The Creative Communities team all have different areas of expertise and a wealth of diverse experience across the cultural and creative industries. As one of the two senior research fellows in the team, my research specialism is co-creation. Co-creation is a collaborative approach to working whereby the people who use something are empowered to make it. The central goal of co-creation is often transformation or change. It centres values such as equality and diversity, accessibility, mutual benefit and reciprocity between collaborators, as well as welcoming innovative new ideas. The process partnership in co-creation enables new connections and strengthens existing connections; ideas and experience are shared, and awareness and understanding are built.
Co-creation ‘can be the very glue that creates community’.[i] It is these aspects of co-creation that make it a key approach for Creative Communities – a place based, cross-sector R&D collaboration bringing together diverse partners with the shared objective to generate economic and social value through the delivery of new cultural activity. Examining the reality of co-creation in R&D and culture has been core to my phase one work on the programme in order to better understand the value of co-creation as a process, as well as its complexities.
I have written about co-creation previously as a research assistant and before that as part of my doctorate. However, the co-creation in my collaborative research projects and my PhD thesis were very much focussed on co-creation in relation to business and entrepreneurship in the creative industries, focussing on the worlds of design and innovation. Co-creation in these domains can happen between a business and its customers with a goal of creating more relevant products and processes. This can involve things like the user testing of new technology, or the design and development of products with the input of focus groups. The result of this work is often economic value, helping businesses to engage more fully with their customers’ needs, develop innovative products, and make greater sales.
Specifically in the creative industries, co-creation between businesses or organisations in a shared sector may lead to the development of interventions or opportunities that benefit the collaborators. Think artists and makers coming together with an arts organisation to create an exhibition or host a market event. The benefit of this kind of work might be economic value, through selling work or accessing new future opportunities to explore ideas, innovate, and make and sell new products. Such co-creation may also offer social value, as links are built between collaborators that provide opportunity for peer support, knowledge exchange, and the developing of networks, as well as camaraderie and friendship.
I soon realised that these areas where I was most experienced were a very different world to co-creation in and with communities. Many AHRC R&D projects that draw on co-creation with communities do so to address serious issues in a community, rooted in complex social, cultural, economic and political contexts. Having an awareness of these contexts, and the power dynamics held within them, is vital. While these co-created activities may produce economic value, it is the social and cultural value that holds greatest importance. While social and cultural value may arrive as an outcome, the process of co-creation that can very much deliver these benefits. This could take the shape of a charity working alongside a local refugee community to help them feel a greater sense of connection to their new surroundings and boost wellbeing as well as civic identity or to school children in a coastal town recording their favourite seaside noises along a stretch of National Trust dunes and beaches, helping them to connect with environmental issues as well as building pride in place. This is delicate work, and although co-creation centres ideals of equitably building practical knowledge that can spark transformation, promoting reciprocity and partnership, and empowering marginalised communities, there are issues and barriers too.
Co-creation is not a ‘one-size fits all’ solution to tackling shared issues. It must be applied thoughtfully and with respect for the context through collective agreement. The relationships necessary to make co-creation work takes a huge amount of time to invest in building trust.[ii] Complicated language and differences in terminology can make engaging these new relationships difficult and can alienate collaborators.[iii] Multiple stakeholders can make defining roles in collaborative teams uncertain and leave gaps in action and accountability.[iv] These factors make co-creation in R&D difficult to get right. By partnering with universities and other academic institutions and researchers, communities can enhance their access to skills, equipment, and networks. However, capacity for communities to engage in research partnerships can be limited by issues including time commitments, local priorities, and the baggage of previous negative experiences when working with academics. While co-creation can help to empower communities, it can also worsen inequalities if context is not properly considered.[v]
This is why it is so important that the Creative Communities creates an evidence base for what works and what barriers exist in community co-creation of R&D – including collaboration, partnership working and the crucial creation of capacity – if we want to preserve and create new, inclusive approaches to innovation going forwards. Our first steps in doing this have been to conduct a deep dive into a decade of AHRC funded R&D in the UK involving communities, co-creation and partnership working. By mapping out these examples and identifying case studies across the UK that represent good practice, we demonstrate how AHRC-funded R&D delivered through co-creation can strengthen resilience, facilitate community cohesion and enhance participation in the innovation ecosystem.
