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Transcript – Laying the foundations for co-creation

by | 4 Sep, 2022 | Collaboratory Podcast, Resources, Transcripts

To ensure accessibility we are committed to providing transcripts of all our podcast episodes, including our short trailer for Season 1 – you can listen to the audio version here.

Laying the foundations for co-creation

[00:00:00] Emma Blomkamp: We definitely need to recognize that sometimes we’re working within constraints. Okay, you don’t have three years, you don’t have a million dollars, but what can you do within your smaller project? Don’t be limited by that because it’s not the ideal conditions. 

[00:00:16] Michelle Halse: Is your organization ready to show up to be a good partner? How flexible are you about the ways that partnership can work? Is it essential that it’s your systems, your templates, your contracts… you get the gist.

[00:00:34] Maya Haviland: Welcome to Collaboratory. I’m Maya Haviland. 

[00:00:37] Nicole Deen: And I’m Nicole Deen. 

[00:00:39] Maya Haviland: Collaboration. It’s something that we do as humans, and it’s absolutely fundamental to how life works. If we look at natural systems, there’s co-creation occurring all the time. It’s not always pretty and it’s not always good for all parties, but it’s in the meeting between things where life really happens, right?

I’m passionate about collaboration and co-creativity. I’ve studied and practiced them in arts and academic settings for more than 20 years, but how does collaboration and co-creation work in human settings? Good intentions are not enough. I believe we need to put more conscious effort into doing it well. 

Local communities, businesses, universities, governments, cultural practitioners, we can all benefit from thinking about the art of co-creation and collaboration. How do we lay the foundations to achieve things we simply can’t do on our own to collaboratively create value that is greater than the sum of its parts? How do we acknowledge the time, resources, and shifts in thinking necessary for genuine creative collaborations? 

[00:01:48] Nicole Deen: With us today, we have four people who’ve thought deeply about what it takes to really enable co-creative practice. 

[00:01:54] Michelle Halse: My name is Michelle Halse and I am a global collaboration facilitator, which means I get to work with people, leaders, particularly courageous ones, who care about an issue that they’re facing or that the world is facing very deeply and wanna make a change in that issue.

[00:02:15] Antti Pirinen: Hello. My name is Antti Pirinen. I come from the Aalto University in Helsinki, Finland, and I work as university lecturer in spatial and service design. 

[00:02:27] Nicole Deen: Also joining us today is Emma Blomkamp, a facilitator, researcher, and co-design coach based in Melbourne, Australia. 

[00:02:34] Emma Blomkamp: I learned by doing, and I found that a really powerful way to learn this practice. I think especially as someone who’s spent a lot of time in universities and definitely appreciates theory and rigor, I realize there’s so much to be learned by trying things out, experimenting and reflecting on that. 

[00:02:53] Nicole Deen: Finally, Rebecca McNaught, a small business owner, PhD student, volunteer, and mother.

[00:02:59] Rebecca McNaught: I run a small business working on climate change and disaster resilience projects with civil society, governments, private sector. I also volunteer for a few local organizations in the Byron Shire. That includes Resilient Byron, which is a charity that’s aiming to try and improve resilience and regeneration in the Byron Shire. I practice collaboration on a day-to-day basis and co-creativity on a day-to-day basis with lots of different actors at lots of different levels.

[00:03:31] Maya Haviland: So, what makes our guests so passionate about collaboration and why is collaboration so critical to addressing our most challenging social issue? 

[00:03:40] Rebecca McNaught: I guess that’s one of the beauties of a collaborative platform is that different actors bring different understandings of, you know, the political, the environmental, their economic, social, cultural systems around us. So, collaboration in my mind is about capitalizing on that knowledge and networks of wide variety of actors in order to enact a more systematic change and longer-term change. And I think this is really important because when we’re talking about climate change and disasters, we’re trying to move forward from a, a responsive mindset to a preventative mindset.

[00:04:17] Maya Haviland: Bec’s research into local resilience takes us further into the idea of a preventative mindset. 

