Co-creation is an approach to design where diverse stakeholders work together towards a common goal.
Co-creation builds on the collective knowledge of a group of people, rather than relying on the individual performance of assigned experts. This approach enables the group to rush through fields of uncertainty by committing to an iterative process of internal knowledge sharing, collective decision-making, and constructive experimentation. This organic way of design encourages the group to create a shared base of reference through which they can operate collectively, and to generate shared knowledge, which they—as a group—can apply to perform design.
If we look at design as a process, then we can see co-creation as a specific, highly beneficial way of executing this process. Even though co-creation can be applied outside of the field of design, there are certain features that make it particularly effective within this domain. First of all, as the design process—often labeled as Design Thinking—is explorative and highly iterative in nature, what co-creation offers is an organic, and very effective way of managing this ambiguous process. As co-creation relies on the collective capabilities of a group also in decision-making, the explorative journey of design will be guided by the shared insight, rather than the strongest individual. When exploring uncharted territories, this type of a lean steering mechanism is superior to any hierarchical, rigid decision-making structures, that large organizations are bound to follow in general. Hence co-creation fits the managerial needs of a design process quite well.
Second, the simultaneous involvement of a diverse range of stakeholders makes it possible to advance the design process in several parallel fields at the same time. This type of an integrated design process reduces the number of iteration cycles required to achieve a favorable outcome, as the extensive body of shared knowledge can be utilized throughout the design process, rather than forcing the designers to wait for experts to point out possible flaws in their design only after they have been submitted for review. When experts participate in the design process themselves, most design flaws can be dodged before they have time to accumulate into serious problems. This saves time and reduces the amount of work wasted in unnecessary iteration loops.
Co-creation in user centric design
When we think about how the design process has evolved in the past few decades, perhaps the most visible changes relate to the user involvement within the process. In the past it was clear that the role of the Designer was to design a product, while the role of the User was to use it. Today, however, we see the users getting involved in the design process as inspirators, initiators, consultants, co-designers, etc. Even though the users are no longer seen as only passive consumers, their contribution to the design process can vary a lot. We can classify a design process as Designer-driven, User-driven, or Co-design, according to the level of designer/user involvement, as illustrated in the figure below. Intuitively it is clear that co-creation is performed at the sweet spot of Co-design, where designers and users participate with roughly equal contributions to the design process.
However, co-creation in design does not limit to co-design. Co-creation as a process can take place without any user involvement—as long as the process is based on a collective performance of a diverse bunch of stakeholders, who work together towards a common goal. Indeed, such a process might benefit from the presence of actual users, but even without their involvement the process can be very co-creative. At the other end of the spectrum, a closed community of activists can develop non-commercial solutions that fit their niche needs, without involving any professional designers in the process. Obviously, this development can also be done in a co-creative manner.
So even though there are clear benefits for involving certain types of stakeholders in a design process, co-creation as a process does not limit to any specific combination of participants. The diversity of participants also increases the complexity and internal tension within a process, so it makes sense to keep the number of participants to a small enough level so that the process can be successfully executed. And of course, experienced facilitators can find ways to steer very complex processes to their goals, while novice managers can find it difficult to deal with even small levels of friction between co-creators. Finding the right balance is the trick that makes some teams triumph, while others fail. As a community of co-creation enthusiasts, we hope to be able to help you find this balance!