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Is co-design the same as co-innovation?

In previous episodes we’ve talked about the value of co-innovation, but how is this different from a co-design approach? In this episode, we’re going to explore the similarities and differences between these concepts, and then propose a model for collaborative project management. It’s a longer episode, but we’d love to hear your feedback about the ideas we’re proposing! 

Co-innovation is a systems-based approach to facilitating practice change. It has really only come into our vocabulary as enablers of change in the last decade or so, thanks to authors such as Laurens Klerkx at Wageningen University in the Netherlands. This approach aims to actively involve key stakeholders (such as suppliers, end-users and policy makers) from the beginning of a typical agricultural research, development and extension project, so they can contribute their great ideas. This way they co-innovate with the scientists and researchers who might traditionally undertake the project on their own. 

In a previous post we described how co-innovation can enable greater practice change, and we talked about how we can involve this wider group of people in jointly identifying key research questions, as they have a much better understanding of the wider system and what might work on-farm. In a different episode we provided nine tips for making co-innovation work even better. These included taking the time to understand the problem, be inclusive, and be flexible and adaptable. So if you are interested check these out!

We tempered our enthusiasm for co-innovation by saying that not all projects will benefit from a co-innovation approach. Some projects only need a technology transfer approach for their simpler problems, while at the other end of the scale, complex problems benefit from the co-innovation approach. The diagram from the Primary Innovation website does a good job of depicting this continuum. 


So let’s move on and talk about co-design. We sometimes hear people refer to it rather loosely, and claim to be using it when perhaps they are not really. Co-design is a design-led process that uses participatory approaches to engage stakeholders in the design activity. This helps ensure that the finished product meets their requirements. When we talk about co-design, we mean engaging all the participants equally, so the researchers, extension staff, end-users and other key stakeholders are empowered to make the important decisions collaboratively. You may be familiar with the IAP2 spectrum of public participation. On the left hand side we use mechanisms to inform the public, like fact sheets and web sites, which basically just tells them what we are going to do. When we consult, we use focus groups and surveys to obtain their feedback and we say we will keep their input in mind when we make the decisions. 

Source: IAP2

When we involve them we can use workshops, and we work with them to ensure their feedback is incorporated. When we collaborate, we partner with them and use more participatory approaches to seek their advice, and incorporate that into the decisions. Finally, when we empower them, we put the decision making in their hands and we implement those decisions.

Of course, we can use a mix of these approaches in any one project, but when we talk about co-design, we are predominantly using the approaches on the right hand side—involving, collaborating and empowering the end-users.

While in agriculture we have only really heard about co-design in the last few years, it actually predates co-innovation by a long way. If we use the Google Ngram viewer to search for usage of those terms, we see co-design emerged in the 1990s and has gained popularity in the last decade. Whereas co-innovation only really emerged around 2010. While the usage of co-innovation has increased in the last decade, co-design is used almost ten times more in the literature. You may be wondering why the graph stops before 2022. That’s because the Ngram viewer currently only searches for literature up to 2019, so while it is not totally up-to-date it does give us a good picture of the overall trend. 

Usage of the words co-design and co-innovation over time (Google Ngram viewer).

So how are co-innovation and co-design related? They are similar but different collaborative approaches. Let’s step back and consider the overall collaborative project process. We were not able to find a model that depicts this, so we have made our own and will be interested to hear your feedback about it. The traditional project management life cycle involves design, plan, implement and evaluate, most often depicted as a linear process. 

Modifying this for a collaborative project lifecycle then, we suggest the steps would be co-design, co-create, co-implement and co-evaluate (all verbs to emphasise the active nature of the words). We chose not to put those in a linear diagram, but instead preferred to use a cyclical model. That way the results of the process feed back into the co-design phase to further improve it. 

The collaborative project methodology phases.

Let’s take each of these four phases now. This is where things get a little complicated as there is a wide range of terms that are often similar but slightly different. The co-design phase is where we identify appropriate key stakeholders and involve them from the get-go. This would often include end-users, researchers, extension practitioners, social scientists and perhaps others along the value chain. Bringing this diverse group together should occur before any formal project funding is sought, otherwise we are putting the cart before the horse and potentially limiting the outcomes. The team would collaboratively define the desired outcome, the scope of the potential project, and its objectives and potential activities. 

Of course we would use a systems perspective, as we are working in an Agricultural Innovation System where many of the elements are interconnected and where feedback loops are important. We acknowledge that the biophysical elements and the human behaviours interconnect. We also need to realise that we are predominantly working with the humans in the system, even if we are studying the plants or animals. Using human-centred design principles is therefore an important component of how we approach the project. This is similar to the farmer-first approach that was popularised in the 1990s but is wider to include all key stakeholders. 

So what is design thinking? It’s a human-centred approach to innovation that integrates the needs of people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success. So in the co-design phase we use those tools to help define and really understand the problem and how we might solve it. 

Design thinking often involves five steps in an iterative process, as shown in the diagram below. Let’s explore the first two steps a little further, as they are the ones that fit neatly into what we are describing as co-design. 