[00:04:24] Rebecca McNaught: One that came out of diabetes management in Sydney, where agencies working alone found that they may treat diabetes, but they realized they needed to intersect across a diversity of organization types and levels in order to address prevention and to enact social change, and in some places, a cultural change around, you know, the factors that were causing diabetes. And I thought that was a great example of moving from that responsive to proactive and preventative mindset and systems change approach.

[00:05:03] Maya Haviland: Bec has looked at 36 different case studies of collaboration for resilience and she’s found various principles for effective collaboration. 

[00:05:15] Rebecca McNaught: Going back to understanding and integrating diverse worldviews, and it’s clear from the research so far that incorporating diverse perspectives actually enhances the outcomes and addresses the target problem more effectively. Another angle I think is understanding the system’s interaction. So, in over two thirds of the case studies that I’ve been looking at, the political system interacted with the collaboration in some form or another. So, I think this tells us that no collaboration is an island, that understanding how the process interacts with or is influenced by or can in turn then influence wider systems, is really important for enacting change.

Another one was around the willingness to share resources. I mean, it sounds obvious, but you know, it could be committing time, knowledge, people, funding, IT platforms, that really is a clincher. They might not have buckets and buckets of money, but just being able to come together with the resources that you do have, it’s incredible what you can achieve. Whereas, you know, I think often if we work alone in silos, you’re like, okay, we’re chasing the dollars, and you know, we need a big project and we’re gonna implement this big project by ourselves. But actually when we are working in resource constrained environments, and let’s face it in a country where perhaps there’s not a huge amount of climate change funding, it is incredible what can happen when resources are shared.

[00:06:56] Nicole Deen: Sometimes there might be plenty of money, but there’s other attitudinal constraints that are actually more disruptive and harder to shift. Here’s strategic designer and co-design coach Emma Blomkamp. 

[00:07:07] Emma Blomkamp: So, there are times when I don’t know, government agency might say, we want to co-design this, or we want you to co-design it, but they haven’t actually provided the resources or timeframe or conditions for co-design to really happen.

And in that case, I think it is misleading to invite people to something and call it co-design if it is a box ticking or performative exercise. If you’re not genuinely interested in learning from, and with the people who are taking part in the process, if there is a very specific predetermined output that people aren’t going to be able to shape, don’t call it co-design. That said, that doesn’t mean you can’t make it more co-design ish. So, I’m often encouraging people to try to identify how they could be more creative and more participatory in their approach, and that would get us closer to something like co-design. 

[00:08:06] Nicole Deen: The labels and words we use set up expectations that can frustrate and disappoint if unmet. As we explore in the episode, “What is the co?”, what I mean by collaboration or other words like co-design, or co-creation may not be quite what you mean. And if we don’t recognize these different meanings, we can run into lots of challenges as we try to work together. But perhaps more important than the labels we use for collaborative practice, are the attitudes we bring towards diverse and differing points of view. Bec McNaught. 

[00:08:38] Rebecca McNaught: To address climate change there are real shifts that are required and big shifts. Transformational change is required in order to, you know, get to net zero emissions by 2050. So, I think this will threaten the norms and ways of working of a lot of people and organizations, and it will require conversations across different stakeholder types and new solutions to growing problems. This will produce inevitable conflict and disagreement, and it will force us to have difficult conversations. 

The mindset of seeing civil society as enemies and political threats in some ways threaten as a barrier to progressing to a sustainable future. Sometimes it’s a shift in mindset and a shift in owning our own mindsets rather than seeing, you know, interaction with others as incredibly challenging, perhaps it can help us achieve our own goals and aims. So therefore, I sort of go back to the importance of climate change, disaster risk reduction practitioners, improving approaches to dealing with conflict with facilitating interactions between diverse actors, doing facilitation courses. I think this is something that is really important. 

[00:10:00] Nicole Deen: So, what approaches really support successful collaborations? Michelle Halse. 

