Co-creation implies making something together by sharing equal agency, power and responsibility. It has emerged as an approach to actively involve a network of actors in the design and development of new sustainable systems. A PhD thesis published recently studied the co-creation approach and its outcomes in the context of design and development of sustainable transport and built environment innovation.
Many industries and societies around the world aspire to reduce carbon emissions, energy use, and overconsumption of material resources through sustainable innovation. However, such innovations are complex and systemic due the link between production and consumption patterns as part of total ecological impacts of innovation, rebound effects of innovations driven by consumption behaviors, incorrect applications of innovations leading to less sustainable outcomes than expected, and behavioral change and social acceptance leading to high levels of uncertainty.
In addition, there are social issues such as inequities and inequalities emerging from lack of representation, access and social inclusion which challenge the way future solutions around sustainable living are thought and designed. These all raise the necessity for more transdisciplinary methods such as co-creation in innovation for sustainable development. The question is how.
An approach to drive systemic innovation
Liridona Sopjani’s research on co-creation sheds light on why and how sustainability-driven innovation need to be designed and developed together with end-users and ecosystem stakeholders. End-users, supply chains and relevant stakeholders are increasingly seen as active and critical to the development processes of new sustainable systems. Her PhD thesis aimed to study the involvement of multiple actors in co-creation of new sustainable systems design and development, the process and potential outcomes for transition.
In her thesis, Sopjani lays out the concept of ‘shared design authorship of sustainability’, an idea which aims to democratize the process of how new sustainable systems can be designed and developed. Instead of the traditional model of the designer as the rationale planner and the firm as the central entity of technological innovation, Sopjani’s PhD thesis suggests that design can be shared among an ecosystem of actors working together in equal, reciprocal, and caring relationships.
Based on design, innovation, and technology studies, Sopjani conceptualizes co-creation as an intertwining and immersive design approach to systemic innovation and transition. It immerses its participants while generating new input and outcomes with each iteration. She argues that co-creation promotes new roles and new forms of agency at the societal level, challenging the hegemonic view of technological innovation design practices and existing human practices by ensuring shared responsibility and accountability over technological solutions. Through co-creation, people, whether in individual or organizational role, share similar power and agency on activities, processes, and strategic direction of innovations. For new sustainable systems design and development, this may be a more effective way to transition given the complexities, multiplicity, and multi-dimensionality of sustainability issues.
Sopjani’s research work was carried in living labs set in everyday life contexts such as places and spaces where people carry out their everyday life and work. Her work is experiment based and immersive, where she and her research subjects are actively involving in the living lab setup. She sets up new systems into everyday life as suggested proto-designs (unfinished features of new sustainable systems, not-yet commercially available, or not-yet embedded in society). They are used as ‘thinking and doing devices’ to steer the stakeholders. The method involves a process of generative iterative loops engaging and orchestrating participating actors continuously. Researchers and designers act as facilitators crafting proposals that prompt participation of the ecosystem. The method is deliberatively set to enable multi-stakeholder participation, such as public and private as well as civil society.
Sopjani was part of several large-scale research projects between 2015 and 2021 in Europe, and her thesis reports cumulative work done within three living lab experiments. The thesis research was carried in the context of new sustainable systems development in transportation and built environment using mixed methods.
A co-creation recipe
The thesis presents in depth results on how co-creation can be carried out. Sopjani finds out that motivations play a central role in the activation of co-creative activities among individuals and organizations. Shared environmental concerns and uncertainties surrounding new solutions to environmental problems were strong motivations of diverse stakeholders’ involvement in her projects. She identifies three key drivers such as a strong desire to move towards sustainability thus being open to change, the need to reduce uncertainty surrounding change to sustainability, and the ambition to influence others and make change visible.
Though, not every stakeholder is involved in the same way. In her study of end-user involvement, she identifies a spectrum with four types of involvement patterns from non-users to very active users, distinguished by distinct roles such as vigilant users, passive collaborators, active decision makers, and ambassadors. Each showed to be critical for new sustainable systems although contrasting e.g., ambassadors build momentum of support and vigilant users inhibit or challenge the systems further. The role of non-user group was found to be particularly relevant to design of new sustainable systems as they can delay the transition if not involved and included.
Furthermore, unlike common belief that interests align stakeholders in co-creation, the findings show that common visions and interests are not enough. Her studies on different actors showed that stakeholders are not always aligned and often met with certain traditions and ways of working with diverging communication languages. To make co-creation advantageous for participating actors, certain organizational aspects need to be cleared out: 1) which types of actors are involved, 2) who is the initiator, 3) who can join and under what conditions, 4) ways of accessing end-users and which social groups are represented, and 5) which methods are to be used.
