Interviewed by Michiel de Boer (Moesasji)
To cope with the environmental and societal challenges ahead, the European Commission wants to speed-up and scale-up innovation. The SCALINGS research project is aimed at sustaining the growth of Europe’s innovative power by enhancing the wider use of cocreation and open innovation. A field of expertise that fits philosopher Gunter Bombaerts like a glove. As an assistant professor of Philosophy & Ethics at the TU/e, Industrial Engineering & Innovation Sciences department, he is participating in SCALINGS and here shines a light on the characteristics, limits and advantages of co-creation.
Co-creation is a working methodology which originates from the IT domain where projects tend to be complex, flexible and the user plays a major role in evaluating quality. From the year 2000 onwards, co-creation has been developed by a large number of professionals and organizations worldwide with the aim of building better products and improving business. Bombaerts: “The European Commission has identified the potential of co-creation working methods and wants to enhance the usage of co-creation to speed up the outcomes. Of course, there are both successes and failures in this area. Moreover, you can ask yourself: what is good co-creation? And is it always the best thing for everyone? The available literature in this field mentions dialogue, access, risk assessment, and transparency (DART) as crucial criteria, but, if you ask me, this is looking too much on the bright side of things. The starting point is usually: co-creation is fantastic. And secondly, the value creation is generally expressed as monetary value for the company itself. To me as a philosopher, there are many more values involved: trust, sharing ownership and revenue, co-working, social cohesion, to name just a few. This brings me to an important point for the success of co-creation: what works here, doesn’t necessarily work elsewhere.”
OBSERVING PHASE: SECRETS OF SUCCESS
To unravel the characteristics of successful co-creation, Bombaerts is working together with people such as sociologists, economists and legal experts from 10 European countries that are involved in the multidisciplinary research project. The first aim is to reveal the (social-economic) factors that influence success. Bombaerts: “This is the observing phase. Within SCALINGS we are currently compiling a list of all (social economic) factors that influence co-creation. We are doing this by examining forty co-creation projects throughout Europe. One of these projects is ‘Jouw Licht op 040’ (loosely translated in ‘Your Light on Eindhoven’) which has an interesting set of co-creation aspects. It also has the advantage of being located in Eindhoven. This is a relatively small town with great social cohesion and a heritage in lighting development and lighting manufacturing. I think that the sense of community is a strong connecting element in both Eindhoven and in this project. It makes clear that these are circumstances you cannot copy one-on-one to other places is the world. If you transpose the same working methodology to say Amsterdam or Barcelona, it might work, but it has far more chance of failing.”
UPSCALING PHASE: BEYOND THE TOOLBOX
Bombaerts: “The second phase is about the translation. Here we aim to design a model that can be used to forecast results and to plan an effective co-creation strategy. We want to go beyond the toolbox. Over the past decades, many toolboxes have been designed for almost every process. Yet too often these toolboxes try to fill a gap that is defined as generic, but in fact isn’t. So we are striving to define a model with a number of parameters that helps to predict and install the right processes for your situation. That can help answer questions like: We want to run a co-creation project on the design of city lighting in Barcelona. The scale differs from Eindhoven and so does the social cohesion, so what buttons do we need to push to make it into a success?”
HOW TO CHOOSE AND USE CO-CREATION?
With the emergence of highly controllable and programmable led lighting, a new era in lighting has arisen. However, what it means to us as humans, how we respond to it, and what we would like it to be, is yet to be determined. Since lighting influences humans on a mere subconscious level, co-creation, in the sense of having users participate in research, development and implementation of lighting systems, might be an attractive route. Bombaerts: “True. Co-creation offers interesting opportunities for the development of lighting systems and design. However, it is always good to consider what form and what level of co-creation you should choose. A project in a single neighbourhood is different from designing an intelligent lighting system for a city, which has many more and more diverse stakeholders, and leads to a few considerations:
Building Trust | Co-creation thrives when there is clarity and transparency about the target and process, and everybody respects the rules along the way. Yet, complete transparency is very difficult to realize and maintain throughout the project. Whose system is it truly? Who is liable when it goes wrong? If there is profit, who receives it? What is the benefit to participate in it? These are all important questions to ask yourself beforehand.
Ownership vs. Clout | Ownership is one of the great challenges of co-creation. People will have to invest their time and attention into the project. First: how do you realize ownership? And next: how do you balance it against clout? Of course, you do want to move forward in your project. If you have strong ‘owners’ they can make minor details very important, thus taking too much time to debate them, slowing down decision making.
Product vs. Empowerment | What is your actual target? Is it just getting the project done? In case of government and community projects, it could also be about improving social cohesion in a neighbourhood or creating stronger and more involved citizens. Is that case, it is good to also consider where and how a project ends. In the world of co-creation, a lot of projects come to an end abruptly, leaving the participants orphaned and empty-handed.
Light vs. Life | What is the scope of the co-creation process? Investing in intense participation, for instance to change the quality of the ring road in Eindhoven with lights alone, might be experienced as limited. Maybe discussions on the use of cars and public transport, or on the infrastructure as a whole, are then more radical and efficient?
Time vs. Result | You can’t keep on talking eternally. How do you manage the desired process steps in time? Where do you stop a phase while keeping the participants on-board for the next?
Cooperativity vs. Individuality | A completely homogenous group works fastest for mutual understanding and decision making, however projects also benefit from a certain level of individuality, egoism and resistance. There is some interesting research around ‘no-sayers’ who actually improve the outcomes in projects. People that question everything: the intentions, the goals and the process, often also bring out the essence: ‘what is the value of what we’re doing here?’
Bombaerts: “Compared to traditionally managed projects, you shift from a situation that is complex to a situation that is even more complex. The number of actors increases and you bring non-specialists, such as citizens and/or users on-board. Moreover, there is the promise to these participants that they are able to influence the process, methods and outcomes. Yet, co-creation offers many opportunities as opposed to the traditional Decide & Defend way of working: building trust, improving social cohesion, using the perspective of others, and gaining support for decisions that influence society. In general, you could say: if the level of delicacy increases, co-creation is a preferable route.”