[00:10:05] Michelle Halse: I do get asked this one a lot. “Oh, what really is gonna make sure this works? What are the keys to success?” And actually Living Collaborations, we’ve spent a bit of time thinking about that. What have we learned from our own experience about what it really takes to build successful collaborations and yes, processes become really important, and I can speak to that in a minute, but perhaps I’ll just highlight what I’ve observed over the years as being really important to have your eye on when you are thinking about forming something in a collaborative way. 

And the first one might surprise you, it’s that it really starts with you, this sense that your own mastery of yourself, awareness of yourself, and development of some particular capabilities and competencies is gonna be really pivotal to success. And that applies to the person who might be leading the charge. But it also really applies to anyone who is going to be a participant within some form of collaboration. 

How aware of yourself are you? Are you curious about other people and their opinions and their ideas? Have you got an open mind to trying new things, to doing things in different ways? You’re gonna need your, A game at listening.

So self-awareness and any practices that build that in you, um, reflection, meditation, quiet space, practices where you think back over what’s just happened and your contribution to a good outcome or not, all those things. The way that you lead in a collaborative way, all that mastery of yourself is gonna come in absolutely critically within a collaboration. 

I have actually used this model that I’m just talking you through right up front with set of partners who are wanting to embark on designing their projects and getting started and allocating roles and you know, all that stuff, but they have engaged me to help them set it up well, so I’ve navigated with them that, “do you know what? To really set this up, well, we need some time to think through what’s it gonna take to be successful?” 

So, I’ve used many different ways to do that, but one way is to offer them this model of four keys to success and have them think about each thing as I bring it up individually and then also to engage with others around what they’ve reflected on. So, when we come up with this personal mastery, they get some time to go off by themselves and have a bit of a think about how fit and ready are they to be a good partner or a good collaborator. And then we’ve even done things where they have a one on one with someone else from say, another organization and talk through something that they think they might wanna grow in so that they really bring their best collaborating self to that partnership. And it’s just worked really nicely actually. So, it’s not about pointing out that they’re not very good at something it’s more, “Hey, everyone is gonna need to be operating from this kind of space to make this work”.

The second one is about ensuring you have a shared intention. So really finding those partners that share a similar passion for this thing that you might want to work on and preferably before you’ve decided what to do so that you find this bunch of people who also wanna bring about change, but then you get to learn together the different ways you perceive the problems and you have more space and time to really conceive of a suite of options of ways forward. Right? Set of solutions, things to prototype. Because the more diversity you have amongst these people who care about the problem, the less likely it is that one idea that you had back in your office, it’s gonna be the fullest and most suitable solution. 

[00:13:45] Maya Haviland: We’ll hear a bit more about the kinds of skills and mindsets that help us to facilitate collaborative processes in a minute, including the other success factors and capabilities that Michelle works with her clients to develop.

But first here’s Antti Pirinen from Aalto University in Finland. He studied six co-design projects between universities and private and public sector organizations. 

[00:14:10] Antti Pirinen: So basically, five broader themes emerge from this material. And first of them is the notion of collaboration and the practice of collaboration itself. It’s really important and it takes time in co-design, particularly when we talk about this cross-organizational activities, where they are very different types of actors involved. So, it seems that finding a common ground is a particular challenge in co-design. 

And this might be related to, for example, things like prejudices and misconceptions. There might be prejudices, for example, people working in the public sector about people working in the private sector, about designers and so forth. So, it seems that creation of trust and working to come over this misconception is quite important and simply things like creating a common understanding of different terms and concepts related to the projects.

Particularly when we talk about co-design in this very hierarchic organizations, such as the healthcare sector, there’s this kind of systemic inertia or resistance towards design because it’s seen as something different and something unfamiliar and also these professional roles and power hierarchies are quite strong.

The other main theme that was found was related to the organization who is undertaking this co-design activities. So, it seemed that often there was a lack of proper or true organizational commitment to co-design. For co-design activities to succeed there needs to be enough time. There needs to be enough resources. People are so tied up with their ordinary duties and tasks that these extra things like co-design process, they didn’t have time or possibility to do anything out of the ordinary, basically. 

