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Would you like some co-production with your co-design?

Tess Casey, CEO
Inclusive New Zealandphoto of Tess Casey

Recently nearly every meeting I’ve attended has involved a discussion about co-design.  Or co-production.  Or co-governance. Or co-creation.  ‘Co’ is the prefix of the moment.

There has been fairly intense debate about how to define the various ‘co’ and which term is the right one.  Here’s a quick (and superficial) rundown for the co-confused:

  • Co-design is quite commonly used in the architecture and IT industries to describe a process for involving communities and/or users in how a place or product should look. It’s based on the idea that the people who use a place or product might have some good insights into how it could be designed.
  • Co-production seems to be used more in relation to public services. It’s based on the premise that public services are more effective when they are intrinsically linked to the wisdom and resources of the communities who use them.
  • Co-governance seems to be the most controversial and least understood ‘co’. It advocates for management systems where decisions are made at the lowest level possible.  The private sector seem to especially dislike it.
  • Co-creation is the term more favoured by the business sector. It refers to a strategy where a business co-creates an outcome or experience that is tailor-made for a customer, which means that the customer gets greater value out of it.

All of the ‘co’ have models and processes associated with them.  And there do seem to be some inherent risks involved.

Perhaps the biggest risk is that what has been developed as a process for increasing participation can actually be less democratic.  The problem is ‘who’?  Who will be selected to be involved in the co-design/production/creation/governance?  Who represents the community?

If the answer is anybody who has a perspective on how the end service or product is experienced, then that is fine.  The problem arises, especially in the case of community services, when one perspective is excluded in favour of another.  In the interests of time and efficiency there is a temptation to put criteria around who is in and out.  If only service users are involved then the perspectives of whanau and service providers are lost, and vice versa.  The point of a ‘co’ process is that all perspectives are valued and understood.

The literature about ‘co’ processes is also fairly consistent about what ‘co’ isn’t:

  • It’s not a funding model
  • It’s not simply a relationship
  • It’s not just another type of consultation.

So what is it then and why do we want it?

Perhaps this is best answered by the principle of participatory design that formed the basis for all these ‘co’.  Inherent in participatory design is the understanding that all stakeholders involved in an issue, not just the users, are included in the entire process from research to implementation.

The principle values diversity and inclusion.  It is about action, not just relationship.  It helps equalise the power dynamic that makes partnership between government agencies and community services so difficult.

Whether we are thinking about services at an organisational level, or systems at a government level, a participatory design process gives us the opportunity to make the best of our collective wisdom.

In the current environment it seems to me that what deeply appeals to us about all the various ‘co’ is that respect is given to all stakeholders.   Communities and the community organisations that serve them are viewed as more than just problems that need to be fixed.

According to the dictionary the ‘co’ prefix means ‘together, mutually and in common’.  That’s quite a lot of meaning for a little prefix – it’s not even a proper word.  The dictionary I looked at also tells us off for using the prefix ‘promiscuously’.

Perhaps we should listen to the dictionary.  Rather than continuing to debate whether we want co-governance, production, design or creation, perhaps we should just adopt the principle of ‘co’.

Inclusive NZ is a membership organisation working for those who provide employment, participation and inclusion services for people with disabilities.

www.inclusivenz.org.nz