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Transcript – What is the Co?

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.

What is the co?

[00:00:00] Maya Haviland: Hi, I’m Maya Haviland and this is Collaboratory.

[00:00:11] Dimitrios Papalexis: Co-creativity. 

[00:00:12] Shona Coyne: Collaboratively. 

[00:00:13] Kaira Zoe Canete: Creation. 

[00:00:13] John Carty: Collaboration. 

[00:00:14] Kim Cunio: Creativity. 

[00:00:15] Stephen Osborne: Value creation. 

[00:00:16] Jilda Andrews: Collective. 

[00:00:17] Merryn McKinnon: Co-design, co-developed. 

[00:00:19] Antti Pirinen: Human centeredness. 

[00:00:20] Emma Blomkamp: Co-production. 

[00:00:22] Maya Haviland: Wow. There are just so many co words in circulation right now. What do they all mean? And are there any agreed definitions? Do we even need shared meanings of these buzzwords to actually get anything done together?

In this episode, we’re going to explore some of what people mean when they use co words and we’re going to hear a little bit about the histories of the ideas, which have shaped our usage of these words and the practices that they point to…

[00:00:54] John Carty: Co-creativity, it’s the lifeblood of doing things properly. It’s the natural progression from some of the shortcomings of the power imbalances that perhaps still exist in the idea of collaboration. 

[00:01:07] Merryn McKinnon: It’s really recognizing that everyone brings their own unique set of skills, ideas, perspectives to a problem and if you harness all of those, then you are more likely to get a better result. 

[00:01:22] Dimitrios Papalexis: Co-creativity requires change. So, if we just come together to talk about the same things, to do the same actions that lead to the same results and nothing changes, then that’s not co-creativity. Co-creativity requires a degree of openness, spontaneity, curiosity. So, something new, better, different can be created together. 

[00:01:46] Maya Haviland: We often find that whilst we may be using the same words when we’re talking with each other, words like collaboration or collaborate, they can mean slightly different things to each of us. It’s pretty common to discover that what I mean by collaboration is not quite what you mean, but we may not find out the subtle but important differences in the way that we use particular words until we’re well down the track of working together. 

You can find a full list of all the people you’ll hear in this episode, in the show notes. They are artists, researchers, educators, cultural workers, community change agents amongst other things. And we asked them to share their working definitions of some of the words that are at the heart of our interest in this podcast, words like collaboration, creativity, or co-creation and how they are used across a diversity of places, cultural contexts, and disciplines.

So let’s start with collaboration. 

[00:02:41] Robin Davidson: Collaboration is co with labor work. It’s working with someone. It’s creating something that was not there before through combined efforts. 

[00:02:54] Maya Haviland: Do we have to have a shared vision of what we’re working towards to collaborate? Does everyone have to benefit equally from a collaborative process? How intentional do we have to be about working together to call something a collaboration? 

[00:03:07] Anni Doyle: This is when you get to work with somebody else or a bunch of somebody else’s to make something that wasn’t there before. When you are united in a common desire to bring something to the world.

[00:03:20] Shona Coyne: Doing something collaboratively means sharing a vision for a greater good that has benefits for you, for me, and for everybody that’s involved in the stakeholder group. 

[00:03:32] Merryn McKinnon: It may not necessarily benefit everybody in the same way. I feel like it shouldn’t harm anybody. 

[00:03:39] David Lilley: Collaboration requires that we give something up. It requires us to be vulnerable. It requires us to let go of things. It requires us to compromise and I guess that’s what makes it hard. 

[00:03:54] Johanna De Rutyer: At the core of collaboration is the coming together of different perspectives, people to create something that’s bigger than the individual. It’s this beautiful craft from Korea where they knot together many threads. So, it’s kind of like weaving. That’s the image I have of how you weave together, you know, lots of different threads into a container.

