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Public engagement 2: Co-Create, Co-Create, Co-Create

This month sees the second blog article from Hassun El-Zafar, our Public Engagement Officer, about the benefits of co-creating public engagement activities. You can read part 1 of the series, know your audience, here. If you’d like to get in touch or share your thoughts with Hassun you can find him on Twitter @HassunElZafar or email at

It’s Monday morning and I’m dancing into the Royal Society of Chemistry listening to my favourite Bollywood musical (Main Hoon Na, for those who want to know…). Today’s first meeting is about ideas for public engagement across the country and I’m excited, very excited.

I’m the first one there (because I’m a keen bean high on my morning mocha’s caffeine), and I’m listening, waiting to be inspired by the amazing ideas that are going to help change perception, challenge behaviours and make our world a better place. We have brilliant ideas, phenomenal ideas. People have taken on board feedback about audiences and they’ve got real solid plans and activities designed for them.

Let me give you an example: one idea (not a real idea) is about educating fishermen in a third-world country about plastic pollution in rivers.

The project has a clear target audience and clear aim. The individual is really passionate about the topic and has a strong academic background in alternative plastics and waste management techniques that these fisherman could really benefit from. The method is simple enough: organise five workshops for the fishermen to attend and learn about the alternatives they can use and measure the impact by asking them to fill out a questionnaire. If budget allows, we can get some really good footage of fishermen talking about their experience, doing activities in the workshop and good pictures (worth a thousand words) as they always help in those pesky evaluation documents.

Now let me be clear, this activity will certainly have an impact, and it’s not a bad activity. But there may be ways in which we could make it better from drawing on the lesson of similar activities.

Here are a few questions we could pose to the activity in its current form:
  • How will you get the fishermen to come to your workshop?
  • How do they even know about it?
  • What time will it happen to ensure they can come? 
  • Why should they even bother to attend?
  • How will you make it accessible for them?
  • How will you ensure that the fishermen have ownership of their learning?
  • What incentive do they have to change their perception?
  • How will your workshop change the way they do things?
  • Why would they change the way they do things? Do you know why they do what they do?
  • Does your workshop provide a solution that the fishermen could adopt? If so, why will they take it on-board? How will you know?
I’ll stop there, because I know that the questions could take us down a rabbit hole. But hopefully you see the point I’m trying to make: there is more to planning a workshop that is going to have long lasting social impact than we think

That’s when co-creation comes in. For a long a time we’ve put our resources and efforts behind designing for audiences, and our feedback has shown us that they haven’t responded in ways we wanted. Perhaps if we designed with the audience, giving them ownership of empowering engagement that resonates with them, they’d respond differently?

And in terms of lasting impact, that famous proverb which every philosopher claims comes to mind: you give a hungry man a fish, you feed him for a day, but if you teach him how to fish, you feed him for a lifetime.

Let’s go back to our example with fishermen (pure coincidence that it matches the proverb, by the way).

In a co-creation model you’d make an effort to understand and get to know the fishing communities that you’d like to engage with. You’d build trust and have an honest and equal dialogue with audiences about your research, and by doing so you’d be able to frame your public engagement as an accessible social development activity rather than simply “education”.

This relationship will inform your curation, output and outcome. You might find that workshops are not the best way forward, or that they are, but at certain times and with specific smaller objectives. You might find that more resources are required by the community, or that alternative resources are already there. You’ll find new methods of evaluation, which are more honest and detailed than simple generic questionnaires. You’ll capture stories, which demonstrate impact better than an album of pictures. And interestingly, when done properly and well, co-creating allows audiences to continue spreading messages and solutions even when we’re not there

A fantastic example of this model of co-creating public engagement can be found in the Sheffield based Grantham Centre’s work with refugee communities in the Zaatari Refugee Camp in Jordan.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on co-creation!

Posted by Aurora Walshe on Apr 1, 2020 11:00 AM Europe/London

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