Coproduction is today’s buzz word in housing and regeneration, but can it deliver what matters for communities?
Rowan Mackay considers the possibilities
In the last few years, a method of public engagement known as coproduction has emerged from the niches of social care policy into the mainstream practices of sectors from transport to education and even banking. Within built environment sectors and specifically the fields of architecture, planning, housing and regeneration coproduction has raised the bar for the role communities can expect to play in how their homes, neighbourhoods and cities are managed and change.
Done well, coproduction can provide a mechanism through which communities are able to negotiate genuine control over the delivery and long-term ownership and management of urban development projects from housing to workplaces, community facilities and green spaces. Like any new terminology though, coproduction can mean everything and nothing, and definitions vary depending on who you speak to.
In a sector where superficial tick-box forms of engagement are continuously re-packaged to gloss over what can at best be extractive and at times exploitative experiences for residents and communities, coproduction is the gloss of the moment. So much so that the term is arguably well on its journey into meaninglessness, joining the likes of ‘engagement’ and ‘participation’, condemned to the copywriter’s box of synonyms for ‘doing things with people’ until enough time has passed for a re-brand – ‘collaboration’, anyone?
At a time when urban inhabitants have grown accustomed to their relative powerlessness in the face of urban development and the damaging social impact of ‘regeneration’, coproduction has become the buzz word for an industry desperate to demonstrate it can do things differently.
Beyond semantics then, what it is that coproduction offers that other forms of public engagement (or whatever you want to call it) do not? And what can we as practitioners do to ensure these ideas lead to lasting change for communities most at risk from the disruptive forces of urban development?
If you’re not talking about power, it isn’t coproduction.
The term coproduction was originally coined by political economist Elinor Ostrom in the 1970’s and has been common practice within health and social care services for many years. In this context it is commonly understood as a “a relationship where professionals and citizens share power to plan and deliver support together, recognising that both have vital contributions to make in order to improve quality of life for people and communities” 1.
Outside of social care, this emphasis on power and re-shaping relationships between ‘users’ and ‘providers’ has made it an attractive proposition across a host of service industries. In the UK in particular, interest in the concept grew in the wake of the 2008 economic crash, as the apparent transferability of the idea drew the attention of organisations, political parties and others looking for ways to reform parts of the economy.
For urban communities, and particularly those without the privilege of political or economic influence, for whom urban regeneration can be a violent and destabilising process, the prospect of re-shaping relationships and shifting power in these processes is a particularly attractive proposition. Putting coproduction into practice in an urban development context though has been less than simple. For the practitioners, activists, academics and others trying to do this, a major challenge has been the complexity of the development process itself. This may in part be the reason we see such diverse interpretations of coproduction in the field – as individual actors try to reform their own small areas of influence within the global machine of financialised urban development.
It’s all about building trust.
One intervention that has recently begun to make a difference in changing the role of communities within, as well as their influence over these processes is the resident steering group or project committee. This form of engagement, whereby representatives from both the community and lead stakeholder to a project – typically a local authority – share equal representation within a group established to advise or make decisions over the lifetime of a project, is certainly a progression on from the punctuated moments of ‘inclusion’ communities are usually afforded within conventional engagement processes.
In addition to increasing the frequency of face-to-face interactions between those with power and those without, the steering group or committee model re-focusses the emphasis of these interactions towards building the levels of trust necessary for a long-term relationship to function. By conceiving of engagement as an ongoing process that may even continue beyond the development project itself, coproduction is placing relational aspects – think trust, conflict and care – at the top of the agenda for public engagement practice. In doing so, actors including local authorities, housing associations and even some developers are having to learn an entirely new way of relating to and working with the communities they serve.
Of course, a steering group alone does not mean you are working in coproduction (and be warned anyone tries to convince you otherwise). The kind of cultural and structural changes required to realise a different power dynamic between communities and local authorities, tenants and landlords, those with and those without power in urban development processes requires buy-in at every level of governance and a willingness to un-learn deep-rooted paternalism within our institutions.
While this may sound like an impossible task, some are already exploring how coproduction can work in practice. In the London Borough of Newham, the local authority have been working with residents of Custom House Estate for over two years on plans to re-develop parts of their estate. Resident representatives are paid for their time and the procurement brief for a development partner was collaboratively produced and jointly signed by residents and Council officers. In Croydon and Waltham Forest, Community Led Housing London have been supporting two separate housing associations to work in partnership with community groups to enable them to plan, deliver, own and manage their own homes. While colleagues at the housing association, CDS Cooperatives are exploring an entirely new relationship with existing tenants and leaseholders, that could see the organisation hand power to residents to ultimately become their own landlords.
While each of these examples have faced challenges and none would yet claim to have got coproduction right (and recognising that there will also always be a need for more radical solutions to our unequal rights to land and housing in the UK) together these cases signpost to how coproduction can be used as the small end of the wedge for meaningful change. The interest in long-term social and economic benefit that underpins the missions of local authorities and housing associations, provides an entry point to explore the kinds of changes needed to re-balance power across our built environment sectors. It also begs the question – can those organisations reliant on short-term financial returns do coproduction at all?
What is clear is that coproduction is challenging the status quo in what public engagement in housing and regeneration can look like, raising expectations for the role communities can expect to play in these processes. By recognising two fundamental components of coproduction – in challenging power dynamics and building trust – we can even begin to do away with the term itself, leaving it to its inevitable demise, and focus our attention on what’s important – collective control over our homes, neighbourhoods and cities.
Rowan, Senior Project Advisor at CLH London, has been working with our Associate Adviser Sib Trigg to evaluate coproduction practices in London. Our Learnings have been published as guidance on effective coproduction in housing and urban regeneration.
1 Filipe, Angela, Alicia Renedo, and Cicely Marston. ‘The Co-Production of What? Knowledge, Values, and Social Relations in Health Care’. Edited by Claire Marris. PLOS Biology 15, no. 5 (3 May 2017)