[00:04:16] Maya Haviland: Another word we think is important here at Collaboratory, is creativity. Creativity, or the expectation of being creative can cause a bit of anxiety for some of us. It’s a concept that has a lot of baggage and some disciplines and cultures are more comfortable with it than others. There are also some other words that are commonly used as a kind of proxy for creativity, words like innovation or adaptation, for example.

[00:04:42] Georgios Yannakakis: Creativity is a very interesting term. It has been started from many disciplines, depends on how you view it. It’s a human-centric notion. We came up with it. Who knows what it is. We don’t really know yet. 

[00:04:56] Johanna De Rutyer: Creativity really is in the space of not knowing. It is something that moves through you. So, there’s a place of innocence within that, that allows you to see anew.

[00:05:09] Kim Cunio: Creativity is the ability to change things in response to our perceptions of the world in real time. 

[00:05:16] Rebecca McNaught: Creativity is about having fun. 

[00:05:19] Merryn McKinnon: Thinking about something from a new angle, a different way, making connections that haven’t existed before, or just, yeah, looking at something from upside down instead of right way up. 

[00:05:28] Natalie Barr: Thinking outside the square and kind of not being constrained by the circumstances and things that people have done in the past, looking at things from a different perspective, stepping back and having the time to actually think about something and having the courage to respond to it in a different way.

[00:05:46] Robin Davidson: Creativity is having an original response to a stimulus. In a sense it’s the opposite of habituated. It’s the response that comes from actually absorbing a stimulus and allowing it to affect you and expressing what that effect is. 

[00:06:06] David Lilley: I think of creative as living beyond the status quo, as getting away from defaults.

[00:06:13] John Carty: Creativity for me is a really elemental expression of what it is to be a life form, not just a human, but any kind of life form is always adapting to its environment. 

[00:06:26] Shona Coyne: Creativity is all about nurturing or bringing forth new ideas and actually recognizing them in many different places. 

[00:06:37] Jilda Andrews: Creativity is about giving or sharing spirit with someone else, cause that in essence creates things, you know, feelings, ideas. I think it’s about the willing kind of purposeful gifting and sharing of spirit. 

[00:06:59] Maya Haviland: That’s Jilda Andrews, a Yuwaalaraay woman who works with the Australian National University and the National Museum of Australia. Jilda’s understanding of creativity focuses on what comes out from the process of gifting and sharing. It draws attention to creativity as a relational process, rather than a singular act of creation. 

[00:07:20] Jilda Andrews: The co bit, it’s already there. Collaboration and creativity have embedded within it a sense of more than one, a sense of collective, a sense of greater than an individual. So, I wouldn’t necessarily put the “co dash” in front of either of those words, but I can see how it can help people get there. It can help people whose perhaps their position isn’t as a part of a collective, you know, and they might perhaps think of themselves differently, that then the co bit would, would help them. I can see it being useful. 

[00:07:56] Maya Haviland: So, what is useful about adding the co to words like creativity or creation? How does it reorient our understandings of how we work, not just that we might be doing so with other people? Here is researcher, Kaira Zoe Canete, teasing out her understanding of the value of the co. 

[00:08:15] Kaira Zoe Canete: I think the term creation, directs us to the notion of something being created, right, the outcome. And when I think of co-creation, I dwell on the process. To co-create something entails a process of engagement, in sense making problem solving, or even, you know, making mistakes together. That’s part of co-creation and towards the achievement of a possibility, because to co-create something there’s no fixed outcome that you can foresee. 

[00:08:45] John Carty: Co-creation sits as a first principle that you don’t even have a concept really, of what something is gonna be until you’ve begun a journey together. 

[00:08:56] Dimitrios Papalexis: When you bring together the individual creativity with collaboration and you enable people to come together and have time and space to connect and share, then there is the opportunity for co-creativity to emerge.

[00:09:10] Robin Davidson: It’s a much higher level of complexity that arrives because it’s not just, here’s a thing happening, how do I respond to it? It’s here’s a thing happening, I’m responding to it. You’re responding to it differently to the way that I’m responding to it. I’m responding to your response and you’re responding to my response and out of that, we are creating something, we are building something which was not there before. 

