Co-creating an elephant – 3 ways to explain co-creation

Friends and relatives often ask me the question: what on earth is co-creation? Also, this is the number one topic people seek to find more about on our website. Consequently, with an internal desire to simplify and explain the abstract, I asked myself the question: how do I explain co-creation in three ways to make everyone understand it? Turns out, all I need is a metaphor, a basic lesson in theory and an example from practice.

A metaphor – the blind men and the elephant

“Beyond Ghor, there was a city. All its inhabitants were blind. A king with his entourage arrived nearby; he brought his army and camped in the desert. He had a mighty elephant, which he used to increase the people’s awe. The populace became anxious to see the elephant, and some sightless from among this blind community ran like fools to find it. As they did not even know the form or shape of the elephant, they groped sightlessly, gathering information by touching some part of it. Each thought that he knew something, because he could feel a part.. The man whose hand had reached an ear.. said: “it is a large, rough thing, wide and broad, like a rug.” And the one who had felt the trunk said: “I have the real facts about it. It is like a straight and hollow pipe, awful and destructive.” The one who had felt its feet and legs said: “It is mighty and firm, like a pillar.” Each had felt one part out of many. Each had perceived it wrongly..”

Imagine one of the blind men would wake up the next morning with a desire to own the best possible elephant – even better than the one shown by the king. One that is attractive from the outside, and fully functional on the inside. One that consumes no more than it needs from its surroundings, but also gives back. One that is embedded and in balance with its environment, but also attracts attention – just like the king.

In order to realize his dream, the man requires the expertise of all the other blind men for he only felt one part of the animal. However, if he wants an even better elephant, this is not enough. Other experts are needed for input on what and how much it will consume, what surroundings are necessary, and how changes in its environment will impact the elephant in the long run.

For this, the man will need some help. First and foremost, he needs to find the experts. And if he does, how will he inspire the other men to participate and share their knowledge: what’s in it for them? And how will he know who to include if he wants to create the best possible elephant? Even if he does succeed in forming an excellent and balanced group of experts and blind men, how does he make sure all knowledge is contributed and nothing is left unsaid? Because as you might know, managing and aligning strong opinions and perspectives can be quite a challenge. And then finally if he succeeds in creating the concept for this elephant, what are his next steps going to be?

A basic lesson in co-creation theory

Fast forward to 2018. What the blind man needs is what we at Fronteer call Expert Co-creation. Co-creation starts with a dream or a challenge, and is the practice of collaborative innovation and development. Initiators, developers and stakeholders work side by side in a form known as Open Innovation: where knowledge and ideas are shared.

As Joy’s law states, “no matter how smart you are, most of the smartest people work somewhere else”. In other words, no matter how rich your expertise is on a certain subject, everyone has a blind man in them somewhere. Some might refer to this as bounded rationality: the idea that when individuals make decisions, their rationality is limited by the tractability of the decision problem, the cognitive limitations of their minds, and the time and knowledge available to make the decision.

In order to maximize the probability to develop the best possible product or service (or elephant for that matter), involving the right mix of perspectives and the execution process of development are key. Ideally, perspectives stem from the 1% most creative minds from any relevant knowledge community, and the execution process is done by trained professionals. As we at Fronteer have learned over the years, the process of co-creation is not limited to a specific product, service or even industry – all you need is a dream. The outcome? Great meetings of minds, fresh perspectives on business, and inspiring ideas and concepts guiding you in the right direction. Ideas and concepts that quickly gain momentum and mandate from stakeholders involved.

An example from practice

As an example, I’d like you to imagine someone coming up to you who says: ‘I want to build the residential city block of the future, what should I do?’. Quite a dream, not to mention a challenge. This happened at Fronteer last year and needless to say; we took up the challenge. Our process? Co-creation.

After clarifying our client’s dream, we inspired a wide range of hand-picked experts to participate in two ideation workshops, otherwise known as Treehouse sessions. We decided to approach this challenge from both a social and technological perspective. From medical doctors to architects to corporate organizations, each creative professional contributed enthusiastically. Tight and well prepared moderation from our strategists allowed for a wide range of groundbreaking ideas, which we turned into eight scenarios for future residential area development.

These scenarios were taken to San Francisco where we collaborated with the Dutch Consulate to bring this concept further. Again, co-creation allowed us to inspire experts from the Universities of Berkeley and Stanford, the Rockefeller Foundation and many more to collaborate in the further development of our strategy. The project is currently still underway and entering a new phase, of which we are sure to update you in more detail in the future.

Co-creating an elephant

I admit.. the example is quite a radical one. However, in this age of transition and disruption, the world needs bold moves. We need dreams, and whether your dream is building a city block of the future, leveraging new technologies for a next generation insurance product or developing the next big thing in beer: Fronteer is up for the challenge. The only question we have for you is: what is your elephant going to be?

Image: painting by Kovacs Anna Brigitta via