Author: Maja Horst, Technical University of Denmark

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

There are many different ways in which co-creation is hailed as the panacea for problems in innovation. It is supposed to make innovation better; by including aspects from more than just innovators themselves, we can make better services, products and processes. Co-creation might also make innovation cheaper because the input from users and other outside actors can reduce the cost of in-firm development. Finally, it is also supposed to make innovation more democratic by engaging all relevant parties in the innovation process, thereby securing that all – or at least more – voices get heard. 

In this short essay, I will share some thoughts on the latter argument. Does co-creation really make innovation (more) democratic? The answer, as always when you ask an STS (Science and Technology Studies) person, is, it all depends!

A common (if somewhat loose) definition of democracy is a form of governance in which people in a constituency participate in decision-making within that constituency. STS literature and political theory treat the state as an obviously relevant constituency, but when dealing with deliberative or local democracy many other constituencies can be relevant. Central to this definition, however, is that access to participation is defined by membership of the constituency. If you are a citizen of a state, you have the right to participate in decisions about innovation made by the state. In modern knowledge societies where most of the new sources of power stem from sociotechnical development, citizens should be part of the decision-making process simply because they are members of the constituency in which these sources of power have influence. 

Of course, STS scholarship has been engaged more deeply in discussions of these matters – how exactly are citizens supposed to participate, and why? During the GM nation exercise in Britain it became clear that a lot of parties to this engagement were looking for a specific type of citizen – namely the neutral representative of the public. Someone who was not tainted by specific prior interests, attitudes or opinions, but rather a clean slate on which information and opinions could be projected. As I have written elsewhere, this ideal of citizens can also be found in the historical background to the Danish consensus conferences. The forefathers of the Danish consensus tradition had a strong belief that ‘lay people’ as members of the public had a particular knowledge about how to live a good life in common. Precisely because citizens did not represent organisations, companies or other structured forms of interest, they would be able to see through the issues and decide what was best for ‘the common good’.

Besides this communitarian or deliberative ideal of democracy, there are others which stress representation based upon interests much more. Here the ideal is that democracy can help us make a robust compromise between different foundational interests of opposing sides. In such a model, citizens are supposed to participate much more as themselves, so to say. They occupy a position in society, which provides them with preferences and interests and this is the basis for their participation. However, what to do if citizens themselves do not find it relevant to participate in decision-making about science and technology? A standard method in public engagement has been to try to make it relevant by demonstrating the ways in which such techno-scientific development can become important for them. Sometimes this seems to work well, but somehow there is often a disconnect: citizens are supposed to look at technoscientific development processes and have ideas about their governance, but they are outside the process looking in. 

This is where co-creation might be able to help or at least add a variation in our ways of thinking about democratic engagement with technoscience. Ideally, the notion of co-creation implies that all parties which have things to contribute should be part of an innovation process. End-users are an obvious category, but there could be many more. If we look at wind energy projects, we would include farmers, local occupants, community organizations, NGOs, local authorities, business communities in tourism and many more. Furthermore, the way in which these actors can be members of the development project can also vary. They participate because they have something to contribute or have a stake in the project. This allows their interests to be central. It also allows them to do more than simply ‘participate’ in a hearing, which is currently what often happens under the paradigm of ‘public participation’. The idea is that local occupants are not just allowed a small say in someone else’s project – rather they are part of the project – it is also theirs. 

The strength of the co-creation perspective is that it invites participants precisely based on their capacity to have interests and stakes in the situation. It opens up the process, by forcing developers to think of a plethora of actors as co-creators rather than as simply citizens who should be talked into agreeing to a development project, which belongs to someone else. By becoming co-creators, actors are not asked to leave part of their identity and interests in the cloakroom (as neutral citizens) – rather they are invited to bring the whole suit of interests and preferences to the table. From this (potentially enormous) pile of motivations and contributions the innovation process can develop.

Does it make it more democratic? Yes, if we believe that democracy is about involvement and letting actors become involved. But if we are concerned with how we make every citizen have an equal say in how the constituency should be governed – maybe not so much. Co-creation has a strong tendency to let the active, willing, voices be heard and exclude actors who do not see themselves as participants.  Not per definition. If excluded voices make an effort to be heard – or join up to ask for their fair share of attention, they should of course be included. But it takes effort to do so, and not everybody can muster such an effort. The process of co-creation is therefore only as democratic as the participants are able to make it. How do they make sure that they invite relevant actors into the forum of co-creation?Co-creation is based on the idea that the possibilities are open, that the participants can take it in many different directions. This makes it very sensitive to who gets involved in the first place and how the process develops. Who gets to co-create what? What can be very democratic for active co-creators can, however, feel very non-democratic for those unwilling or unable to play a part.