One of my favourite projects from our audit of over a decade of AHRC funded projects involving ‘communities’, ‘partnership’ and ‘culture’ is Maker-Centric: Building Place-Based, Co-Making Communities (2016). Maker-Centric is a unique example of collaborative R&D as the director of an organisational partner, Craftspace, led on the project as a co-investigator. This is rare, but a practice we advocate for at Creative Communities to boost R&D links to a community. The programme used ‘making-in-place’ – craft activities in locations across the Midlands – as a method for communities to reimagine place, heritage, and identity. Through creative practice, knowledge exchange, and creative re-use of materials and clothes the project tackled isolation, built community resilience and agency, and promoted sustainable thinking. Crucially, the project team embedded the research in communities through long-term partnership with local organisations, helping to establish that all-important trust between the project team and the communities they worked with.
Another great example is Black Lives Matter: Usable Pasts and International Futures (2016), a co-created research network delivering projects to envision future BLM activist-scholar partnerships. This included mapping antislavery murals and memorials; producing an oral history that narrates the work of Ukaidi, a Nottingham-based civil rights and black community organisation; delivering a free five-week community-based BLM course about coalition building and black leadership; developing a BLM roadshow of workshops and resources visiting six other UK cities and creating a digital map of UK organisations that are part of the Movement for Black Lives. Drawing on partnerships with local activists, archives, and organisations, the network used this series of co-created interventions to reframe protest histories as tools that can be used for the future. The result is a vital community asset – a living archive of open access activism that can be built on by the community for years to come, informing civic identity and pride in place.
Other Everests: Commemoration, Memory and Meaning and the British Everest Expedition Centenaries (2021-2024) is a brilliant research network that critically reappraises British Everest campaigns from 1921-1924. Decolonising and reframing popular narratives in commemoration, collections, and mountaineering culture, it stands out for me for its goal to uncover the hidden histories of historic expeditions and give voice to the contributions made by indigenous expertise, as well as the considerable damage indigenous communities sustained as a result of mountaineering – a perspective on this history I had never considered before. Exploring good practice in interpretation of collections, as well as tackling the environmental and social impacts of contemporary adventure tourism, the project promotes sustainable tourism and platforms community-led research from India, Nepal, and Tibet.
The insights Creative Communities has taken from these three case studies, and the many others featured in our new report, By All, For All: The Power of Partnership, have helped to inform future recommendations as well as the next stages of the Creative Communities programme. As we move in to our second year, I’m excited to launch the Community Innovation Practitioner (CIP) pilot, where we’re working closely with the AHRC to award £55,000 of additional funding to five universities or research organisations holding an AHRC Impact accelerator account (IAA) so they can host a Community Innovation Practitioner (CIP). CIPs will be embedded in existing collaborative cross-sector research projects across the four nations of the UK, capturing knowledge about co-creation and the roles of communities and partnerships in R&D.
This is a rare opportunity to create new knowledge and award funding that reflects wider moves towards devolution and community empowerment. I am looking forward to working with successful applicants to co-create research on co-creation, as well to dig much deeper into the lived reality of the complex processes of collaborative, co-created R&D across the UK.
[i] Oliver, J., Armstrong, J., Curtis, E., Curtis, N., & Vergunst, J. (2021). ‘Exploring Co-production in Community Heritage Research: Reflections from the Bennachie Landscapes Project’, p. 197. Journal of Community Archaeology & Heritage, 9(3), 196-215.
[ii] Campbell, H. J., & Vanderhoven, D. (2016). ‘Knowledge that Matters: Realising the Potential of Co-production’. N8/ESRC Research Programme. https://eprints.whiterose.ac.uk/99657/1/Final%20Report%20-%20Co-Production%20-%20%202016-01-20.pdf
[iii] Banks, M. (2014). ’Being in the Zone of Cultural Work’. Culture Unbound, 6(1), 241-262.
[iv] Thomas-Hughes, H. 2018. ‘Critical Conversations with Community Researchers – Making Co-Production Happen?’ Bristol: University of Bristol and AHRC Connected Communities. https://connectedcommunities.org/index.php/project_resources/connected-communities-catalyst-fundreports-2016-18/
[v] Bell, D. M., & Pahl, K. (2018). ‘Co-production: Towards a Utopian Approach’. International journal of social research methodology, 21(1), 105-117; also see Farr, M. (2018). ‘Power Dynamics and Collaborative Mechanisms in Co-production and Co-design Processes’. Critical Social Policy, 38(4), 623-644; and Local Government Association (2019a) Culture-led regeneration: achieving inclusive and sustainable growth. https://www.local.gov.uk/sites/default/files/documents/Culture-led%20regeneration%20achieving%20inclusive%20and%20sustainable%20growth.pdf
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