Firstly we empathise, where we develop a deep understanding of the needs of the target audience and their situation through empathy-based interviews or observations. 

Then we define, where we clarify the problem by challenging assumptions and potentially reframing the question, to clearly define the right problem to be solved. 

The iterative process of design thinking. Source:

The first two steps are so important and they form a foundation for the rest of the work. Once you start reading about design thinking, you realise there are 101 variations. For example, a similar approach is the double diamond process, popularised by the British Design Council. This approach uses the processes of divergence and convergence to ‘design the right thing’ and then ‘design things right’, as shown in this diagram.

The double diamond process. Source: Digi-ark

Ideally all this work is done before we apply for funding, so that we have the team assembled and a clear understanding of the problem. Once we secure the funding, we can move to the co-create phase where the project team works together to develop possible solutions and test them. The last three steps of the traditional co-design process fit into what we’re describing as co-creation. These are as follows… 

Ideate: where we generate a large number of ideas related to potential solutions. 

Prototype: where we identify possible solutions to progress and create simple prototypes so audience members can preview the experience. 

And finally we test by taking prototypes into the field to better understand audience needs and further inform and iterate the solution.

Other people refer to this phase as co-production, co-development and the one we mentioned earlier, co-innovation.

The third phase in our collaborative project management methodology is co-implement. End-users will have trialled various iterations of the innovation in the previous phase, but in the co-implement phase they work with others in the project team to enable wide-spread implementation and use of the innovation. This is sometimes referred to as co-delivery or co-application. 

The final part of the cycle is co-evaluate. Also known as participatory evaluation, this approach involves the stakeholders in the evaluation process. While we might co-evaluate the impact of the project as a specific activity at the end, we acknowledge that the planning for that to happen needs to occur in the co-design phase. Monitoring then occurs throughout the life of the project. 

So, coming back to the original question “Is co-design the same as co-innovation?’ the answer would be no. They are different phases in the collaborative project methodology and cannot be used interchangeably. Co-design is the first phase, while co-create (which is synonymous with co-innovation) is the second phase. Both are equally important in the overall collaborative project methodology. 

We have used a lot of different co- words in this episode, and we appreciate that other authors use slightly different ones. At the end of the day, it is probably just a personal choice and we hope that we can all co-exist! Finally, for the word geeks among us, the prefix ‘co’ comes from Latin and means together, jointly or mutually. Some like to think that when we refer to co-design, it’s an abbreviation of ‘collaborative design’, but it is probably not. It is a nice thought though! Here’s a quick thesaurus of some of the other words used to describe the four phases we outlined.











participatory evaluation

This has been a longer post that we thought it would be! But we got there! In closing, we would like to thank Aysha Fleming from CSIRO who very kindly reviewed this episode for us. She is part of a team exploring collaborative approaches and there is a link to their website in the show notes. 

So folks, you have read our thoughts, now we would like to hear yours! Add a comment below and tell us about your experiences with collaborative project methodology, including any tips and further ideas about it. We do not want this to be just a one-way conversationjoin in by sharing your thoughts and ideas with us! 

Thanks folks for reading this Enablers of change blog post. Remember to subscribe to our newsletter if you’d like to know when new episodes are available. And if you liked what you heard, please tell your friends so they too can join the conversation!


You can find more information on collaborative research approaches on this CSIRO website.

There are also some good resources available from the Auckland Co-Design Lab.

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Jeff Coutts
2 years ago

Really nice exploration around these topics – some good frameworks to understand them.

Graham Harris
Graham Harris
2 years ago

Thanks John and Denise – a well structured exploration of this topic. I wonder if our current funding models in RD&E fully understand this approach – to often they seek RD&E activity on an identified problem which may not have fully involved end-users in the first place and the time-frames in developing proposals are too short to truly co-design project/

Last edited 2 years ago by Graham Harris
Anthony Kachenko
Anthony Kachenko
2 years ago
Reply to  John James

Thanks John. A very topical post. Look forward to taking this idea further across the RDCS.

Roy Murray-Prior
Roy Murray-Prior
2 years ago

Hi John & Denise Excellent stuff. You have set up a debate that could go on for years with benefits to us all. So you are saying that co-innovation is just co-create by another name? That implies that you have identified the problem in an earlier phase such as what you are calling the co-design phase? I find this confusing as there is so much overlap between all the 4 parts of your collaboration process that I find it difficult to separate between them. As you say co-evaluation should start at the beginning anyway as part of the co-design process.… Read more »

Multi-level action RD&E process.jpg
2 years ago
Reply to  John James

Excellent points. I always take every opportunity to mention Joan because so few people have read her. Present commentators excepted. In my view the important thing is to use the collaborative approaches wherever possible. To be honest I think the triangular diagram from Tech push to co-innovation is a bit misleading & perhaps gives the wrong view of how things should occur. To be honest, tech push technologies should go through some process at least at the adaption level to make sure they are relevant to farmers, in fact, particularly in developing countries (but Joan made this point as well)… Read more »

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