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  • Quassim Cassam

Virtues and vices of real world co-creation

I approach this topic as an analytic philosopher rather than a specialist in co-creation. It’s clear that co-creation is thought to offer a promising response to real world problems and it connects in interesting ways with my own work on epistemic virtues and vices.

What is ‘co-creation’ and what are its benefits, real or imagined? To ‘create’ something is to bring it into existence. Co-creation, as I understand it, is the creation of a product by two or more people or agencies with particular characteristics working together in a particular way.

The key questions are: (a) what is the ‘product’ of co-creation? (b) What are the particular characteristics of those involved in co-creation? (c) What is the particular ‘way’ of working together that distinguishes co-creation from other collaborative activities?

What is the ‘product’ of co-creation? The product of co-creation could be new knowledge, a new service or a physical product. Co-creation is an action or active process and is typically undertaken to solve a problem. So another way of thinking about the ‘product’ of co-creation is as a solution to a problem. The problems addressed by co-creation are typically non-trivial, intractable and affect human welfare. Proponents of co-creation regard it as providing solutions that are synergistic in the sense that they generate what Doug Easterling called ‘innovative solutions that transcend what would otherwise be produced by the participants acting on their own’.

What are the particular characteristics of those involved in co-creation? The key characteristic of people or agencies engaged in co-creation is social and intellectual diversity. Co-creation is problem solving by diverse stakeholders with different perspectives, assumptions, interests, skills and thinking styles. Where what is being created is a new service, for example, service end-users will be involved in the creative process not just as sources of information but as active participants and contributors whose interests and perspectives are embedded in the co-created product.

The alternative to co-creation is the expert model, where a group of relatively homogeneous experts with shared assumptions and common social and educational backgrounds jointly create the product. In this model, those responsible for bringing the product into existence will (at least in the case of social services) typically not also be service users. If diversity is the key to genuine co-creation, uniformity is one of the defining features of the expert model. This model is (intentionally or otherwise) top-down in its orientation.

What is the particular ‘way’ of working together that distinguishes co-creation from other collaborative activities? Co-creation involves working in a particular way. That way is inclusive and collaborative. It requires an openness to diverse perspectives and interests, a willingness to listen, and to see things from the point of view of service users.

Humility rather than arrogance is required. Humility, openness and a willingness to listen are epistemic virtues, that is, thinking styles, attitudes or character traits that promote knowledge creation or problem-solving. These and other epistemic virtues are enabling conditions for effective co-creation.

Epistemic vices are thinking styles, character traits or attitudes that impede knowledge creation or problem solving. These vices include arrogance, closed-mindedness and an unwillingness to listen to others or engage with diverse perspectives. Epistemic vices are obstacles to effective co-creation.

The prevalence of such vices in the real world raises questions about the feasibility of co-creation. In idealised co-creation, a group of epistemically virtuous, collaborative, well-intentioned individuals with no power asymmetries or hidden agendas work together to solve a real problem. Real world co-creation is more likely to be a matter of a group of less than epistemically virtuous, somewhat closed-minded and uncollaborative individuals with power asymmetries and hidden agendas coming together to solve a supposed problem.

Is there any reason to think that co-creation produces better outcomes than the expert model? Obviously much depends on what the desired outcome is supposed to be. Suppose that what is being created is a new human service that potentially improves the lives of service users and is actually used or adopted by them.

One might reason as follows: co-creation of the new service is likely to result in higher adoption by end users who were actively involved in creating the service. Doesn’t it stand to reason that the greater their involvement the more they are likely to use the service and benefit from it? Perhaps so, but the extent to which co-creation actually produces better outcomes, including higher adoption rates, is an empirical question. Furthermore, if we are talking about real world rather than ideal world co-creation then it’s far from obvious that it will in fact produce better outcomes or synergistic solutions. This is an area in which further work is required.

Even if it turns out that co-creation doesn’t necessarily produce better outcomes there might still be ethical or political reasons for preferring it to the expert model. The co-creation model embodies a degree of respect for persons and their perspectives that may be regarded as an ethically desirable end in itself. So there are two questions to consider: is there convincing evidence that co-creation works? If not, should we be doing it anyway?



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