Author: Kyriaki Papageorgiou (ISPIM)


Co-creation is one of those words first coined by management scholars to describe a novel approach for company value creation (like open innovation, for example) that has been quickly diffused and evolved into a figure embodying different meanings in different contexts. For example, policy makers invoke co-creation to portray efforts that aim to engage citizens in their decisions and initiatives in active and meaningful ways. Artists employ the term to capture attempts that involve publics in their creative processes, while various social actors, including educational institutions, mobilize co-creation to advocate the need for multi-stakeholder collaborations in order to tackle wicked or grand societal challenges. 

Regardless its specific manifestation, co-creation is by and large cast in a positive light and praised for bringing forth renewed ways for realizing the ideals of participatory democracy and inclusive innovation. As a result, critical discussions on its contradictory effects and the inequalities it might inadvertently conceal, and therefore sustain, remain silenced.   

A starting point for tackling the figure of co-creation critically is looking at its most basic and fundamental feature as a way of engagement and exchange with others. To do so, I draw from anthropology’s long-term reflections on its interactions with “the other.” As a discipline whose knowledge claims are generated through close encounters in the field, anthropology has spent a considerable amount of effort in deliberating upon the ethical, epistemic and political dimensions of knowledge-generating activities that directly engage human subjects.

 Over the past 50 years in particular, anthropologists have put forward a powerful self-critique on the tropes and assumptions of traditional ethnographic encounters that feature a heroic and omniscient researcher who uncovers meaning from naïve subjects’ stories and meanderings. One consequence of these reflections has been embracing subjects as reflexive agents, acknowledging that outcomes of this interaction are subjective and situated, and accounting the dynamics of power at play. Such an approach is undoubtedly relevant for co-creation.

Further insights from anthropologist Marilyn Strathern are pertinent here. Writing on a term closely related to co-creation, that is collaboration, Strathern (2012) takes up claims to equity and benefit sharing that are ostensibly implied across modes of interchange prefixed by “co.” What Strathern finds particularly interesting are “acts and activities of information gathering where questions of mutual benefit arise and where those involved hold, by definition, different social position or in any event have different interests in the matter.” Drawing on her work on traditional knowledge and cultural property in the Pacific, Strathern underscores the importance of questioning the “currencies of interchange” and equitable sharing of gains, especially when the value created from a relationship transcends the timeframe of the initial conduct. 

The kinds of concerns raised by anthropologists when engaging others have been mostly absent the co-creation literature.  In the earlier works of management scholars Prahalad and Ramaswamy (2000, 2004) that first introduced the term, co-creation is clearly posited as a new way of generating profit for companies through harnessing users’ competence or co-opting customer experience. Although consumers are conceived as active and sophisticated agents, issues about benefit sharing of their contribution to product or service development is limited to receiving value a) from the interaction itself, and b) in the consumption of the resulting product. In this context, one of the perils of co-creation that has been considered in management is the “misbehavior” of users, “offering too much comedy and too few genuine ideas.” 

There is a plethora of failed or unsuccessful crowdsourcing initiatives, most famously perhaps those that involve branding and naming polls and have led to Boaty McBoatface or NASA’s COLBERT (after the comedian Steven Colbert). Research on useless or bad ideas generated from crowds has pointed to different motivations of participation that affect the quality of results. Needless to say,in academic research settings as well there are instances of hoaxing or intentional deceptions by informants (for example see the debates over Margaret Mead’s Samoan interlocutors).Hoaxing for fun aside, we know that people regularly do not do what they say they do and that lies are oftentimes the result of inquiries that address delicate topics and engender personal privacy.

The more recent articulations of co-creation by Ramaswamy and Ozcan (2014, 2018) attempt to tease out the nuances implied in the words “value” “co” and “creation” to provide theoretical and practical grounding to their “all-win more” approach. Co-creation, for these management scholars in the end is pitched as“a clarion call to action—to help create a new world of possibilities together.” This move is especially important because it crystalizes that, in addition to practice, co-creation implies a value in and of itself, or to borrow the words of Strathern, an “intangible and ethical abstract good,” “an intention, a hope for the future.” 

Approaching co-creation as a value opens up a new set of concerns. Who gets to define the ethical protocols or good practice that are meant to guide co-creative interactions? How might moral rewards manifest inequalities and asymmetry? Does it matter if the different parties do not share an ethic of co-creation but some lay claims to it? It appears to be the case that in many situations where co-creation is summoned as a mode of practice, it remains in fact as an ethical stance or a crowdsourcing device.In other words,it is rare to find initiatives labeled co-creative where relationships are equitable and benefit-sharing, yet the moral and tangible rewards are fully claimed by the organizers. 

Take “co-creation platforms” for example. The actual difference between these and “classic” crowdsourcing initiatives is far from clear. Co-creation denotes a deeper peer-to-peer relationship and commitment by the involved parties. Co-creation also assumes that external and internal stakeholders work side-by-side to ideate, design, innovate, and produce something together that benefits all. In practice, and ironically per definition, however, co-creation platforms are mostly launched and owned by corporations with the purpose of engaging “users with specific skills and knowledge to contribute ideas that can help to conceptualize a product” for free. 

Pitched as unique environments for co-creation, hackathons are another case in point. As a sociological study has claimed, hackathon initiatives are “co-optation rituals” that reflect power asymmetries perpetuated by the “new economy” where “self-exploitation” and “self-investment” seem to go hand-in-hand. There is little evidence that hackathons create much more than fun learning experiences. Nevertheless, like the vast majority of “co-creation” initiatives, they are abundant with “fictional expectations of innovation that benefits all.”

 It is precisely here that the pitfalls of co-creation are loud and clear: the practices and values it ascribes are never manifested and the voices and goals that it proclaims to represent remain imaginary. As a mode of engagement and knowledge exchange, co-creation holds immense potential, but to mobilize collective intelligence and action for the common good, the word cannot be used for the ephemeral and impersonal engagements it is ascribed today.