[00:09:32] Virginia Marshall: I think that the word co it’s very much like the word co-design, this it seems to be the buzzword. And co-design is a little bit irritating because just because you have Aboriginal people in the room, it doesn’t mean that you’re actually sharing that space and you’re being listened to. It just means that we are trying to have another buzzword, but what will the buzzword be after co-design and co-creativity?

[00:09:57] Shona Coyne: I’m starting to use co-creativity more in the institutional space. Whereas previously words were used, like “engagement”, which to me indicates that community or a group is brought in at a particular point and there’s a point where they drop out in some ways. Whereas I see co-creation as being something much more planned and has a bigger legacy or length of time or engagement or relationship really.

And doing this co-creation work has meaningful benefits for those involved, and that could be a financial benefit, but it can also be an emotional one. It can be a physical thing. It can be an investment in somebody or something. So I think co-creating is a powerful word if it’s framed right and it’s embedded into cultural practice.

[00:11:05] Maya Haviland: That was Shona Coyne, a Menang/Nyungar woman who works with the National Museum of Australia, and before her Virginia Marshall from the Australian National University.

It’s clear that there as many working definitions of common words, like collaboration or creativity as there are people and projects that use them. You might find words like co-creation, or co-design useful to orient towards a particular approach to working with others, as a way to advocate for time to really deeply engage or to help focus attention on the benefits different people might get from a particular process, as Shona Coyne described. Or you might share Virginia Marshall’s frustration that co words gloss over problems related to power and the extent to which we truly value perspectives different to our own. Either way, spending some time thinking about the different meanings people might bring to the same words can help us to understand each other better and perhaps avoid the misunderstandings or disappointments that the use of buzzwords can lead to. 

Here is Antti Pirinen from Aalto university in Finland, who researches co-design practice in a range of public sector contexts. 

[00:12:25] Antti Pirinen: Co-creativity that could be seen as a kind of umbrella term under which collaboratively creative activities can happen. I can use that word, but maybe I prefer to use the word “co-design” as it’s somehow closer to let’s say artifacts or the work of designers. 

[00:12:41] Maya Haviland: Depending on the sectors or disciplines we are connected to, there are many other words at play in how we talk about the collaborative and creative processes that we do.

Co-design, as Antti mentioned before, is informed from practices in the design world and is widely used in corporate and public sector contexts. People talk about co-design of all sorts of things, from the design of a product like a shoe, or a space like a library or a park, to the design of a health service delivered in a hospital or a community setting.

The range of uses and words to describe forms of collaborative practice has absolutely boomed in recent years and the vast literature that has resulted hasn’t particularly helped to clarify meanings or settle on any agreed definitions, even of common terms like co-design. All these different understandings and definitions can leave us with a kind of fuzzy sense of what we’re actually talking about as Antti and his colleagues have observed in their research looking at practices of co-design between universities and public sector organizations.

[00:13:44] Antti Pirinen: One of the first things that you notice when talking with people is that everybody has their own definition of design. So, you might talk about participatory design, collaborative design, uh, service design. You might talk about agile development or use that kind of terms that come to from the business world. So, there’s this kind of conceptual fuzziness around design, particularly around these new forms of design, which don’t really fall into these categories of the traditional design professions, or which deal with more intangible things or more strategic things. 

[00:14:20] Maya Haviland: Almost every book or paper I’ve read that uses one of the co words, acknowledges a diversity of definitions and the lack of agreement on single meanings, but people keep on trying to define them, I guess, in the hope that one or another will stick. Here is a definition of co-creation from a 2012 paper by Nicholas Ind and Nick Coates called “The Meaning of Co-creation”. 

[00:14:43] Leo Riley: Co-creation has become a widely used term to describe a shift in thinking from the organization as being a definer of value to a more participative process where people and organizations together generate and develop a meaning.

[00:15:03] Maya Haviland: Here is another definition focused on the context of media and communications from the International Journal of Cultural Studies. 

