What is co-production – and how can it change the built environment?

The built environment sector is getting better at community engagement. One tool that’s becoming increasingly popular is co-production, as we discovered at our recent event.

Co-production is the joint delivery of projects and services between community members and built environment organisations. Done well, co-production delivers better outcomes for all parties – including communities, councils, developers and architects.

However, this popularity is a double-edged sword. As co-production becomes more mainstream, the term is being used more frequently – but often in a way that doesn’t match community expectations of what a co-production process should look like. This is an example of “co-washing”, and it’s a very real issue for the sector.

“Co -production is often spoken about, but quite often it can be a mask to hide the real agenda of the council or the developer” 

Richard Lee, Just Space

So, how do you avoid co-washing?

On 25 November 2022, we brought together people from local authorities, housing associations, the private sector, and community representatives to explore co-production in more detail. Here’s what we found out.

Co-production is a process, not an outcome – we need to go on the journey as equal partners.

“A better built environment is just one benefit of true co-production – it’s also about the journey of achieving this together” 

Sophia de Sousa, The Glass House Community-Led Design

There’s a strong desire to do co-production, and to get it right. The number of people who joined us, and the enthusiasm that we saw at our event, presents a brilliant opportunity to embed the practice of co-production into the sector.

But this needs to be done thoughtfully: a focus on physical outcomes, and not a relational process, has meant community groups remain wary of councils and developers.

All parties engaged in co-production need to be held accountable for delivering a meaningful, reciprocal and mutually beneficial process.

Co-production workshop

Co-production is just one tool in our box – councils and developers need to be braver about admitting this. 

Right now, it’s unrealistic and untruthful to claim co-production can be applied to the whole development process. We need to be targeted about where, when, and why we use co-production,” says Sophia de Sousa of The Glass House.

Communities appreciate this and welcome more transparency about what can and can’t be co-produced. The challenge is for councils and developers to be brave and honest from the offset.

“I think one of the biggest problems is that we’re not very good at being open about what’s up for grabs and what’s not… We’re often not brave enough to say what we are trying to achieve.

Osama Shoush, LB Southwark

Three clear calls to action for the sector

  1. As an emerging practice, sector case studies of true co-production are few. Delegates asked for more examples of co-production, and more training in how to do co-production well.
  2. There’s no current standard for co-production in the built environment. There’s a strong desire for a sector standard or a definition, which can be used to hold all those involved in co-production processes to account.
  3. Co-production is relational. This means it’s critical that we continue to discuss and explore what it means for both community representatives and practitioners. Those who joined us last Thursday made it clear that they wanted to continue this discussion in the future.

For more information about our Rethinking Community Engagement programme, please get in touch with Sophie Nellis