What co-creation looks like: a future-making primer

“The human brain had a vast memory storage. It made us curious and very creative. Those were the characteristics that gave us an advantage — curiosity, creativity and memory. And that brain did something very special. It invented an idea called ‘the future.’”
— David Suzuki

Consider the notion that an organic world surrounds us with natural flux, flow, and movement.

The cluster of soft machines at its axis — as our collective ego would place us — is humankind, which interacts with the trees and the beasts; the tidal currents and temperatures. Or mucks them all up, as Suzuki rightly, and poetically, suggests.

Suzuki’s brain-as-computer metaphor points to weakness as much as advantage. A computer acts and reacts predictably. In order to change its functions, it has to be reprogrammed to understand and calculate new input. It’s a powerful engine, but transistors alone cannot adapt to whatever future awaits — hopefully, a future that’s incrementally better — without a radical intervention.

In the Forbes article Why co-creation is the future for all of us, Danielle Batist prescribes the first reprogramming task: identifying broken systems.

Facing challenges on social, economic, and environmental fronts — from unsustainable value chains, to unequal citizenship — the soft machine of humankind must identify and dismantle all assumptions that prop up the status quo.

“Social entrepreneurs have long been inventing solutions to problems that governments or businesses were unable to tackle, and in many instances, had helped to create,” Batist explains. “But to solve the problems of our time at the scale and speed required, it is crucial to look beyond the traditional social and business sector divide.”

Could the answer to social solutions lie with capitalists? Could the answer to corporate sustainability lie with activists?

‘We’ve got to work together’ — that devastatingly simple and ineluctable mandate — applies across individuals, groups, industries, and economies.

But are we truly capable of the collaborative scale invoked by such a statement? How might we reorganize our collective assets when they’re already so entrenched within the predictable, almost comforting silos that we know and expect?

Batist notes that almost 60% of the 150 most important economic entities in the world are companies, not countries. Knowing this — as long as you look through an asset-reorganizing lens — there’s untold potential.

She quotes Stephanie Schmidt, Managing Director at Ashoka Europe, who views the operational know-how, product development savvy, and distribution channels of the corporate sector as invaluable for the social sector, and vice versa:

“In times of crisis, social entrepreneurs have demonstrated their capacity to turn traditional business logic upside down, decrease the cost of their solution as much as possible, operate on a shoestring budget and be extremely ‘client’-focused. All of these things could be very valuable for companies.”

In order to meet challenges and invent a better future, therefore, those striving for societal impact must look laterally towards those working towards market penetration. Could the answer to social solutions lie with capitalists? And could the answer to corporate sustainability lie with status quo-challenging activists?

In The Guardian’s Co-creation is the new crowdsourcing, John Williams describes the harvestable benefits of disciplinary collision:

“Even the greatest creative rarely knows the complete answer — usually they know part of it or have a hunch. Someone somewhere probably knows another part of the solution, and so on, until a complete picture appears. By collaborating, we get to the solution quicker, and often with more elegance.”

Co-creation — as described by Williams — is a planning tool that helps to turn small, bad ideas into big, great ones. But it differs from straight-up collaboration in one very important, very ground-shaking way.

When we co-create, we don’t know where we’ll end up.

Where collaboration sees the solution — “let’s get together and map out the path to this” — co-creation is essentially informed wandering. Which can be scary, because the soft machine of the human brain likes to see around corners. Familiarity makes us comfortable, and uncertainty makes us averse. Especially with money at stake.

Co-creation seeks to create value between companies, people, and solutions in a way that goes beyond the rational and the quantitative. It pushes us to be courageous; to seek out diversity, turn conventional interpretations upside-down, and invest our emotions and passions into the mix. All without an end-game.

THNKers Robert Wolfe, Lieselotte Nooyen, and Menno van Dijk wrote a primer called How to start riffing: 9 pointers for co-creation, beginning by borrowing Pixar lead Michael Johnson’s skill-definition of ‘being good in the room’, otherwise defined by Philips alumni Stefano Marzano as the ability to ‘cook at the table’.

As soft machines, say Wolfe, Nooyen, and van Dijk, we’re wired to avoid riffing — especially in groups, and especially inside the context of economic or corporate performance. It’s a rare gift, but we can cultivate a skill to riff as soon as we can recognize the mental habits, thoughts, and beliefs that get in our way:

  • I don’t know exactly what to do — and that is bad;
  • I need to be in control of what is happening, and I am not — and that is bad;
  • I’d better just play it safe, to make sure things don’t turn on me;
  • This is not working. I’m switching off.

In uncertain spaces and moments, we rest on the razor’s edge of sitting with discomfort and pressing through it to stay open, or retreating. THNK’s method creates space and time for landing on the right side. Creativity can’t occur in a vacuum, they say. Like us, it needs give-and-take: “One person will not be able to paddle a boat anywhere really new or exciting,” the piece begins. During THNK sessions, participants are reminded of good boat-handling technique:


When it feels like something isn’t working, a defense mechanism in our brain triggers a desire to switch off — to not be present, to not try, to think about something else. Counter it by leaning into the process, often meant quite literally as physically leaning your bodyweight towards the others, connecting with them and their perspective.


In an article on what Google looks for in new hires, Thomas Friedman quotes Google’s Laszlo Bock in stressing the ability to take and quickly give up control as one of the most important collaborative traits. Bock calls it emergent leadership. We say ‘share control’ rather than ‘give it up’. Creative leadership assumes each team member has a responsibility for the process and takes an active role in it. Think again of the metaphor of paddling a canoe on a fast river: there is no rudder; no one is holding a central control mechanism. The control is shared by the entire team; each team member handling one paddle.


Building on others is fundamentally different from distributing work to free up time or to increase output. Building on others entails combining creative input and having one’s creative contribution trigger the other team members’ additions. The result is a product where the individual contributions have merged — a truly co-created output. This is the essence of the creative leadership saying “no one is perfect but a team can be”.

Wolfe, Nooyen, and van Dijk go on to explore how our competitive tendencies serve as further blockers of riffing, and suggest rethinking the concept of ownership:

“The myth of the genius who comes up with brilliant ideas is counterproductive to reaching the riffing state. If we see ideas as floating around and not being tied to our egos we can riff much easier.”

There’s much more in THNK’s original article. Read it through, and begin to let go of results as your primary motivator. You and your collaborators may find the confidence to amplify other parts of the brain that allow for surprise insights, serendipity and breakthroughs.

Experiment! Make mistakes! Celebrate every one, because there’s no such thing as a breakthrough without a few breaks on the front end.

Neil Gaiman expertly maps out the path to a better future for our individual soft machines as well as our collective, and there’s no better tribute to the virtue and sum effect of co-creation:

“I hope that in this year to come, you make mistakes. Because if you are making mistakes, then you are making new things, trying new things, learning, living, pushing yourself, changing yourself, changing your world. You’re doing things you’ve never done before, and more importantly, you’re doing something.”

Kate Inglis is an author and storyteller-in-residence at THNK in Vancouver. Originally published at www.thnk.org on March 3, 2015.