[00:15:10] Jade Riley: The term co-creation is used to describe the phenomenon of consumers increasingly participating in the process of making and circulating media content and experiences. Practices of user created content and user led innovation are now significant sources of both economic and cultural value. 

[00:15:30] Brad Riley: Co-production is a rapidly growing endeavor now widely applied in the fields of health development, education, climate change, industrial production and sustainability. It broadly seeks to connect researchers with diverse societal actors to collaboratively and iteratively produce knowledge, action, and societal change.

[00:15:50] Maya Haviland: That’s a definition of co-production by Josephine Chambers and 40 co-authors from a 2021 paper in the journal Nature Sustainability. You can find references to things we talk about in this episode in the show notes. And of course, you can find hundreds of other definitions of the co by doing your own searches.

The growing use of these terms has led to people arguing for hierarchies on nested uses of specific words, pointing to different phases or scales of collaborative practice. Here’s researcher and co-design coach Emma Blomkamp talking about the distinctions between co-design, co-production, and co-creation. 

[00:16:28] Emma Blomkamp: I talked about design being really central in co-design. Co-production doesn’t necessarily involve a design process, so that’s one distinction. Another distinction is that we’re often thinking more about implementation when we think about co-production. So, an example might be the creation of a new health service, and you go through a co-design process to figure out what do we need, how could it run? And then if you deliver that in partnership with the community who are supposed to benefit from it, then that is co-production.

To me, co-creation is a broader term. So, we are thinking there about any kind of creativity that people might be engaged in together. So, I guess that idea of, um, making something, but it could be more just about having a new perspective, but I think while design is quite a specific process and approach, I would say co-creation can be a broader term. It’s more general about any kind of moment or activity where people come up with something new or have a new perspective. And I, you know, wanna acknowledge that some people do use these almost interchangeably and in certain sectors or disciplines, that may be the way people use these words. 

[00:17:45] Maya Haviland: In addition to having somewhat different meanings, people also draw on a range of histories or genealogies for different terms, which in turn lead to particular orientations as to what the co is for and how it creates value. Terms like co-production, for example, have long histories and have come in and out of fashion over time. 

[00:18:06] Stephen Osborne: Co-production if you go back 10, 15 years became a very “in” word inside public service theory and as often happens with that, it rapidly became to mean almost anything people wanted co-production to mean. It included things like consultation, coordination, people talk about organizational co-production, and it became so diffuse as to be almost meaningless. Back in the 1980s, innovation was the big idea that was latched onto. In the noughties, it was co-production. Now it’s co-creation and the focus will inevitably move on elsewhere in terms of what’s the latest, big idea. 

[00:18:49] Maya Haviland: Stephen Osborne, Director of the Centre for Service Excellence and Chair of International Public Management at the University of Edinburgh Business School. Stephen’s research looks at how value is produced for people and society through design and delivery of public services. His work has given him a good perspective on the histories of how different words such as co-production have been used over time. 

[00:19:13] Stephen Osborne: It’s often used to mean a voluntary chosen activity by service users who are invited in to co-produce a service by the professional service delivery staff, and a lot of the literature is quite positive about co-production as being something which both adds value to those services because it’s rooted in the needs and experience of users and which adds value because it’s bringing together the efforts of a lot of people.

[00:19:48] Maya Haviland: Stephen’s research focus on how value is generated through people engaging with public services has led him to use common co words in specific and particular ways. 

[00:19:59] Stephen Osborne: Co-production in that case is one of probably three key processes that’s going to lead potentially to the creation and or co-creation of value. And those three processes are, are co-design, co-production, and value co-creation. 

Co-design happens at the initial stages of a service where citizens may be invited in by public service staff to be involved in designing or redesigning a public service to directly meet their needs. Co-creation is the extent to which those services go on to create value in the lives of public service users who are using those services, but also of citizens who may not be using them, but could be involved perhaps as volunteers, and also our service staff. 

