Co-creation is no longer just a buzzword that sits solely in the design and innovation space or in the halls of Silicon Valley companies. Rather, it is a process and tool that can—and should—be used by all of us to deliver better results: higher quality products and services that customers not only want but have had a key role in shaping. At Alight, we do not refer to the people we serve as beneficiaries: they are our customers, and we work for them. Changing the relationship with the people we serve from a “hand out” to “hand up” is central to our work.
Co-creation is a key part of the human centered design process. It brings together a diverse set of voices—including local communities—to design new things and new ways of doing things, or to improve on existing things. With co-creation, the customers—the people who know best—are the ones designing the solution, benefiting everyone in the process. Not only is a community far more likely to adopt a practice or service that it created, but everyone can gain valuable insights into the solution which results in a better product that can potentially be used elsewhere.
Co-creation is core to our organization
In 2010, Alight began a journey of co-creation with the global Somali diaspora to help guide and shape a humanitarian response to famine. Since then, we have been iterating, refining, ingraining, and applying it across our entire organization. We have always believed that co-creating solutions and services alongside communities will redefine quality. Whether displaced by conflict, climate or exclusion, the people we work with are not defined or limited by their trauma. They are abundant in love, knowledge, and experience, and we unleash that abundance when we create thoughtful space for them to participate and drive change. Co-creation is our dealbreaker. For us, the only way to meaningfully tackle a problem or crisis is in substantive collaboration with the communities most affected.
Local Engagement and Equal Participation Are Key
We are aware of the criticism around the use of human centered design and co-creation in an emergency response—that it takes too long and people simply want their basic needs met in a predetermined way. Yes, everyone needs food, water, shelter, healthcare, and the rest. But this sets the bar way too low: no displaced person arrives in a location wanting to have these services entirely prescribed nor do they arrive without the wants and needs that make us all human. It is not only possible—but preferable—to use human centered design and co-creation during a crisis. We utilized real time feedback from displaced Ukrainians in Poland to determine what they needed most. As a result, we were able to channel resources to crucial areas and projects and partner with local community-based organizations. We co-designed an online tool based on input from Ukrainian refugees and partners to support middle- to longer-term needs for families.
Asili was co-created by a diverse set of partners including Alight, USAID, the Eastern Congo Initiative, IDEO.org, private sector faith partners and Congolese families. Reimagining philanthropic aid as startup capital for self-sustaining businesses—and joining forces with like-minded partners along the way—Asili is operated by and for the people it serves. In the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, Asili is transforming what it means to deliver humanitarian aid by creating world-class service infrastructure for those who need it most.
When we were asked to help set up new homes for Afghan arrivals in Minnesota as part of Operation Allies Welcome, we didn’t simply set out to furnish a series of houses and apartments to hit a “number.” Instead, we asked ourselves a question: “How can we ensure that the new homes for Afghan arrivals provide a sense of stability, protection, dignity, and joy?” Co-creation with the diaspora and Afghan community has been key: our work is led by an Afghan American, and this process allowed us to learn what new arrivals wanted and needed. They shared what would be most important to have in their new homes, such as the inclusion of culturally specific household items and foods, and religious items, along with specific handling instructions. These insights allowed us to deepen our engagement and act on their personal needs. As a result, we have been able to co–create a truly warm and welcoming experience, so that new arrivals can thrive, not just live.
USAID’s Bold Commitment
USAID’s new strategy, along with its recently launched Local Capacity Strengthening Policy, to make aid more accessible, equitable, and responsive makes co-creation even more critical. The agency has committed to 25% of its funding to local partners by 2025 (it is currently just 6%). It has also determined that by 2030, 50% of USAID programs will “place local communities in the lead” by having them co-design, set priorities, implement, and evaluate them. These commitments clearly support the need for a vast expansion of the use of co-creation.
These goals can’t be achieved without investing in co-creation and ensuring it is done the right way. Co-creation acknowledges that we are not the experts, that displaced people know better than anyone else what they need. They should be the architects of their own lives. By working alongside displaced communities, we have improved funding accessibility in Eastern Congo, created more equitable programs in the United States, and responded swiftly to the crisis in Ukraine, while still centering the voices of the displaced.