Co-Creation as Methodology for Uncertain Times: Practice, Learnings, and Findings

Introduction

In this mini-series, we explore how Tactical Tech’s first youth-centered team co-created the public education intervention ‘What the Future Wants’, which was released in Spring 2022. In Part 1, we outlined why we chose co-creation as method to conduct the What the Future Wants workshops. In these times characterised by uncertainty, we found curiosity to be the best way to encourage young people to engage with difficult questions. Here, in Part 2, we dive into the workshops we conducted and share principles and practices that informed the co-creation process and findings from the workshops.

The What the Future Wants co-creation took the form of a workshop that was designed in three parts (explained below). We worked with six partners in the UK, Czech Republic, Ireland, Slovenia, North Macedonia, the Netherlands (and some associated partners in Germany, Turkey, Greece etc.). Approximately 200 young people (between the ages of 13 and 18) participated in around 10 workshops and were selected by our partners, both through existing networks and open calls. Some of the workshops were delivered by Tactical Tech in English, and in collaboration with the partners, and others were delivered independently by the partners, in their local language.

The workshop was designed in three parts, three hours each (occasionally shortened where necessary by the partner), which expanded in scale and perspective (individual, group, societal, planetary) as the participants progressed. There were always a facilitator, a note-taker, and a tech supporter. The three parts were:

  1. Digital Natives: There are many assumptions about young people and technology, but a lot of the time these assumptions are made from the outside looking in. This session is about young people’s perspective of technology, creating a space for them to share and reflect on experiences of growing up in a digital world, including the good, the bad, and their advice for future generations.
  2. Digital Influence: Doom scrolling, profiling, herding—there are many hidden influencers behind screens that shape what individuals see and sometimes how people act. So what can young people do to influence the influencers?
  3. Digital Ecosystem: Technology is not neutral, and it is often intertwined with the society in which it’s built. Looking outwards to the wider web of issues that technology is part of, young people try to understand when technology helps and when it harms, and who gets to make those decisions.

One of the first challenges was understanding the distinction between the different terms surrounding co-creation: ‘co-design’, ‘co-development’, ‘co-production’, which are often interchangeably used. A concern was that we could not claim co-creation if the created outputs were not directly designed and produced by the participants. However, it soon became clear that co-creation can take many forms and does not always result in co-design (the co-creation and design of a specific output within a community). Our approach of co-creation was focused on participatory action research, which we then used as the building blocks for creating the content.

Interlinked with this challenge was the dynamics of powerwhich are a recurring theme in co-creation analysis: ‘who decides the terms of engagement, what media is made and by whom, and why and who benefits from this type of project.’(1) As the designers of the workshop, and the creators of the resulting exhibition, we had to be very careful to not set the agenda of the space. How can you encourage open and exploratory questions if you do not have a structure or a starting point? We soon found out that a structure is necessary, and within that structure you need activities that act as starting points for thought and exploration.

Visual of "most and least favorite things" as defined by our sample of young people

Caption: Visual of "most and least favorite things" as defined by our sample of young people; courtesy of Dominika Knoblochová

Warm-up: Most and least favorite things about technology

As an example of a simple activity used to warm up the sessions, we gave participants space to share with us how they experience technology by stating 1) their favourite thing about technology and 2) their least favourite thing about technology. They could answer both the questions or just one. The answers that emerged gave us a surface-level insight into the worlds they were inhabiting. Some of the favourite things were simplelike  ‘sharing’, ‘finding inspiration’, ‘communication’, ‘organisation’, ‘(ability to) simplify tasks’. Others were more profound such as: ‘I don't know where I'd be if I wasn't able to create digital art and things like that’, ‘_technology can be a great way for people to get educated, to discover who they really are’, and ‘(my favourite thing) community, finding understanding, the possibility of expression’. Their _least favourite aspects of technology revealed the darker side of their day to day experience and included ‘body shaming’, ‘doom scrolling’, ‘when it stops working’, ‘difficult to distinguish fake from reality’ , ‘no accountability’, ‘cyberbullying’ and ‘the most irritating thing for me are the rules that are now in place for the internet. Those are quite old. So yeah, there aren't really any rules for the internet we have right now.’

Despite this being a short warm up activity, we came back to the answers time and again to remind ourselves of the where the participants were coming from, how they were defining the issues and what they wanted to protect.

Activity: How others see you

When we used stereotypes or pre-existing narratives, we used them as a provocation. One activity the ‘Stereotype Spectogram’ used common tropes about teens and technology taken from media headlines: ‘Teenagers are addicted to technology’, ‘Technology harms teenagers’ mental health’ and ‘Teenagers are vulnerable to fake news’. This acted as a counter-space, an opportunity for the participants to orient themselves close to or far away from an assumption that the ‘other’ (the media, parents, teachers) had made about them. Using a spectrogram—a scale with ‘agree’ on one end and ‘disagree’ on the other, and everything in between—we asked the participants to place themselves and then explain their position. For example, ‘teenagers are addicted to technology’ resulted in a vibrant discussion that showed the nuanced and often complicated reality that was not reflected in the blanket headline:

  • ‘it depends what you mean when you say "addicted" I don't spend every single waking moment on my phone and I could survive without it for a while but I would not have fun at all, some people are just dependent on it for dopamine tbh’.
  • ‘Probably true, not exclusive or necessarily a problem’
  • ‘It's a problem for many, however it is slightly misunderstood, as it is an evolution of socializing.’
  • ‘although teenagers are easily influenced by technology, i think that not just teenagers, but adults can get addicted to technology as well.’
  • ‘as a teenager myself, a lot of times i find myself looking always for some way to reach technology’
  • ‘the question is whether it is addiction due to necessity or "need", sometimes technologies provide an escape from unpleasant reality, which can then cause addiction’
  • ‘I was out for dinner the other day, and there was a couple out to dinner together. Well, that girl was on her phone, and that boy was watching football. And they were just going out to dinner together on a date. And then I think: yes, where is it going.’
  • ‘So the younger you are, the more dependent on your phone you are and you can't think otherwise.’
  • ‘We teenagers can't live without a phone. A lot happens on the phone, you have friends over the phone. If all your friends are on your phone and you're not on it, they'll look at you weird too.’

A surprising observation was that with all the ‘stereotype’ statements resulted in a distribution of responses across the scale, there was almost never a majority agreement or disagreement to a statement and as the discussion unfolded, some participants shifted their perspective to be more inclusive of somebody else’s experience.

Similarly, when we introduced the statement ‘technology harms teenagers’ mental health’ there was a broad spectrum of responses, such as:

  • ‘it's hard to realize, it's happening slowly, it's sneaky’
  • ‘Technology gives teenagers too much pressure’
  • ‘For me i have a short attention span because I always look at instagram posts for like 5 seconds and just keep scrolling and so irl i cant stay focused for a long period of time’
  • ‘I actually think social media educates us about mental health’
  • most of teenagers feel anxious just because of technology but at same time it can be exit from anxiety
  • like I said I don't know where I'd be without technology as so many things have helped my life for the better’
  • ‘I personally think it is very harmful. Because not only that teenagers deal with bullying at school, at the internet too. It also has super models on social media and u compare yourself to them which is mentally harmful.’

A few insights came from these discussions. In particular, it became clear that there was an awareness about the issues that we presented, even if they were over-simplified. Also, although many of the answers on paper lacked clear nuance, when in discussion with the young participants, there was an implicit nuance emerging, which could then be used to adapt the subsequent activities to a level that challenged the group without pushing them in any direction.

Lessons Learned

Setting the expectations, from both the facilitator and participant perspective, is really important and finding a balance between opportunity and capacity is a good starting point. Many opportunities may arise from doing a co-creation process: perhaps there is an unexpectedly high level of engagement and commitment from the participants, or various networks are created as a result of the collaborations, and this creates the opportunity for further collaboration and engagement.

At this point it’s important to ask: how much time commitment would that require? And do we have the capacity to carry out this additional collaboration in a sustainable and constructive way? To avoid unsustainable or aimless co-creation collaborations: communicate clearly (and early on) what is expected from the participants; decide on a start date and an end date for the co-creation process, or if there is no clear end-date, then state the reason for that; when new opportunities for collaboration present themselves, reflect on if there is enough capacity and time and, if they go ahead, then who is best suited to take them forward. It is very possible that at the point of closure, the participants can continue a form of co-creation or peer-to-peer learning independently.

Another challenge and learning was the documentation of the workshop. As the workshops were carried out by multiple partners in different formats, iterations and languages, we were not always able to thoroughly document the findings. An advantage of doing the workshops online was that it was much easier to capture the conversations and outcomes from group activities because they were centralised in one place, and on one platform. We also had one note-taker.

What the Future Wants exhibition set-up

Caption: What the Future Wants exhibition set-up; photo courtesy of La Loma

With the help of six partners, we ran around 10 of these co-creation workshops over the course of approximately 4 months in 2021, engaging approximately 200 young people (between the ages of 13 and 18). After compiling the results of the workshops, we at Tactical Tech analyzed common threads and particular areas of interest that recurred among the young people in these sessions. As it goes with Tactical Tech projects, the next steps involved several rounds of conceptualisation and iterations of our new resources. Some of the What the Future Wants materials matched with and were adapted from The Glass Room resources, while others were new and required research, development, prototyping and testing. Once the materials were finalized, the localization process followed. In Spring 2022, we launched What the Future Wants and began the next steps of building additional partnerships to see how the materials could be used in communities around the world.

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Original essay written by Daisy Kidd. Thanks to Dominika Knoblochová for coordination and support during the co-creation process. Reformatting and edits into a mini-series by Safa Ghnaim, Stefanie Felsberger, and Christy Lange. If you are working on similar topics and want to collaborate, we would love to hear from you. Please write to the team at youth@tacticaltech.org.

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Footnotes:

  1. Introduction and Overview by Katerina Cizek and William Uricchio; May 16, 2019; Works In Progress by MIT Press; https://wip.mitpress.mit.edu/pub/collective-wisdom-exec-sum-biographies/release/3

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