Co-production is not necessarily a voluntary process. All services are co-produced because services exist as, as an experience, as a process, people using a service can’t but help, to be involved in their co-production by the way, they bring their own needs, their own experiences, their own expectations to the service encounter.

[00:21:20] Maya Haviland: So how do we co-produce something if we’re not actively choosing to do so? What might that kind of involuntary co-production look like in practice? 

[00:21:30] Stephen Osborne: Quite good example, I quite like is, um, I used to go to a dentist in the UK. Now, no one really likes going to the dentist, but we all have to do it, and I went through a dentist who was very, very well-trained state of the art equipment, all the skills, really, really good level professional treatment, the personality of a piece of concrete, shall we say?

So, it wasn’t very pleasant, it more made an unpleasant experience, even more unpleasant. So, I now go to a different dentist, not quite as well, trained, equipment, not quite so state of the art, but she’s a nice person. So, I’m more prepared to go and allow her to do unimaginable things to my mouth because it’s more of a pleasant experience. That’s co-production. 

It’s between my expectations and my extent of interaction with an experience and the resources that the public service provider or the service provider is bringing to that co-productions. That is quite different, I should appreciate, from saying “let’s invite these people in to help us manage this service”. That’s quite a different level of co-production. 

[00:22:41] Maya Haviland: Stephen’s definition and those that Emma Blomkamp and others have given may or may not resonate with you. And while there is a lot of contestation about the meanings of particular words, especially within academia, it doesn’t need to tie us up in knots in practice.

[00:22:56] Stephen Osborne: There certainly is contestation. It’s an academic field and academics are very good at disagreeing with each other. I guess when we are working with practitioners or with citizens, we are not really interested in getting into a, a debate about definitions. Our starting point is we use terms in this way to mean these things, and that is the way that we can work with you.

[00:23:21] Maya Haviland: It’s an important point. When we start working with a particular group or in a new project, we need to be really explicit and clear about what we mean by particular co words. It also highlights that fuzziness and lack of shared meaning that plagues our use of these words in practice, the slipperiness of shared definitions can make co words a bit meaningless, as well as potentially toothless for advocating for important principles like sharing power or listening to diverse perspectives.

[00:23:50] Stephen Osborne: You see it happening now that value is being transformed into another word for outcome, co-creation is coming to mean anything you might want it to mean the same way co-production did. From our point of view in our work, that’s really unhelpful. So, the sooner that the fad spotlight turns onto something else, the better from our point of view.

[00:24:12] Maya Haviland: While words like co-design and co-production are currently popular in both public policy and the private sector, the roots, and histories of the development of these ideas lie in social justice and social change agendas. 

Antti Pirinen from Aalto University again, explains the genealogies of the co in the context of co-design.

[00:24:32] Antti Pirinen: It very much started from this idea of democracy and empowerment of the citizens. That was the kind of driving force in this early participatory planning activities, and also the so-called Scandinavian Participatory Design Movement, which started around the same time in the sixties. So, which was focused on workplace democracy. So, making the conditions in workplaces in industrial context, for example, better together with the workers. These early ideas of participatory design very much emphasized this idea of consensus. So, there was the idea that by coming together and collaborating, basically we could create solutions that would be accepted by all and would be more democratic and so forth.

[00:25:19] Maya Haviland: A second mode of co-design has its roots in the fields of industrial design or product design, and is focused on collaboration as collective innovation. 

[00:25:28] Antti Pirinen: So, the idea is not so much about empowering citizens or involving the lay people, but it’s more about the idea of different professionals coming together in this innovation process. And in this co-design world, the users, the citizens are basically seen as one actor who has some kind of valuable knowledge that can contribute to collective innovation. So, this mode or type of design aims at developing, for example, some kind of new products or services or outcomes, some kind of broader markets, and not only for the people who were participating as is typical in this democratic or empowering mode of co-design. 

And then maybe the third phase or mode that we can see nowadays is the idea of collaboration and co-design as means for organizational and systems level change. For example, when we look at the design activities that take place in the public sector in cities and in government, there’s very much the idea that design often also necessarily is about some kind of organizational change. And there are new areas of design such as design for policy and more strategic systems level approaches within design that aim at transformation, even like societal transformation or the, or organizational systems level change. 