[00:16:04] Maya Haviland: Time, that elusive commodity. We are all tired of repeating this mantra, but collaboration can just take time. If we are thinking about enabling and constraining factors, time is one of our most precious resources. Adequate time for planning, collaborative processes, and adequate budgets to support people to have enough time to meaningfully participate in collaborative work are essential and are so often overlooked. Emma Blomkamp. 

[00:16:32] Emma Blomkamp: Often co-designed projects are not adequately budgeted or planned for. We definitely need to recognize that sometimes we’re working within constraints. Sure. Okay. You don’t have three years, you don’t have a million dollars, but what can you do within your smaller project? Don’t be limited by that because it’s not the ideal conditions. 

At the same time, I think we do need to be advocating and changing practice around how co-design is funded and commissioned and recognizing that if we want to do genuine co-design and not just do what the Minister has already decided or do some tokenistic consultation, then we do need to resource it appropriately. Some of that is about funding, but I think perhaps more importantly is thinking about adequate timeframes and thinking about the time it takes to build trust and build relationships. And to iterate and to not try to plan everything in advance but allow adequate time for learning from what you have done and changing your approach. And I think that is quite a different mindset to project planning and management and funding than we often see in the public sector, and that’s something that I would like to see people working on reforming. 

[00:17:50] Maya Haviland: It’s not just the public sector. Most large organizations struggle with the mundanities of how to share large files data, and which of the multitude of platforms we should choose for communications. Then there’s time zone challenges, juggling family and other work priorities. Bringing people together is hard. Michelle Halse. 

[00:18:10] Michelle Halse: How are you gonna communicate about what and when? How will, will you exchange resources and information? How will decisions get made and by whom? And when? Actually doing the work to set up and build the foundations of how you are going to collaborate together? That can be supported by tech as well, making sure that the kind of platforms that you use suit everyone, especially in this world of remote collaboration, it becomes really critical.

[00:18:39] Nicole Deen: Michelle promotes adaptability as critical to collaboration. It’s a bit like personal mastery, but at an organizational level. 

[00:18:46] Michelle Halse: Is your organization ready to show up to be a good partner? How flexible are you about the ways that that partnership can work? Is it essential that it’s your systems, your templates, your contracts, how are you as a partner organization gonna make sure that your leadership, your strategy, your culture, your systems are in support of the endeavor rather than gonna be a blocker.

What resources can you offer that can be put at the disposal of this endeavor? Can you put someone in there who has power to make decisions rather than stymy it by keeping decisions in a hierarchical, you know, structure outside of where that collaborative endeavors going on? They’re not process things, but they’ve underpinning success factors that I think really warrant careful attention almost before you then are gonna embark on collaborating with others.

[00:19:40] Nicole Deen: Systemic context and timing is frequently highlighted in collaborative research and practitioner frameworks. So how might a collaboration align with everything else an organization is juggling? Antti Pirinen. 

[00:19:52] Antti Pirinen: The third theme that emerged from the study is related to the processes, both the processes of co-design and the other processes, other development activities, and these everyday processes that people are involved in organizations.

So, it seemed that often these projects where somehow misfocussed, or they took place too early or too late to really be able to impact the thing that was supposed to be developed. So, there was not a coordination or understanding how these activities were related to this broader development in companies, for example.

And very typically the co-design projects were just this one of very short-lived spurts. So, they like continuity beyond the singular projects. So, they enable this more impactful practice. More attention should be given to where is it actually valuable to apply co-design and all these processes should basically be coordinated better.

[00:20:54] Maya Haviland: Antti is talking about the particular challenges and enablers related to co-design, which has an established suite of methods that draw heavily on design practice. However, his insights hold across other forms of collaborative practice too. Bec McNaught. 

[00:21:10] Rebecca McNaught: Rather than it being a flash in the pan, you know, to really affect change, it’s committing to the process, whatever that agreed process is, and inputting into that over time. And also, I would say realizing that there are gonna be fluctuations in the ability of people and organizations to input. So, you know, it might be because local government has elections coming up or it might be because it’s school holidays, and so every school holidays, some of the parents in the group can’t input at that time, I think that’s important to recognize that not everyone is gonna be a hundred percent all the time. And so having, I guess, a critical mass and enough that can continue the process going and responding is important.