Given divergences and multiplicity of stakeholder interests, a common design language enables steering actors and actions, i.e. “proto-designs act as language-communing tools to enable an interface”. Activities undertaken simultaneously showed to be supportive of co-creation. Sopjani’s study identified five interdependent activities: matching systemic innovation requirements by combining the competencies and resources of diverse actors; facilitation to steer the group of actors into actions; engaging end-users early on; offering users opportunities to engage on their terms; and capturing and mediating mutual learning by bridging development with implementation.
Generative learning, strategic direction,
and social change
Research on co-creation outcomes is still in infancy, lacking empirical support. Sopjani’s thesis provides initial empirical support suggesting that co-creation generates multi-dimensional learning and strategic direction. The key indicators are: generating and simultaneously validating new sustainable concepts; supporting design and development as well as implementation phases of new sustainable systems; generating considerable input on practical logistics and restraints of new sustainable systems, and enabling accurate environmental assessment of new systems through user involvement; and generating reliable feedback for all parties involved while expanding the opportunities for new networks.
The outcomes are built trust in new energy-efficient and carbon-reducing alternatives, validated logistical workability of new sustainable systems and their true impacts, and stimulated engagement in new sustainable system development. She concludes that co-creation, when well organized, could improve the efficacy of development processes because of several linear processes of innovation are integrated into one e.g. design, development, marketing, communication and implementation. Although more quantitative studies may be necessary, Sopjani’s results show that co-creation approach is strategically relevant for transition to new sustainable systems.
Sopjani’s thesis highlights further the role of end-users in co-creation. She writes that having end-users involved in co-creation is not only beneficial for new systems development but also for stimulating changes in users’ everyday life practices. Her argument is that when people are involved, they are also exposed to new ideas about their everyday life practices. The experience of involvement in designing new sustainable systems itself cultivates openness to change as people get immersed in trying out those possibilities in the context of their own everyday life. In her study of end-user practice changes, she observed how participants’ views on the private fossil fuel cars versus shared electric car services changed during six months trial. She describes that the participants were contemplating and reflecting throughout the period of involvement. The results showed that day-to-day direct involvement encouraged reflection and reassurance about how the participants used, engaged, and lived with material products, hence also on their contribution to the overall environmental impacts of their behavior.
Her results suggest that end-users feel encouraged to continue involvement in sustainable innovation and become more actively involved in discussions about sustainable solutions e.g. at home and at work with peers and colleagues. In one of the cases on sustainable mobility, she describes how end-users were researching and supporting the implementation of the mobility solution in the like of the other stakeholders. She writes that the end-users wanted to partake and be identified with the experiments; they wanted to be seen as acting towards sustainability; and, were providing input and feedback at all capacities they could. Sopjani suggests in her thesis that co-creation with end-users can facilitate exposing them to new behaviors. It addresses also the discrepancy between new sustainable systems and behavior changes needed in society.
A new practice
Co-creative practices can be carried within organizations, outside the organization, between organizations, and in an ecosystem of completely different individual, organizational, and community stakeholders.
Its advantages include enhanced ability to consider activities from multiple perspectives, enabled intersection between various professional and non-professional actors outside their respective places or organizations, holistic understanding of the systemic nature of sustainable innovations, opened potential for creating more diverse offers, and new collaboration opportunities. In addition, access to diverse competencies and resources and complementing stakeholder technical expertise were found to support dealing with complex challenges that were outside individual actors’ capacities.
However, co-creation does not happen just by having common interests and goals. It requires organizational structure as well as new managerial approaches to be steered and advanced. Sopjani finds that the approach is still new in practice and several managerial barriers exist such as alignment of concrete tasks and responsibilities, managing conflicting interests and needs in the co-creation activities, conflicting organizational cultures, and requirements such as time and effort to carry the work.
Despite managerial challenges, organizations need to focus on increasing the active involvement of end-users, non-users, and related stakeholders in their new sustainable systems development including products or service offers. Co-creation is a powerful approach to ignite the representation and practical applications of innovative systems in different social contexts. In the context of transport and built environment industry, co-creation benefits directly the stakeholders in the industry given their multi-level complexity as well as broad user-stakeholder diversity affecting issues of equity and justice critical to a sustainable future.