[00:26:58] Maya Haviland: When we look around at what’s happening under the broad umbrella of co-design or co-creation, we can see a range of traditions from different fields. But importantly, there are commonalities both in the motivations of different traditions and in the uses of the same words in different disciplines, at least in public sector contexts.

Antti Pirinen again. 

[00:27:18] Antti Pirinen: Somehow always there seems to be this idea of human centeredness, whether these humans are called users or citizens or customers, but somehow the idea of human centeredness as guiding driver or force in the design process.

Another characteristic that is often there is this idea of collaboration in the sense of not only collaborating with the users, but also collaborating with other professionals coming, maybe from quite different fields. One central idea of design in the public sector seems to be that it offers a way to support this cross-organizational or cross-administrative or cross-siloed collaboration.

Maybe a third characteristic is related to these methods and ways, even like the tangible ways how design is done. So, the methods are often somehow visual, or the outcomes are some kind of visual depictions. There might be some visual scenarios or systems maps or user depictions like persona. So that kind of things. So, this idea of using, let’s say maybe more hands-on tools that are customarily used, for example, in the public sector. 

And the fourth characteristic is the idea of prototyping and experimenting. So, there’s somehow embedded in this design approach is the idea that we might experiment with things or prototype some kind of seeds for solutions and test how they work and what people, how they fit in different systems. 

[00:28:54] Maya Haviland: Human-centeredness, collaboration, across different disciplines and professionals, as well as with users or citizens. Visual or practical tools and representations of ideas and knowledge and the use of prototyping or experimentation to test out ideas or solutions. These are some of the common qualities of co-design as it’s deployed in public sector contexts, at least. 

But as we heard at the start of the show, just because we use a word like co-design doesn’t mean that the expectations for collaboration or even effective listening between parties actually happens. Lots of us find all these co words can obscure meaning as much as they can make things easier to understand or act upon. 

Do you have definitions of co words that you find particularly useful or other words that express or communicate important aspects of collaborative practice? We would love to hear from you, so drop us a line at, or get in touch through our socials. 

Also, keep your ear out for an upcoming episode where some of our guests share words in languages other than English that they think are useful for unpacking aspects of co-creative or collaborative practice.

Thanks for listening. In this episode, you’ve heard the voices of, 

[00:30:06] Kaira Zoe Canete: Kaira Zoe Canete. 

[00:30:08] John Carty: John Carty. 

[00:30:09] Merryn McKinnon: Dr. Merryn McKinnon. 

[00:30:10] Georgios Yannakakis: Georgios Yannakakis. 

[00:30:12] Natalie Barr: Natalie Barr. 

[00:30:13] Antti Pirinen: Dimitrios Papalexis. 

[00:30:15] Johanna De Rutyer: Johanna De Rutyer. 

[00:30:16] Kim Cunio: Kim Cunio. 

[00:30:17] Anni Doyle: Anni Doyle Wawrzynczak. 

[00:30:19] Jilda Andrews: Jilda Andrews.

[00:30:20] Shona Coyne: Shona Coyne. 

[00:30:22] Antti Pirinen: Antti Pirinen. 

[00:30:23] Brad Riley: Brad Riley. 

[00:30:24] Stephen Osborne: Stephen Osborne.

[00:30:25] David Lilley: David Lilley. 

[00:30:26] Leo Riley: Leo Riley. 

[00:30:27] Rebecca McNaught: Rebecca McNaught. 

[00:30:28] Jade Riley: Jade Riley. 

[00:30:29] Robin Davidson: Robin Davidson. 

[00:30:31] Virginia Marshall: Virginia Marshall. 

[00:30:32] Maya Haviland: And, 

[00:30:33] Emma Blomkamp: Emma Blomkamp. 

[00:30:35] Maya Haviland: 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 and 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 Centre 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.