Co-creation Without Systems Thinking Can Be Dangerous

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Jul 07, 2016
Gerald Midgley

Article published in Integration and Implementation Insights.


Why does the theory and practice of co-creation need to be informed by systems thinking? Co-creation without a thorough understanding of systems thinking can be deeply problematic. Essentially, we need a theory and practice of systemic co-creation.

Three key things happen in any co-creation:

  1. It is necessary for a diversity of perspectives to engage.
  2. There is the synergistic innovation that results from this engagement.
  3. The innovation is meaningful in a context of use.

This is already a systemic definition, up to a point: parts (perspectives) are engaged in a whole (a dialogue or other form of collective engagement) that generates an emergent property (synergistic innovation), which is meaningful in context (it is useful).

However there are three problems with this, and they point to the need for a deeper form of systems thinking. The solutions to these problems then suggest principles for the effective practice of systemic co-creation.

Problem #1: synergy or conflict?

When diverse perspectives come together, this can either give rise to synergistic innovation or conflict and stigmatization. How do we enable the former rather than the latter? Or another way to ask this question: there will inevitably be tensions, even conflicts, but how can we make these productive rather than destructive?

All the participative processes that systems thinkers and social scientists design have one common characteristic: they seek to establish a productive context for the meeting of different perspectives which is the antithesis of destructive contexts that are known to stimulate violence (Collins 2008). According to Collins, there are two such contexts.

First, when one party believes that his or her peers expect violence, he or she is likely to oblige. Systems thinking workshops usually start with a discussion of principles of respectful listening, setting up the exact contrary expectation. There are also many ‘rituals’ embodied in the use of systems modeling methods, and these govern the order and form of people’s interactions. As such, they set new, demanding expectations that override any other peer expectations outside the room.

The second context that stimulates violence is when one party spots a fatal weakness in the other: ie., in lay terms, there is a collapse of the ‘balance of power’. The principle of ‘fair participation’ is common to all systemic processes, and we go to inordinate lengths to preserve it, thereby nullifying the potential for destructive conflict and stigmatization (the extreme form of which is violence), making the path of synergistic innovation much more likely.

The first principle for systemic co-creation is therefore to establish a generative context.

Problem #2: what if the synergistic innovation is not fit for context or has unforeseen side effects?

So, we have facilitated a synergistic innovation that people are committed to acting upon. Is this enough for us to say that the co-creation is beneficial? I suggest not, because people may have reached an accord on the basis of an insufficiently systemic understanding of their context: ie., the innovation might not actually be implementable or might not be effective if implemented. Alternatively, they may have an insufficiently systemic understanding of the possible consequences of their actions: ie., when the innovation will have unintended, unwanted side-effects. Referring back to the earlier definition of co-creation, these are issues relating to the context of use.

This is where a range of systemic modeling methods are of value. There are many methods for qualitatively or quantitatively modeling problematic situations in ways that increase awareness of complexity and multiple perspectives, and there are even more methods for modeling potential responses to this complexity (policies, service designs, etc.). These methods increase systemic awareness of possible actions and their consequences. They structure the dialogue process, supporting people in gaining systemic insights along the way to emergent, synergistic innovations. Because contexts and potential consequences have been explored, the resultant innovations are more likely to be useful and without unintended side-effects.

The second principle for systemic co-creation is therefore to use methods that enhance systemic awareness.

Problem #3: is the right issue being tackled, and are the right people being engaged?

So if you have used systems methods to facilitate a synergistic innovation, will this guarantee an effective co-creation? The answer might depend on who you ask! In the 1990s and 2000s, the emphasis in systems thinking shifted from systemic dialogue processes, of which there are many, to how a dialogue is constructed in the first place – who gets invited, who is excluded, who is marginalized, and how to address that marginalization. An important insight is that no participative process can include every possible perspective: comprehensiveness is impossible, and we need to think about how inclusions and exclusions (of both people and the issues they are concerned with) can be justified. Judgements on this, and how to address conflict and marginalization through the design of participative processes, are the essence of systemic intervention. (Werner Ulrich and I have both written on this topic, references below.)

The third principle for systemic co-creation is to reflect from the outset on the remit, who needs to be involved, and how to address conflict and marginalization – and revisit these reflections as new systemic insights emerge.


We can now reverse engineer these principles to arrive at a methodological process for facilitating systemic co-creation:

  1. Start by reflecting on what should be the remit, who needs to be involved, and how to address conflict and marginalization, taking account of multiple possibilities for all of these (and revisit these reflections as new systemic insights emerge).
  2. As the necessary extent and nature of the participation becomes clear, choose appropriate methods to enhance systemic awareness (and there are many such methods for every purpose from evaluation through to strategy and service design).
  3. Use a process of applying these methods that creates a generative context: create expectations of mutual respect and solidify these in ritual, ensuring fair engagement.

Co-creation sounds like a great thing, but without systems thinking it can be deeply problematic.


Collins, R. (2008). Violence: A Micro-Sociological Theory. Princeton University Press: Princeton, USA.

Midgley, G. (2000). Systemic Intervention: Philosophy, Methodology, and Practice. Kluwer/Plenum: New York, USA.

Ulrich, W. (1994). Critical Heuristics of Social Planning: A New Approach to Practical Philosophy. Wiley: Chichester, UK.

Biography: Gerald Midgley is Professor of Systems Thinking in the Centre for Systems Studies, Business School, University of Hull, UK. He also holds Adjunct Professorships at the University of Queensland, Australia; the University of Canterbury, New Zealand; Mälardalen University, Sweden; and Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. He publishes on systems thinking, operational research and stakeholder engagement and has been involved in a wide variety of public sector, community development, third sector, evaluation, technology foresight and resource management projects. He is a member of the Co-Creative Capacity Pursuit funded by the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC).

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