Sandbox Summit in Lisbon, January 2012

And why it matters tremendously to create a culture of co-creation.

This is part one of a series about creating a sense of co-creation in a community. This part talks about the distinction between a consumer and co-creator and why it matters. Part two talks about how to create a strong culture of co-creation..

If you’re joining a community, there are two radically different ways how you can show up in the group: as a consumer or as a co-creator.

Consumers in a community come with an expectation to be served: they attend events, at events they listen to speakers, in the online community they read or sometimes react to things, but usually only when it seems useful to them. If they don’t like something in the community, they complain or disengage. They feel that leading the community is someone else’s responsibility and they are mostly in the community for opportunistic reasons. When they invest money or time into the organization, they expect to get something out of it in the short-term.

Co-creators on the other hand actively shape events they go to or they help organize them. In discussions, both online and in person, they actively contribute new ideas and initiatives without expecting anything in return. If they don’t like something, they bring it up for discussion and provide new ideas and suggestions how to address it. If a conflict arises, they are willing to work through it. They invest their energy, time and money into the organization, because they feel that this community is partially also their own organization and therefore their responsibility to push it forward. They feel that in the long-term the more they invest, the more they will get out of it. The community represents part of their identity.

Not as black and white, but it matters

I’m of course polarizing my examples. In reality, the distinction isn’t as as extreme and usually members embody some elements of both attitudes. Community members have lives outside the community engagement and their involvement (and therefore proactivity) depends on how busy that outside life is.

But even though above is an exaggeration, it makes it easy to see how a community with a majority of co-creating members will provide a wildly different experience than a community with mostly passive consumers.

Centralized vs distributed power

To understand the benefits of co-creation, we need to look at a key distinction: in a community where most people are consumers, the power is necessarily centralized and the organization is run and kept alive by a few on the top. On the other hand, in a community where everyone feels ownership, power and decision making is automatically more distributed across.

But usually, the causation happens the other way around: in a community where a few people at the top hold all the power, most members are likely to show up as consumers.

But what happens when you distribute power across the whole organization?

The benefits of a co-creative culture

Ability to scale

A community where every member contributes can reach so much further and do so much more than when a selected few try to organize things from top down. When we started Sandbox back in 2007, our original plan was to organize a yearly summit for our members. But as we failed to raise appropriate funding, an amazing thing happened to us: we were forced to de-centralize. Instead of doing one big summit, we started to host small dinners across the globe. And because a dinner is a really easy thing to organize, many people started to volunteer to organize dinners in their cities. And a series of local events then eventually became local hubs with ongoing activity. This is how Sandbox grew into an organization that has active hubs in 40+ cities across the globe, all run by volunteers. Top down, we the founders could never have reached that far, organized that many events, built thorough local ecosystems. But by empowering our members to create their own activities, scale became possible.

Unlocking human genius

The offering in distributed communities is often so much more creative and diverse than in centrally organized communities. If you’re running a community top-down and you want to reach a larger group of people, you will be forced to streamline your activities, you simply won’t have resources to support too many things (accelerated in most communities by non-existing or shaky business models). But there is no limit to creativity if you let your members come up with their own ways of contributing.

If we compare two big music festivals like Coachella and Burning Man with each other, Coachella can have a really creative team of organizers. But no matter how creative they are, they can never compete with the human genius of 60’000 participants at Burning Man, where many participants create their own experiences, attractions, art works, micro forms of participation.

I see the same dynamic in many other communities. While the main TED event is hold in a big conference center in North America, could the organizers ever have foreseen that TEDx organizers will organize events at the Great Wall of China, inside a Titanic-replica at a Titanic museum in Belfast, at Mount Everest Base Camp, in a modern treehouse or a 14th-century Gothic cellar in Poland? That creative genius is only unlocked by giving away power and empowering members of the community.

Organizational resilience

If all power within a community is concentrated among a few, when those few fail, the organization fails. We have experienced that first hand at Sandbox. Over the last 10 years we have weathered many storms that could have easily killed us. When we co-founders got into disagreements or the HQ ran out of money, or when the volunteer leadership couldn’t commit anymore time, people in the community stepped up and figured things out. Thanks to the shared commitment of many, many members, we are still around and growing strongly. This resilience is invaluable.

This post is the first part of a series about co-creation. Here is the second part: 8 ways to empower people to show up as active co-creators in your community

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A special thank you to my friend and community builder Michel Bachmann who has inspired my thinking a lot in this question (and many others!)