Adriënne Heijnen from Aarhus University discusses co-creation and its importance for the success of future cities.
Many of us can recall a technology project in a city, in which millions of euros were invested, but which failed to have any real impact on the lives of citizens. In an effort to avoid projects like these and ensure that digital solutions and services not only benefit cities, but also make sense in people’s everyday lives, we’ve seen an increase in the application of co-creation methods. This is also the reason why the subtitle of our OrganiCity project is “co-creating smart cities of the future;” our ambition is to collaboratively develop digital solutions that will make cities a better place to live for us all.
But what do we mean when we say we adopt a ‘co-creation’ approach and ask our experimenters to do so too?
Co-creation is a strategy where multiple stakeholders collaborate to produce a mutually beneficial outcome. There are a few principles that underpin this concept and make it easier to understand what we are looking for:
1. We are all equal; as is the knowledge we possess
Co-creation goes beyond the more commonly applied methods of user testing or end-user engagement in technology and service design. While the involvement of users is already an important step in designing solutions or services that are applicable in people’s everyday life, co-creation methods democratise design processes even further. While user involvement is anchored in an asymmetrical relationship, with the designer on one side and the user on the other, co-creation starts from a symmetrical and collaborative relationship between different stakeholders. Acknowledging that all parties bring different expertise to the process, and that these different forms of expertise are of equal value, is fundamental to this collaboration.
2. From human factor to human actor
In user involvement (also called user experience, user-centred design or end-user engagement), user experiences can become objectified as data repositories from where needs and requirements can just be extracted. Information that users provide is then considered to be rough or unprocessed data that designers and engineers need to analyse. The designer or product developer is in charge of the process and decides when, where and how the user should be involved. This approach is valuable when talking about the utility and performance of tools. However, in OrganiCity, we wish to combine utility studies with co-creation to facilitate the process, because it is open, interactive and can surprise us with new perspectives. Even though co-creation still needs facilitation, all people participating are encouraged to come with contributions throughout the design process – from the very first idea to the realisation of a product or service. Our interest, therefore, moves from a focus on utility to the value we can create together.
3. Technology as an enabler in society, versus people (as users) being defined in technological terms
When technology is developed for the sake of technology, we risk ending up with products that no one uses or solutions that are meaningless for many. We can only build sustainable cities with digital technologies when we first discuss what kinds of cities we wish to live and work in, and then assess how technology can enhance these visions. Within this context, co-creation methods can be useful for developing the direction for, or frame of, technology and the large amounts of data generated in cities. OrganiCity adopts this approach by connecting with local organisations of civic participation and by exploring, together with citizens, the challenges that exist in their cities. The main idea is that technology does not define who we are and what we strive for, but that we, as citizens, frame the ways in which technology can and should contribute to our lives.