What is co-creation?
Co-creation is a tricky thing to write about because it’s a tricky thing to define. It’s become a bit of a ‘buzzword’ in the arts sector, and is often used as an umbrella term when organisations write, often in funding bids, about their socially engaged arts practice with communities.
The thing about true co-creation, however, is it goes beyond that. This definition is particularly useful, I feel:
‘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.’ – Co Creating Change
In simple terms, co-creation is the ethos of ‘with, not to’.
Of course, co-creation is never simple.
If you want to truly co-create something with a community group then you need to be very responsive to the group that is actually in front of you. Not who you think those people are, not what you assume they are capable or not capable of, but what the actual people in the room are giving to it at any given moment.
It isn’t fair to assume that everyone in the room can, or will wish to, provide the same thing to the process equally. Everybody in the room will have different skills, preferences, and ideas on any given day. And that’s a wonderful thing.
One thing that is certainly not co-creation is going into a process with a preconceived idea about what the outcome will be. When we embarked on our week-long process of co-creation with professional and non-professional dancers for Welland 2023, we didn’t know exactly what would come out of it at the end. This is essential for a true process of co-creation, because if you go into rehearsals with a clear final product in mind, that product will usually be the brainchild of one person, the lead artist, rather than that of the collective as a whole. This is one way of working, and it has its place (I myself often work like this on professional non-community work with a strict deadline) but it certainly isn’t co-creation.
Working in this intentionally open-ended way might make it tricky to get something started. Ideas might meander, something might work at first and then not, and there will more than likely be disagreements within the group. This is all part of the process.
Here we come onto one of the main requirements of co-creation – time. It’s going to take time for a group to get to know each other, to try things out, to discuss and to reflect. It is also because of time that co-creation isn’t used perhaps as much as it could be.
The arts sector, particularly in England, is notoriously underfunded. It might feel like a risk for an arts organisation to pay to run a long process of co-creation, or to accept that perhaps they might get to the end of the process without a clear outcome at all.
But for arts organisations like ours, it is well worth doing.
Co-creation can be one of the best ways for a community to get the maximum value and ownership out of a process – and it’s a respectful, non-hierarchical way of working.
It will also be at the core of a new project for 12-17 year olds we’re developing in Elland. After the success of our 11 and under class ‘Stories in Motion’ we were approached by older siblings and friends of those participants, asking us for something that would be age appropriate for them.
This Saturday (30th September) we’re running a workshop for young people to come along and discuss with us the kind of activities they might like to access in their project. It will be designed by them, for them, and will evolve as they do. We’re going into Saturday with very little idea of what the final project might actually look like, and that’s very exciting! If you know a 12-17 year old that would like to come along and take part, we would love to have them. We’ve got snacks too!
Perhaps in a few months time I’ll be writing another post about co-creation, with the hindsight of having embarked on this process with these young people. Who knows what the project might look like. It’s my sincere hope that it will be something truly valuable for these young people, because they will have made it with us.
It’s not clear cut what the best way to co-create is, and in fact deciding on crystal clear guidelines for how it should be done goes against the very principle of responding to each individual group. However, there are several organisations who have done it, and shared their thoughts and findings for others to learn from. Some of these are listed in the bibliography below, and are a great read if you’d like to find out more.
I want to finish with a lovely quote written by Ned Glasier on a Twitter thread on 20th September. Ned is the Artistic Director of Company Three, an organisation which focuses on co-creation of transformative theatre pieces with London teenagers.
He says that co-creation…
‘… needs time.
So much time.
So much care.
So much love.’