The core principles of co-production

Co-production, as defined by Filipe et al. (2017), is “an exploratory space and a generative process that leads to different, and sometimes unexpected, forms of knowledge, values, and social relations.” It is more than a matter of ‘production’ being an outcome of participant involvement, rather, the generative process requires participant agency and intention in what is invariably a dynamic situation. It is also much more than a matter of collaborative learning and, while social media may create a suitable context for imagining new forms of learner interaction, co-production is not dependent upon technological connectivity. This is all made clear by examining the principles that define co-production.

The following definition and principles, articulated by the NESTA Foundation (, capture and begin to make practical Edgar Cahn’s ideas about co-production (Cahn, 2000). Like Cahn’s original context, they are situated in the domain of social care.
“Co-production can be defined as a way of doing that sees all the actors involved as equal contributors towards the same goal.” NESTA identifies the following core principles of co-production:
  1. Recognising people as assets: equal partners in the design and delivery of services;
  2. Building on people’s existing capabilities: co-produced services start with people’s capabilities (not needs) and look for opportunities to develop them;
  3. Mutuality and reciprocity: co-production is about a mutual and reciprocal partnership;
  4. Peer support networks: peer and personal networks alongside professionals;
  5. Blurring roles: blurring the distinction between professionals, users, family members, community representatives;
  6. Professionals as catalysts of change: Enabling professionals to become facilitators and catalysts of change.”
The term ‘co-production’ was coined originally in the 1970s by Ostrom (Alford, 2014; NEF, 2008). Adopted by Cahn, his ideas have been adopted more widely (Filipe et al., 2017; Humphreys & Grayson, 2008), including in higher education (McLoughlin & Lee, 2008). Filipe et al. point out that the meaning and scope of co-production changes according to its context. It is a useful concept with applications for government, services, and practitioners. My interest is university strategy, curriculum design and academic practice. I believe the NESTA’s principles are valuable to rethinking the teaching-learning nexus, especially in the context of active learning and what I have described as the hybrid learning studio (Middleton, 2018). In this post, therefore, I review NESTA’s principles. My aim is to make them more widely applicable by clarifying how co-production is a valuable construct to education and other domains. The post concludes with a revised set of principles; one that helps to explain the ideas underpinning the hybrid learning studio.

Reviewing the core principles of co-production

The idea of ‘services’ in NESTA’s articulation of the principles unnecessarily limits their application to other contexts, including their application to education. Filipe et al. suggest that “the process of co-production must take into account the participants’ understandings of participation and co-production, salient differences between them (e.g., identity, mobility, forms of communication), and power dynamics that may be reconfigured.” We need to open up the possibilities for adopting co-production therefore.
In the first principle, rather than ‘services’, it would be more useful to describe people as having equal value in the co-construction of knowledge. In the second principle, it is more useful to simply say, building on and developing people’s existing capabilities.
While challenging the dominant role of the ‘professional’ is central to Cahn’s original proposal, as the context for co-production is developed to embrace other domains, professional identity can be expanded without undermining the integrity of Cahn’s original proposition by adding ‘expert status’. The fourth principle becomes ‘Peer support networks: peer and personal networks alongside professionals or people assigned expert status’. Assignment can refer to status both as it is conceived or perceived. This can be further enhanced by recognising roles as having potential value. In other words, the contribution of professionals is defined and arguably limited by their knowledge and expertise. I argue that co-production can be enhanced by appreciating the potential of any contributor; potential that is actual, latent or yet to be developed. Co-production is not only about what we assume about each other and the nature of the contributions such roles are assumed to offer.
Further, co-production is itself an authentic and agentic activity: the activity is dynamic and, as it develops, its context and possible outcomes are likely to change. Through this change, we should expect the opportunities for participation to change and the potential of all participants to grow. In education, for example, we should value the activity as an authentic experience that aims to construct new knowledge and an experience that will change both the learner and the teacher. That suggests a new principle would be helpful that highlights the value of co-production to addressing the authentic and dynamic potential of a situation.
The fifth principle is unnecessarily located in social services: it points to professionals, users, family members, community representatives. It seems to be challenging the inward-looking attention given to defined roles and reminding us to look to the value of others who have an interest and who can offer value. It could be enhanced to become, ‘blurring the distinction between people assigned expert status, including professionals, and others whose formal or informal interest, experience, knowledge and commitment are not sufficiently valued or recognised.’
The final principle, which focuses on the role of the expert as change agent, could be improved by changing it to ‘Expecting experienced and knowledgeable people to lead and facilitate change, acting as change agents in activities that lead to development and learning.’
NEF (2008) offer another set of principles. In the main, they reiterate these ideas, however, they add the following:
  • Devolve real responsibility, leadership and authority to ‘users’, and encourage self-organisation rather than direction from above;
  • Offer participants a range of incentives which help to embed the key elements of reciprocity and mutuality.
These are useful to educationalists. The idea of devolving responsibility addresses learner engagement and the need to be explicit about what is expected of participants. The second raises the idea of incentivisation and again considers the need to engage the user community (the learners), although I see this more as developing intrinsic motivation by being clear to the learner about why they should be interested in participating in the core economy (the exchange of effort and skills for mutual benefit).
By developing the principles, my intention is to align with, clarify and develop the adoption of Edgar Cahn’s original thinking (2000). Latterly, the ideas and principles have been adopted more widely, including in education to some extent. In higher education, for example, the term ‘co-production’ has been used in relation to rhizomatic ideas of pedagogy in which there is less emphasis on the exchange of ‘a knowledge’ between individuals towards a greater recognition of knowledge as being socially constructed, fluid and dynamic, especially where social media promote the exchange of knowledge; hence networked learning. To paraphrase thinking in several circles circa 2004, co-productive knowledge relates to ideas such as harnessing collective intelligence, the richness of user experience, space as platform, open-ended development, agile development, co-operation over control, users add value, agentic data, and so forth (O’Reilly, 2005; Siemens, 2004).
The term ‘co-production’ in education tends to be used interchangeably with ‘collaboration’, ‘co-creation’, and ‘co-design’ and such usage blurs and reduces the original intent in Cahn’s ideas which suggest there is room to develop a co-operative pedagogy. Humphreys and Grayson (2008) look at the intersecting roles of consumer and producer (the idea of ‘prosumer’) and offer a critical perspective on co-production, co-creation and ‘prosumption’. The difference between co-production and co-creation becomes clear in Marketing where it points to the customer’s or end-user’s involvement in making, assembling or customising goods and services. In other contexts such as education, therefore, the implications are that the learner (as ‘user of education’) can be more agentic in their studies, e.g. negotiating their assessment subject. Key to both are ideas about how value is defined. Humphreys and Grayson (2008) note that in co-creation both producer and consumer work to create value in the product. As Marx (1867 [2001]) argued, what differentiates the two roles is whether the value-creation activity produces ‘exchange value’ or ‘use value’. Humphreys and Grayson (2008, p. 965-6) explain that “Understanding the distinction between these two types of value helps to shed light on the potential impact of prosumption, co-creation, co-production, and related activities…  The ‘exchange value’ of an object is its relative worth ‘when placed in a value or exchange relation with another commodity of a different kind’ (Marx 1867 [2001], 88)….  Products have value, however, beyond what they can fetch on the market. They also have an intrinsic utility to whoever owns or purchases them, which Marx refers to as use value. Use value exists for a person to the extent that a product ‘directly satisfies his [or her] wants’ (Marx 1867 [2001], 61)… Conceptually, an object’s exchange value is independent of its use value.”

