When I started work on this blog series about how some of the world’s biggest development problems will only be solved through the demanding process of co-creation, I didn’t anticipate it would coincide with a sobering real-time example of what I was talking about.
Yet here we are, caught in a global pandemic that is way beyond the capacity of any one actor or sector — from government to business to non-profit — to handle. It is demanding a higher level of cooperation and collaboration. It requires co-creation.
By virtue of its being rooted in an open-handed, non-territorial attitude, co-creation is typically a measured process that takes time. The different participants need to understand, trust, and be willing to defer to one another in pursuit of a larger, shared goal. It can be slow going.
As such, co-creation tends to be a pro-active rather than a reactive approach. But as we have seen over these past few weeks, when situations demand it, people can move more quickly. A major crisis can focus our attention on what really matters. You might say that we have learned this — you don’t just get to choose co-creation; sometimes it chooses you.
The process of responding co-creatively to COVID-19 has not been perfect, by any means. But I have been encouraged to see the way in which traditionally siloed parties have been working together in new ways — for instance, with police and health services in Europe partnering to trace coronavirus carriers.
The global response to the coronavirus underscores many of the points I have made in previous articles about co-creation. Among them, the need to:
Have a clear shared goal. Minimizing loss of life is the primary shared goal in this situation, naturally, but there are other factors at play. For example, economics — which, long-term, also has an impact on quality of life and health incomes. And then there are political concerns, too. Agreeing upon a united and unifying vision requires honesty and a willingness to let go of personal agendas.
Have an attitude of humility. There are serious questions to be asked about what and who went wrong in this COVID-19 outbreak. Future responses will only be better if we learn from the past. For example, the review after the last big Ebola outbreak contains many good lessons of what we could have learned and prepared for before this new virus hits Africa at full scale. Local to Global Protection summarizes some of those lessons—including from Geneva Global—in a report on community-led responses to COVID-19.
At Geneva Global we have long included this kind of “lessons learned” review as part of the completion of any project. Learning from our own and other’s experiences — good or bad — is a key part of where humility pays many dividends. South Korea and Singapore used their previous experience of battling SARS and MERS to good effect, whereas others did not.
However, if we are not careful, without humility we can spend valuable time focusing on who’s to blame when that time should be devoted to solving the immediate problem; the inquest can wait. That all requires a willingness to put aside issues of who gets the credit (or the criticism).
Working co-creatively more quickly than you might like, such as now, also means that there is going to be more chance of making mistakes and having to revise as you go — all requiring a heightened commitment to accepting there are going to be bumps along the way.
Have a willingness to be flexible. Co-creation has been described as a bit like building a plane while in flight, and we have seen some of that as public health practices and advisories change in the light of new information. That is just part of the nature of going into new territory, which co-creation is. You’re going to need to adjust to the changing landscape. That can be hard for organizations that are big (read: “rigid”) on systems and policies, and often have struggled in changing their supply chains and embracing the private sector.
It can be done, though. Just look how much we have adjusted to an online way of doing business and life, from board meetings to family get-togethers. Or what about the way in which so much shopping has turned to home delivery or pick up? We have learned that, when push comes to shove, we can flex further than we might think (or be comfortable with). As the old saying goes, necessity is the mother of invention.
Let’s not forget…
If all this provokes you to consider co-creation more seriously, it will be helpful to acknowledge that co-creation requires some special skills. If you want your organization to be an effective participant in co-creative endeavors, you need people who know how to navigate the particular organizational, operational, and individual challenges involved. And it will also help to undertake an honest review of how well you have cooperated or collaborated in the past — co-creation light, if you will — with others. This can inform what skills, competencies, alliances, and partnerships you need to seek now.
Though the current COVID-19 crisis highlights some of the challenges of co-creation, I believe that, more than anything it spotlights the crucial need for more of us to embrace it as a way of tackling some of the world’s biggest problems, especially in a globalized society.
As one columnist incisively observed recently, while the coronavirus has of course caused untold suffering in the Northern Hemisphere that should not be minimized in any way. The Virus has also brought home to us a grim everyday reality for millions of people around the world.
Namely, that when this current crisis is over for us and things evolve to our new normal, their reality is in some ways merely an ongoing lesser version of COVID-19: daily exposure to deadly diseases, inadequate health care, economic insecurity, and fear.
Sensitized as we currently are, I hope we may be galvanized to do that hard work of co-creation, the critical path to making the significant changes needed by so many poor communities the world over.