Setting the agenda on co-creation

3rd September 2020

This excerpt is taken from our recent publication, Ideas on Co-creation. To read more, you can find the publication here.

What separates co-creation from co-design, consultation, collaboration? How can architects be conductors of a structured and insightful engagement process? Leading co-creation academic, Rachel Cooper, discusses the principles and practicalities of co-creation with Sheppard Robson’s James Jones, exploring the role of the architect as a facilitator between the vision and delivery of a project, and between the design team and end users. Rachel explains how co-creation presents an opportunity for architects to be central to a process that balances physical requirements with human experience.

Rachel Cooper OBE is the Distinguished Professor of Design Management and Policy at Lancaster University, and James Jones is a Partner at Sheppard Robson.

James Jones: To start, the words co-design, co-creation, even collaboration, are often used interchangeably. What do they mean and how are they distinct?

Rachel Cooper: Co-creation is an open process where everyone—stakeholders, users, project team—work together to establish the direction of a project. But this is not designing; a whole community can’t design a project! This responsibility falls to the specialist design team who collaborate together—and this is co-design.

JJ: This distinction is important because some people see the co-creation process as eroding the responsibility of the architect, but you’re saying is the consultation and design phases are separate. This gives the architect the opportunity to be the conductor of both processes. How do you get a co-creation project off the ground?

RC: For a start, you can’t expect the co-creation process to do all the work for you. An organisation needs to understand its core values: Why is this project important? What is this new building for?

This is pre-brief and is Stage 0 of a project. This is not: We need a bigger this or smaller that. it’s more fundamental. For instance: Do you want to be a leader in sustainability? Do you want to change the way you relate to staff or the community?

JJ: These values will also give you a yard stick to test whether you’re making the right decisions; it gives you clarity and something to refer back to. When we were working on Contact Theatre, we had some clear goals, so when it came to the crunch decisions, we could measure decisions against the core values.

RC: Yes, someone has to show leadership at the start and set the agenda.

JJ: Once this Stage 0 is complete and the core values of a project are established, what next?

RC: Co-creation can’t work if there’s not a clear structure—it needs to be a facilitated process. It can’t just be getting people in a room talking about the possibilities of a project. It needs to be a structured and you need to get people engaged.

JJ: In my experience, you need something for people to react against in these preliminary discussions rather than a blank piece of paper. You need to show people the possibilities of the project, whether that be my images, building tours, etc.

RC: Yes, this form of prototyping is really important and can be used to set a framework for the discussion and project. The client needs to know why you are doing this.

JJ: By using precedents, we’re not saying: we’ll building you a project just like this one.

RC: No, we‘re not. The start of a co-creation project is also about educating the client and the stakeholders about the journey you’re about to go on. There needs to be this basic understanding of the process and trust in what others are doing.

JJ: Listening is of course an important part of the design process, but how does this structured approach to encouraging dialogues actually have a direct positive impact on a project?

RC: I think architects are trained to listen to their client, stakeholders, users and interpret this to create a physical specification—this amount of rooms, this access, these facilities. There’s still a traditional way of thinking about a brief in only physical terms.

But what’s happening now is public policy asks architects to think about the user experience—their emotional journey. In our design process, we need to listen to how spaces make people feel, how they can be most productive.

JJ: With wellness at the top of the agenda, this is put into acute focus. It also encourages less linear approach to design, and it creates a platform for architects to put forward radical ideas. This discursive starting point might even lead to rethinking the brief.

RC: This openness is important.

JJ: But many people involved are worried about the co-creation process turning into design by committee.

RC: You need, what I call, divergent thinking, at the start of a project, and you need as much of this as possible. But you also need convergent thinking and a kind of filter to process the range of thinking.

To do this, you need a clear project structure. You should know who your decision informers are (community, staff, etc.), your decision shaper (the architect), the decisions maker (project client team) and project takers (the ultimate client decision). Managing expectations is about educating the client and trusting in a structure that can keep dialogue open.

JJ: The focus on co-creation seems to be at the front end, but surely this approach needs to be adopted throughout the project and beyond completion?

RC: Stages are necessary but shouldn’t be restrictive. People want to be linear. The problem with this is that as you progress through a project, there’s more pressure on the quantitative aspects of the project (budget, programme). The nearer you get to completion, and the more qualitative, soft aspects (how people will feel in the space, how it will impact them psychologically and physically, what the designs says about the organisation) get lost.

But once the project is completed all the qualitative aspects come back into focus, because people start using the building and the project needs to support its users “soft” requirements.

JJ: So, continuity is key. When the project goes through different focuses—quantitative and qualitative—there should a team of custodians who understand the original vision for the project

RC: That’s part of design management, ensuring there’s discourse of qualitative and quantitative all the way through.

JJ: Is this the architect’s role?

RC: I think it’s up to large architectural practices and education institutions to be teaching architects to have the confidence to be the conductors of projects. This is not just writing a brief, but how you can be the custodian of the vision for the project and the subtle aspects of what is going to make a project a success.

It’s the architect’s job to communicate the aspirations and potential to shape experience from the early stages of a projects, and they need to engage with people in any way possible. I think it’s the architect’s job to use any means possible to get stakeholders to understand the power of the abstract qualities of a project from the outset and to create a vision from the starting point.

I think architecture is constantly thinking about what its role is. Many have been speaking about the profession being in danger, but I think it’s trying to work out what’s its wider role in the built environment is—and what impact they have on human beings, how they live, their health. What is the architect ultimately responsible for?

JJ: What are the barriers preventing co-creation from happening and the architect becoming the linchpin of the process?

RC: It’s about trust. There’s a view that architects come up with a concept and then are wedded to that idea and solution, so people don’t trust them not to be dogmatic.

JJ: Architects are taught that a concept that perfectly solves the brief can’t be touched; whilst actually I don’t think that’s right. Of course you need a strong rationale but it needs to be flexible so later it can be adapted.

RC: But you also need a conductor. Architects can be very good at this. But if they are too wedded to a concept they can’t be an independent facilitator of the co-creation process.

JJ: The purity of concept is engrained in how you [the architect] think, so there will need to be a cultural and educational change. But in both commercial and public sector work, change is so common, whether it be the market, budgets, trends—there needs to an open-mindedness and flexibility.

In short, we need to embrace the messier side of design—the coming together, the friction, the process of mediation—in pursuit of creating beautifully resolved, useful and meaningful spaces.

Rachel Cooper OBE

Distinguished Professor of Design Management and Policy at Lancaster University