Among the great achievements of co-creation and co-design in the post-industrial world, for which designers can take some responsibility, are the mountains of rubbish in municipal tips. More useful, I hope, are the techniques of co-creation and co-design that our Institute uses, when appropriate, at the scoping stage of a CRI Member’s design project.

Scoping is the indispensable first stage of design, involving open-ended and non-judgmental collaboration with stakeholders and experts in other disciplines, to explore what are sometimes called ‘fuzzy front ends’, ‘problem spaces’ or ‘wicked problems’. Scoping is collaborative, participatory, and user-centred.

In these respects, scoping is similar to the crafts of co-creation and co-design (not surprising since they all share the same progenitors of participatory and user-centred design crafts). The techniques of co-creation and co-design include brainstorming, appreciative dialogue, generative tools, and the sharing of ideas and methods with the aim of releasing a person’s—every person’s—unacknowledged innate creativity. For some advocates of co-creation and co-design, these are sexy new crafts, part of an ideology of openness, collaboration and participation in design—a celebration of democratic values. But these crafts are not new: they were being advocated at the end of the nineteenth century by Arthur D Little, adapted by George Prince and Bill Gordon as synectics, and advocated by E De Bono, A Koestler, and H Read, among others throughout the 1960s and ’70s.

Ironically, the current advocates for these ideas describe them in such vague and abstract terms that they invite scepticism, all the more so as some of them are information designers (or ‘sensemakers’ to use their term). When questioned recently about this irony, they reacted with hostility in much the same way as members of a cult react, claiming esoteric knowledge that the rest of us can only acquire by joining them, thus compounding the irony: we strongly believe in making sense and sharing with everybody, but not when it comes to making sense or sharing. A kinder interpretation might be that this vagueness is a deliberate strategy for maintaining a non-judgemental ethos.

For the wider community who are interested in these rediscovered and reinvented crafts, here are some of the questions you might like to ask a practitioner before handing over your money:

  • What are the antecedents of the methodology?
  • How rigorously is it defined?
  • What is the evidence in terms of before and after results, outcomes, and unexpected consequences?
  • Is it replicable in a variety of contexts?
  • Where does the money trail go: who pays, who gets paid, who benefits financially from the outcome, who gets the ROI?
  • Who gains and who loses power and control?
  • Where does it sit in a mature communication design practice?
  • Is it a sustainable practice?

The last of these questions is particularly pertinent in our time, since a great deal of design is still directed at finding new ways for us to increase our consumption—much of which ends up as landfill.

My advice is: if you cannot get satisfactory answers to at least some of these questions, then like many before them offering unsustainable and evidence-free design practices, these advocates might just be contributing to the co-creation of our collective rubbish.

On the other hand, co-creation may be the answer we have all been waiting for…