Revised core principles of co-production

The core principles of co-production are:
  1. Recognising people as partners having equal value in the co-construction of knowledge;
  2. Building on and developing people’s existing capabilities by creating opportunities to develop them;
  3. Valuing mutual and reciprocal partnership;
  4. Valuing the potential of peer and personal networks alongside the input of professionals or people assigned expert status;
  5. Blurring the distinction between people assigned expert status, including professionals, and others whose formal or informal interest, experience, knowledge and commitment are not sufficiently valued or recognised;
  6. Expecting experienced and knowledgeable people to lead and facilitate change, acting as change agents in activities that lead to mutually beneficial development and learning;
  7. Devolving real responsibility, leadership and authority to participants, and encouraging self-organisation rather than direction from above;
  8. Expecting all participants to grow their capabilities and make use of them as changing situations allow;
  9. Offering participants a range of incentives which help to embed the key elements of reciprocity and mutuality.


Alford, J. (2014). The multiple facets of co-production: building on the work of Elinor Ostrom. Public Management Review, 16(3), pp. 299-316, DOI: 10.1080/14719037.2013.806578
Cahn, E. (2000). No more throwaway people: the co-production imperative. Washington: Essential Books.
Filipe, A., Renedo, A. & Marston, C. (2017). The co-production of what? : knowledge, values, and social relations in health care. PLoS Biol 15(5): e2001403.
Humphreys, A. & Grayson, K. (2008). The intersecting roles of consumer and producer: a critical perspective on co-production, co-creation and prosumption. Sociology Compass, 2(3) pp. 963-980. DOI: 10.1111/j.1751-9020.2008.00112.x
Marx, K. (1867/2001). Capital: a critique of political economy. Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England. New York, NY: Penguin Books in association with New Left Review.
McLoughlin, C. & Lee, M.J.W. (2008). The three P’s of pedagogy for the networked society: personalization, participation, and productivity. International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education. 20(1), pp.  10-27.
Middleton, A. (2018). Reimagining spaces for learning in higher education. Palgrave Learning & Teaching.
NEF (New Economics Foundation) (2008). Co-production: a manifesto for growing the core economy. Online at:
O’Reilly, T. (2005). What is web 2.0: Design patterns and business models for the next generation of software. Online at:
Siemens, G. (2005). Connectivism: a learning theory for the digital age. International Journal of Instructional Technology and Distance Learning, 2 (10), pp. 3–10.
Voorberg, W. H., Bekkers, V. J. J. M., & Tummers, L. G. (2015). A systematic review of co-creation and co-production: embarking on the social innovation journey. Public Management Review, 17(9), pp. 1333–1357.

About Andrew Middleton

NTF, PFHEA, committed to active learning, co-operative pedagogies, media-enhanced teaching and learning, authentic learning, postdigital learning spaces. Key publication: Middleton, A. (2018). Reimagining Spaces for Learning in Higher Education. Palgrave.
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4 Responses to The core principles of co-production

  1. ed mayo says:

    Great post, thank you. The one element that I found missing, core to Edgar Cahn’s life and work, is power. There are differences of power and genuine co-production (or corn production as my spellchecker would have it) leads to new power relations. In a similar vein, the early UK experiments in co-production neglected organisational form, as if governance and ownership could be set aside. I guess the question is: is there a risk that the professional discourse on co-production misses lived experience of it?

    • amiddlet50 says:

      Thanks Ed. Yes, power is missing from what I have done here though it is implicit in my thinking and I think I could try to bring that out. It would help me tackle my own central interest around social learning spaces and the question of the ‘teaching’ role in a co-operative pedagogy.

  2. Pingback: Blogging as a site of embodiment, co-production and enculturation | Tactile

  3. Pingback: Networked authorship as a site of learning | Tactile

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