Making sense of co-production practices in circular cities

Defining co-production practices for resilient cities

Making sense of co-production practices in circular cities

How can we collaboratively build a transition path for circularity in practice? Taking a circular and regenerative approach to urban development calls for new visions and design strategies to reshape traditional productive processes and resources metabolisms. Co-creation and collaboration between public authorities, economic actors, and civil society can be seen as a key pillar of this transition process.



Co-creation is part of the REFLOW DNA

In the REFLOW project, municipalities, SMEs, makerspaces, and citizens from 6 pilot cities are collaborating to bring new value for the circular economy in urban contexts. The planned interventions aim to redefine how cities circulate their material and information flows, and provide exemplary and innovative circular practices. Co-creation is performed through different levels of collaboration, within the pilot cities, the consortium, and their international networks. One major challenge for the project, however,  is not only to work on the enabling conditions for generating co-production practices, but also to define a shared design-driven approach to enable the task itself.

Many successful practices and toolkits for co-creation in CE exist (see The Circular Design Guide by Ellen MacArthur Foundation and IDEO, and the Systemic Design Toolkit by Namahn and ShiftIn). Yet, we still lack knowledge on how collaborative activities should be strategically adopted in circular economy projects. Exploring how co-creation, co-design, and co-production are interconnected can provide useful insights to further lead cities towards people-centered circular approaches.



Framing co-creation, co-design and co-production in an action research setting

A clear distinction between co-creation, co-design, and co-production needs to be highlighted.

Co-creation is  generally defined as “the joint, collaborative, concurrent, peer-like process of producing new value, both materially and symbolically…” (Galvagno & Dalli, 2014).

Co-production “involves the participation in the creation of the core offering itself. It can occur through shared inventiveness, co-design, or shared production of related goods, and can occur with customers and any other partners in the value network…” (Lusch & Vargo, 2006).

In this sense, co-production is part of an overall co-creation framework, where the user becomes to various degree co-designer and co-implementer in a mutual exchange that can be either physical or mental. Co-design, according to Sanders and Stappers (2008), refers “to the collective activity of collaborating designers […] in a broader sense to refer to the creativity of designers and people not trained in design working together in the design development process…”. Co-design is considered as a way to engage stakeholders within a socio-technical system under transformation, to envision ‘use before actual use’ of a service.

In REFLOW, these three dimensions of participation converge in an action research approach. Indeed, following a participative orientation, action research is “…a pragmatic co-creation of knowing with, not on, people…” (Bradbury, 2015), that generates knowledge and outcomes through practice. In an action research routine, activities go through a constant process of 1) observation (building the picture of the context), 2) interpretation (analysis of the information) and 3) action where review and evaluation become fundamental for the process to move successfully forward. Co-production practices should result from a collaborative and iterative design process reflecting the experimental and non-linear nature of the transition towards the circular economy.



Mapping out co-creation to co-production processes













Features of a co-production design framework: insights from the FORCE project.

Many practices around the world are benchmarks for undertaking circular economy interventions at different scales: new products, new services, new processes successfully designed to meet circular principles, thus marking a path to sustainable innovation and an out-of-waste future. Recent FORCE projects bring inspiring insights to frame co-production practices with circularity ambitions.

FORCE is an EU Horizon 2020 funded project (2016-2020) with the overall objective of using circular economy principles to overcome waste production coming from different urban material streams in four European cities: Copenhagen, Genoa, Hamburg and Lisbon. The final aim was to implement new eco-innovative market solutions at city scale employing metals, flexible plastic, wood, and biowaste, thus adopting new value chain partnerships between public and private stakeholders.

In the project, some fundamental aspects were key to enable the actual implementation of circular practices within the urban context:


  • Participation: Engaging with municipalities, enterprises, academia, and citizens, the whole project at both consortium and city level adopted a participatory approach when implementing different collaborative activities and initiatives with these stakeholders. This is reflected both in the adoption of a co-creative process throughout the project and for the purpose of promoting new public-private partnerships.
  • Urban governance: At a governance level, participation evolved in the adoption of a collaborative approach that sought to engage all actors part of the different stages of the material flows, to create and adopt new urban governance models. The value chain partnership was intended as a model of collaboration able to foster innovation actions.
  • Data: Data was relevant for both the effectiveness and the efficiency of the whole project and the related local interventions. They were gathered from the early stages of the state of the art mapping activities, thus sustaining decision making and evaluation processes.
  • Replication: Since replication was one of the main objectives of the project, an internal institution, which performs and supports the project replicability, has been established from the beginning of the research activities. The FORCE Academy acted as a hub for knowledge exchange and dissemination purposes both bringing stakeholders together and promoting topical events and training seminars.


These key features framed a range of urban interventions co-developed according to a common thread that guided all experimentation in all their design phases, that guaranteed the transferability, at a governance level, of the urban partnerships established, to plan a dissemination and communication strategy and to assure the effective replicability of the experimentations. As REFLOW follows its journey towards circular and regenerative cities, these insights will provide us a useful lens through which to look at the practices envisioned in the pilot cities in order to validate them.



Image – Force Project.







This blog post was inspired by the report Co-production practices in Pilot Cities –  Polimi (Deliverable D1.1). Authors: Stefano Maffei,  Massimo Bianchini, Veronica De Salvo, Martina Carraro, Stefano Leoni.




Bradbury, H. (2015). Introduction to the handbook of action research. In H. Braudbury (Ed.), Handbook of Action Research. Sage Publications.

Galvagno, M., & Dalli, D. (2014). Theory of value co-creation: A systematic literature review. Managing Service Quality, 24(6), 643–683.

Lusch, R. F., & Vargo, S. L. (2006). Service-dominant logic: Reactions, reflections and refinements. Marketing Theory, 6(3), 281–288.

Sanders, E. B.-N., & Stappers, P. J. (2008). Co-creation and the new landscapes of design. CoDesign, 4(1), 5–18.



Erwan Mouazan

Founder and director of ECOVALA

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