[00:22:04] Antti Pirinen: The fourth theme that emerged from the study was this big barrier of implementation and this is also something that many other researchers have discussed and maybe this concerns not only design or co-design, but other development activities as well. So, it seems that there’s a really challenge to get the outcomes further, to be utilized.

And it seemed that often the utilization relied on just a few insiders, but we also found out and other studies have discussed, that role of people who could be called as agents of co-design seemed quite important. So, there were these few committed, enthusiastic people who had participated in these projects.

Often, they then tell that this kind of revelation of the value of design or basically of the value, for example, of this human-centered or customer-centered perspective and that this kind of personal motivation basically made them as agents, so they were basically working after the projects have ended in their organization for getting these results implemented.

And also, what seems important is the translation of the outcomes. So, these unfamiliar visual materials, for example, produced by the co-design process are not automatically usable to the different professionals, but they need to somehow be translated to different languages or different worlds. 

And then the final area that emerged from these interviews was related to the methods in co-design. Sometimes the methods that are used might seem unconvincing, for example, to these participants. Or sometimes if we just follow this method toolkits without really adapting them to the task or to the organization, they might also become this kind of hindering thing. So, they might be no way to reach it, or sometimes too strenuous or too demanding. So, it seems that a central enabler in co-design would be more careful and more nuanced adaptation and selection of the methods that I use. 

[00:24:09] Maya Haviland: Bec McNaught’s research has also highlighted the importance of methods that respond to specific context and the interests of participants. 

[00:24:17] Rebecca McNaught: I’ve identified 34 separate types of collaborative practice in the resilience related case studies I’ve investigated. So, it’s really broad techniques, I guess, that are being used. Everything from sort of trust building exercises to incubating innovations, co-financing or fundraising guideline development, skills development. So, workshops. Using scenario creation. So, that was a really big one where people would come together from different organizations to create climate or disaster scenarios and action planning around that joint advocacy site visits, as I mentioned before, games, holding conferences and public forums think tanks, public seminars, joint monitoring, and evaluation exercises, joint studies. Sharing employees. So, I think this really says that we’re sort of almost limited by our own imaginations. The more that we experiment and the more that we go outside our comfort zones, the more that we are likely to link with others who also have a passion for trying different techniques. And the more that we learn by doing the more that we will improve our practice. 

[00:25:32] Maya Haviland: What collaboration isn’t is everyone involved having a say in every element of the project. Assigning roles, including that of the facilitator guiding the process is another critical element of collaboration. 

[00:25:44] Rebecca McNaught: So, people that are seen as neutral or being able to facilitate diverse perspectives. And I don’t think I’ve nailed this. I think I have a lot of work to do in this space, and I’m hoping to do some of my own capacity building in that space, but I really do think an important factor is being able to find ways of sort of non-violent communication and being able to have conversations that are difficult, but ultimately help people move forward.

[00:26:13] Maya Haviland: So, we’ve heard a lot about the enablers and constraints to collaboration at organizational systems and project levels, and also about the importance of the mindsets and skills of participants and facilitators. Whilst our guests today have identified a range of dynamics and enablers, we can pay attention to, there’s no one way to learn or enact these approaches.

[00:26:36] Rebecca McNaught: When I reflect on disaster risk management, training, or climate change related training, I think often there’s a real emphasis on the technical angles and the science. I think what I’m pushing for now is actually for us to focus more on the soft skills. Unfortunately, it’s not one of those things, you know, you can just study in a book and then voila, you are able to, to know about it. I think it’s one of those ones where you just have to keep practicing and keep trying, and slowly over time, you get better at it. But I think you can also have some checklists. So, I have some general principles to keep in mind, regardless of what you’re doing and how you’re approaching it. 

[00:27:26] Maya Haviland: This is where the research and practice experience we’ve been hearing about today is so useful, not to tell us exactly how to make collaborations work, but to give us some orienting themes and principles for embarking on co-creative practice.

