How to make co-production work in the built environment

More built environment professionals are keen to involve communities in the design and delivery of developments in a more meaningful way. Co-production is one way to do this as our new community engagement report shows.

Co-production refers to the joint delivery of projects and services between community members and decision-makers.

This collaborative approach has been widely adopted in the design of health and social services. However, such deep community involvement has only recently gained traction in the built environment sector.

But questions remain about what co-production involves. Our research found evidence of “co-washing”, where the term was applied to an engagement process that did not devolve any decision-making power to community representatives.

Last year, a series of Future of London events explored how co-production is working in the built environment sector as part of the Rethinking Community Engagement programme. The resulting report, Making the Case for Co-production, captures the learning from these events, including practical principles to support the development of sector-wide standards.

Download the summary and Co-production Principles
Download the full report

By publishing this report, Future of London wants to encourage practitioners and community groups to embed co-production by putting our Co-production Principles into practice.

What are the benefits of co-production?

Co-production involves sharing or handing over power to the community, which makes co-production fundamentally different from other forms of public engagement such as consulting.

The benefits include creating a sense of community ownership and producing better outcomes for people who live in new or redeveloped places.

As part of the regeneration of South Thamesmead Garden Estate (pictured), developer Peabody set up a “community design collective” with partners including the Greater London Authority and ten residents to develop and steer the scheme. One resident said:

“No one will ever get everything they want because we’re working by committee, and you’ll always have to compromise. But we did actually have an influence, which is more than we’ve had in the past.”

However, co-production does not guarantee consensus, as we discovered in LB Newham with the Custom House regeneration scheme. The community group who worked with the council to select community representatives ended up voting against the scheme in a ballot.

Challenging the barriers to co-production

There are barriers to the wider adoption of co-production as a mainstream practice. These include skills, resources and finding ways to share the power and information needed to make decisions, which are held by local authorities, developers or consultants.

There also has to be organisational buy-in on the practitioner side and acceptance of the ways co-production can change housing and regeneration schemes for the better. We heard of one co-produced scheme hitting problems at the planning stage when the community ambition ran into the reality of the local planning system .

“Councillors and planners need a better understanding of co-production,” according to the regeneration director of a large housing association. “Bringing residents to the planning committee would also help demonstrate the value of a scheme that’s based on what the community actually wants.”

Our research also found a lack of evidence of the costs and quantifiable benefits of co-production. Measuring the success of a process would help make the business case to public and private sector partners.

Equally, we heard that the costs and delay resulting from local opposition to a scheme should also be considered.

Our report concludes that mitigating the inherent power imbalance between stakeholders is essential to create ownership of the process by everyone involved.

To support the development of standards in the built environment sector, Future of London has developed Co-production Principles based on workshop discussions. The fundamentals are:

  • Sharing power
  • Sharing knowledge
  • Being inclusive

Our Co-production Principles will help create a shared understanding – amongst both practitioners and community groups – of what co-production involves in the built environment, and what good practice looks like.

We’re keen for people and organisations to start using them to improve their work – and we’d love your feedback!

Download the summary and Co-production Principles
Download the full report

South Thamesmead picture: DiamondGeezer on Flickr under Creative Commons

Thanks to our sponsors

Thanks to Arup, Countryside, Historic England, Mount Anvil and Pollard Thomas Edward, who made the Rethinking Community Engagement project possible.