lot in framing future interventions in the area of Barcelona and supporting the ongoing territorial transformations towards Fab City

What about you? Are you familiar with systemic design? Do you think you are working in a supportive ecosystem? Do you regularly make the effort to analyze your context, zooming in and out? Do you think such reflective models could benefit from better framing local acupuncture?

The conference ends with the design of a pledge for co-creation in Europe. After an inspiring talk from Jesper Christiansen of States of Change, SISCODE’S partners and their ecosystem have co-designed a manifesto around the core themes of the conference: Culture, Empathy, Power and Ecosystem. In the form of 6 inspiring core sentences, people could individually engage with future wishes, behaviors and actions for co-creation. 

Join us and express what would be your engagement for tomorrow?

Pledge for a better Europe video by SISCODE project

What are the key outputs of the project and where can you learn about it?

10 co-creation journeys explained as case-studies, 10 prototypes described in a Miro board and 10 Labs’ videos designed to describe the vision, activities and projects of the co-creation labs. These showcased the diversity of the challenges tackled, the creativity of each team and the specificity of the local context in the 10  journeys. You can access the SISCODE youtube channel here.

The SISCODE Toolbox for Co-creation Journeys is a portfolio of canvases which can facilitate the design and implementation of co-creation journeys in laboratories (e.g. living labs, fab labs and science centres and museums), focussing on a better understanding and prioritisation of the particularities of each context. The SISCODE Toolbox is ready-to-use and available online

Digital Learning Hub is an online repository and serves to support policymakers in gaining better knowledge of co-creation and co-design practices to bridge the gap between science, society and innovation with an emphasis on policies. Digital Learning Hub is operational and accessible online.

The Tips & Tricks for Responsible Research & Innovation is a set of 20 cards with inspiring thought provocations inviting you to reflect on what it means to practice Responsible Research & Innovation: from the theories that underpin RRI to the way you carry out your work. The cards are available online – both for virtual use as well as in printable format.

SISCODE MOOC ‘Co-creation for policymakers: an introductory course’ is an online free course for the use of co-creation and design methodologies, specially tailored to those working in the field of policy-making. The course is available since mid-March 2021 on Polimi Open Knowledge and also on EUAcademy, the platform from the European Commission. Register here.

Case studies and Biographies: SISCODE’s analysis of the European co-creation landscape covered 135 cases and examples of co-creation initiatives, developed in the SISCODE Knowledge Base report. From this poll, 40 were selected for a more in-depth examination, of which 15 have been addressed as biographies, in the Case studies and Biography Report. Many other resources can be found on the SISCODE project official website.


Marion Real

Systemic Design Expert

Marion Real is a systemic design researcher exploring co-creation processes in the territorial transformations toward circular economies and cosmopolitan localism. At Fab Lab Barcelona, she works at the crossroads of productive cities and material & textiles research areas in various projects touching circular design such as Siscode, Remix el Barrio, Score, Shemakes and Reservist.