So, every time we launch into a new collaboration, we can think about how these might be at play in our specific context or project. So, in the spirit of useful checklists, let’s recap some of the enablers we’ve heard about today. First, Antti Pirinen. 

[00:27:56] Antti Pirinen: So, these five themes, collaboration, how the organization starting from the management, but going to the level of the everyday work of the people, thinking about all these processes together and how they are in synchrony and thinking about this implementation barrier and how to overcome that, and then putting emphasis to what methods are used and how seemed important as enablers of co-design. 

[00:28:23] Nicole Deen: Michelle Halse has a number of keys to setting up successful collaborations that she works through with her clients. 

[00:28:29] Michelle Halse: First one, it really starts with you, your own mastery of yourself, awareness of yourself, and development of some particular capabilities and competencies is gonna be really pivotal to success. The second one is about ensuring you have a shared intention and then collaborative systems, actually doing the work to set up and build the foundations of how you are going to collaborate together. And then the last one kind of comes back to the personal mastery, but at an organizational level. And we talk about organizational adaptability. So that’s this sense that is your organization ready to show up to be a good partner? How flexible are you? How are you as a partner organization gonna make sure that your leadership, your strategy, your culture, your systems, are in support of the endeavor rather than gonna be a blocker. 

[00:29:24] Nicole Deen: While hearing these things rattled off can feel like a big list of conditions needed to make collaborative processes work, we mustn’t lose heart. We can continue to build our skills as facilitators and participants, and we can be part of changing the cultures and organizations we work in. Emma Blomkamp. 

[00:29:42] Emma Blomkamp: There’s also work to be done on the conditions. Some of those constraints could be changed. I am in awe of some of the people working within bureaucratic institutions on what might be called “the boring revolution”, to change some of the conditions and constraint. I know some people, for instance, who are working currently on issues around consumer participation, around payment, how do we recognize people’s time? It’s absolutely not fair to be asking people to take part in a process where you, as the professional are getting paid to do it, and you’re expecting others to give up their time, especially, yeah, if they don’t have a salary that is enabling them to take part in this, if it’s not part of their job. And there are barriers in government to paying people for their time to contribute, but there are people working within bureaucratic systems to change some of those rules.

There are things like ethics processes that assume everything that’s gonna happen in advance. Those are conditions that can be limiting, but we can change. Uh, these are all systems that we have created as people, and we can change them. So, I think there is work to do both on the conditions and capabilities for co-design to make it possible, and we do need to recognize that those can both be limiting and enabling factors. 

[00:31:00] Nicole Deen: Making systems level changes to better enable collaborative practice is a pretty daunting task, especially to those of us who work in or with institutions or bureaucratic systems, but Emma reckons that the tools of co-design can help us to bite off small pieces to tackle and these little pieces can add up to making the revolutionary or systems level changes that need to happen. 

[00:31:23] Emma Blomkamp: Taking a designerly approach to that where you might start with a small prototype is also a quite radical and revolutionary way to think about things, rather than, I don’t know, a writing, a discussion paper or researching and asking for opinion, experts of opinions. Why not try something? Why not try a little version of the thing that you think should happen that is within your sphere of influence and see where that goes?

[00:31:53] Maya Haviland: Well, that’s it for this episode of Collaboratory. Check out our other episodes, where you can hear in depth interviews on practice and more discussion on dynamics of collaboration and co-creativity in action. Drop us line with your thoughts and feedback. We’d love to hear from you. 

This episode of Collaboratory was written and edited by Maya Haviland and Nicole Deen. Series producer Maya Haviland, audio engineering by Nick McCorriston and music made especially for us by Seprock. Additional research and production support by Nicole O’Dowd. 

Collaboratory is produced on the lands of the Ngunnawal, Ngambri, and Ngunawal people. We pay our respects, an ongoing gratitude to the custodians past present, and future of the lands on which we work and of the knowledges from which we learn. Collaboratory is a production of the Scaffolding Cultural Co-creativity Project hosted by the Center for Heritage and Museum Studies in the College of Arts and Social Sciences at the Australian National University. Funding is generously provided by the Australian National University Translational Fellowship Scheme.