This revolution will be co-produced.

I’ve been mulling over ideas for an economic model that fits in with the concept of just sustainabilities. In the research for my latest book Introducing just sustainabilities: Policy, planning and practice (and the Series to follow it) my co-researcher Duncan McLaren introduced me to the idea of co-production. In its broadest sense it reflects the capabilities approach of Sen (1999). It sees people as assets not as burdens, invests in their capacities, promotes mutuality and reciprocity, facilitates rather than delivering and uses peer-support networks in addition to professionals to transfer knowledge and capabilities. In narrower, economic terms co-production refers to the involvement of the consumer in the manufacture of the goods and services they consume thereby blurring the distinction between producer and consumer.

Co-production is already emerging in several diverse arenas. While some of the trends (e.g. greater self-assembly of furniture) offer little benefit, others (e.g. domestic energy generation, timebanking/time-dollar schemes, self-build co-housing, open source software) exhibit key benefits in that people are reclaiming and reinventing work, refusing to be directed by the logic of capital, engaging their individual and collective capacities to invent, create, shape and co-operate without monetary incentive.

The New Economics Foundation, in Co-production. A manifesto for growing the core economy (NEF 2008 p11/12) note:

 “The past three decades have produced many successful examples of co-production in action around the world. People living in the squatter camps of Orangi in Karachi successfully provided themselves with drainage and mains water faster and at a far lower cost than the more accepted top-down method. Habitat for Humanity has made houses more affordable by including work building other people’s homes into the mortgage payments. Some programmes – notably the Bolsa Escuela scheme in Brazil that pays mothers to make sure their children attend school – have made direct payments to clients or their families to recognise the efforts they are making. ”

One can contrast the co-production model with labour specialisation in the capitalist model which leads to excess ‘leisure’ for some, the unemployed, with all the lack of purpose and stigma that label brings, and overwork for the rest, with the stress–related health effects that can bring. These extremes, together with the commodification of leisure itself means even less potential for self-fulfillment. Co-production differs from the Scandinavian and Dutch social contract models of capitalism. It would theoretically deliver some of the same outcomes in terms of sharing costs and responsibilities between employer, employees and state but through mechanisms that in many respects pool or aggregate individual freedoms into collective freedoms at a much smaller scale than that of the nation state. And the results are impressive:

 “If you are discharged from the Lehigh hospital outside Philadelphia, you will be told that someone will visit you at home, make sure you’re OK, if you have heating and food in the house. You are also told that the person who will visit you is a former patient, not a professional, and that – when you are well – you will be asked if you could do the same for someone else. The result is a dramatically cut re-admission rate, and all by using the human skills of patients and their own needs to feel useful.” (NEF 2008 p18)

In the U.K., the charity Nesta, working in partnership with NEF sees:

“Co-production [as] a new vision for public services which offers a better way to respond to the challenges we face – based on recognising the resources that citizens already have, and delivering services with rather than for service users, their families and their neighbours. Early evidence suggests that this is an effective way to deliver better outcomes, often for less money.”

Through a series of groundbreaking reports such as The challenge of co-productionPublic services inside out and Right here, right now, Nesta deepens our understanding and puts forward a convincing argument and evidence base for co-production across a range of public services and recommends a radical re-imagination of policy to support the diffusion of co-production. With widespread, contagious uptake (and co-production is reliant in many ways on the existence of social networks), no longer could waged jobs be assumed to define people, and no longer could they be a key basis for politics. Nor could consumerism hold such powerful sway over politics if greater levels of wellbeing were generated by such participatory activity, rather than by consumption of the end products.

In Wikinomics, Tapscott and Williams (2006) see co-production as a function enabled by new technology (especially participatory web-based networks – the eponymous ‘wiki’), emerging first in fields such as software and cultural products, and extending with the development of modular design and decentralised fabrication technologies (3D ‘printers’) to many other sectors, including industrial products. The growth of small-scale (domestic and community) renewable energy schemes and similarly, of local food production and distribution schemes offers an insight into how co-production can build capacities and increase freedoms (in terms of providing security from unstable and insecure global markets for food and energy).

Others amongst the emerging emanations of co-production may seem to involve the commoditisation of leisure, which could be a dangerous development in bringing even more of life into market spheres. Here the mechanisms and institutions will be critical if play and innovation are to become a foundation for co-production and just sustainabilities (Kane 2011), rather than co-opted into a new cycle of conventional economic development. Kane (2011) suggests that:

 “play can help redirect our passions from consumption to craft, from lifestyle narcissism to joyful participation, and thus live lighter (though just as richly) on the planet”and highlights: “the importance of craft – the personal construction of objects and services, as a route to meaning, mastery and autonomy … [and] the power of festivity and carnival – forms of collective, organised behaviour whose end is experiential pleasure, and whose means is participatory involvement.”

He concludes:

 “Communication and game platforms can amplify and coordinate this new, joyful activism. But the aim is to re-channel our playful natures from serving an isolated, subjective escapism, to supporting a civic, inter-subjective engagement.”

It is the potential of co-production to meet needs – not only the desire for novelty and entertainment and freedom, but also the needs for security, community and solidarity and identity – while transforming economic models away from the treadmill of production, growth and consumption that makes its potential so exciting. These are potentially revolutionary changes but such a revolution need not be violent nor will it necessarily be televised: this revolution will be co-produced.

Acknowledgements: Thanks to Duncan McLaren for his research and writing in the first chapter of my forthcoming book, and from which this blog was drawn.


Kane, P. (2011a) Radical Animal: Innovation, sustainability and human nature.

New Economics Foundation (2008). Co-production: A Manifesto for Growing the Core Economy. NEF. London.

Sen, A. (1999). Development as Freedom. Oxford, University Press.

Tapscott, D, and AD Williams, (2006). Wikinomics: How mass collaboration changes everything. London, Atlantic.


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