Collective Wisdom (Part 1): An Interview with the Open Documentary Lab's William Uricchio and Katerina Cizek

Several years ago, I conducted an interview here with William Uricchio, my old MIT colleague, who now oversees the Open Documentary Lab at MIT. The wide-ranging interview was selected for inclusion in my newly released book, Participatory Culture: Interviews, which includes samples from more than 15 years of discussions here about participatory culture, learning, and politics.

When I spoke with William and his colleagues this spring at the Media in Transition conference, they referenced a new white paper, Collective Wisdom: Co-Creating With Communities Across Disciplines and With Algorithms, which the Lab’s website describes as “a first-of-its-kind field study of the media industry that highlights trends, opportunities, and challenges to help advance the understanding and recognition of co-created works and practices—efforts that function outside the limits of singular authorship." We decided we would showcase the launch of this important study with an extended interview on this blog featuring Uricchio and his co-author, the documentary filmmaker Katerina Cizek (Highrise). For those who want to know more about the project, the Open Docs lab shared with me this trailer about their efforts.

The report is being published online via the MIT Press’s new Works in Progress series. They spoke to a massive number of experts — scholars and practitioners who shared with them core insights and best practices that are sure to generation further discussions and inspire future projects.


What do you mean by co-creation and what are some of the forms it is taking at the current moment?

 Co-creation is a complex concept, and we worked hard to pin it down to a precise formulation.  For a documentary maker, it can mean something as simple -- or profound -- as making documentaries with people, rather than for them or about them.  Our report is actually a field study, and in order to move beyond our own experiences, we interviewed some 166 people, discussed our findings with more, and convened in small groups and large.  The more we explored other uses of the concept, the more we discovered. This led us to develop a sharper formulation, which we’ll quote from the report: “Co-creation offers alternatives to a single-author vision, and involves a constellation of media production methods, frameworks, and feedback systems. In co-creation, projects emerge from a process, and evolve from within communities and with people, rather than for or about them. Co-creation spans across and beyond disciplines and organizations, and can also involve non-human or beyond human systems. The concept of co-creation reframes the ethics of who creates, how, and why. Our research shows that co-creation interprets the world, and seeks to change it, through a lens of equity and justice.” 

 As we designed our field study on co-creation particularly with regard to media-making, four main types emerged: within both real-world and online communities, across disciplines, and with humans working with non-human systems. These types of co-creation each have distinct qualities and concerns.


Co-creation within communities is the most commonly identified protocol in the study. While we have separated in-person and online co-creation in order to highlight unique conditions and challenges, most contemporary community projects intertwine both practices. To get a good sense of the report’s scope, it’s worth unpacking each of the categories that we investigated along with the major issues that we considered. 

With face-to-face community based co-creation, central discussions in our interviews revolved around power dynamics and relationships, i.e., who decides the terms of engagement, what media is made and by whom, and why, and who benefits from this type of project. Key concerns included the hidden, unfunded work of co-creation. Artists of color and other historically marginalized groups are often burdened with additional responsibilities not recognized in formal media-making. 

With on-line community co-creation, the blurred boundaries among makers, subjects, and audiences afford new opportunities, but also open up new risks vis-à-vis questions of ownership, governance, and authority. Distinct questions regarding issues of accountability and trust arose with journalism in particular. Additionally, in projects involving emergent media, co-creators often prioritized training, literacy, and community access to expensive and complex technologies, which are considered crucial for inclusion and equity. 

With cross-disciplinary co-creation, teams cross disciplinary lines, institutions, and organizations; and scholars and makers embark on parallel paths of discovery rather than privileging one discipline’s priorities over the other. This often requires comparatively long timelines and shared spaces. Importantly, these projects are frequently partnered with communities outside the academy. Many people interviewed in our report consider that co-creation resides beyond inter-disciplinary space, and prefer the terms trans-disciplinary, or even anti-disciplinary to describe their practices. 

Finally, in a more speculative mode, we interviewed artists, scientists, and provocateurs who are examining the possibilities of co-creation with non-human living systems, artificial intelligence (AI) as well as technological infrastructures. These processes too, de-centralize single authorship, and force us to consider questions about the definition of agency and singularity that ask what co-creating with non-human systems looks like as humans increasingly become entangled within larger systems and infrastructures.

How does the concept of Collective Wisdom relate to other concepts such as collective intelligence and “wisdom of crowds”?

 We share a site of inspiration!  Pierre Levy -- so important to your work in Convergence Culture -- coined the term ‘collective intelligence’ to refer to the shared, group intelligence emerging from the collaboration, collective efforts, and sometimes competition of many individuals, often appearing in consensual decision making. The concept has been applied to bacteria and animals, especially hived insects. Recently, it has been used to characterize crowdsourcing and the potential of computer systems, as explored by MIT’s Center for Collective Intelligence. In our study, we are interested in collective intelligence because it provides us with a system of tools and an established body of thinking. But we’ve chosen to frontload the phrase ‘collective wisdom’ because it goes further, evoking spiritual and philosophical dimensions of course, as well as the very practical questions of how to co-create? why? and why now? 

At its core, the idea of co-creation seeks to reconcile systemic power and singular authority. OK -- it’s pretty far reaching.  This fundamental principle extends beyond media making and compels us to interrogate ideas of ownership, meaning-making, attribution and—if we optimize the potential of co-creation—to do something more: to realize a more just society. And that’s where collectivity and wisdom enter the picture. 

For us, media co-creation is defined by methodologies that offer alternatives to the singular-authored vision, and that seek collaborative routes to discovery.  ‘Collaborative’ and ‘collective’ imply a shared vision and implementation process, rather than simply ceding to the views of the most empowered person in the room.  And for that reason, co-creation offers greater odds of achieving a balanced vision, and even justice.  Our study focuses on things like process, rather than simply privileging product; on changing the world, not simply observing it; and on decolonizing the all-too-familiar top down systems of production.  This shift from ‘business as usual’ emerges directly from the collectivity at the heart of co-creation; and work in this vein is already evidence of the method’s ability to change the world, not just interpret it.   Many of our interviews and case studies on the topic of co-creation revealed the elegance of collective wisdom, that is, a shared and decentralized understanding that, when intentionally channeled, can lead to transformative shifts in people, and with them, culture.#

You suggest many times here a need to “shed old legacy models that have become irrelevant.” Which “legacy models” should we “shed” and in what senses have they lost their relevancy and legitimacy? 

We heard over and over again in our interviews that many of the existing systems for media education, media development, funding, production and distribution are outdated. We heard that these programs reflect the way that media was created or believed to be created in the 20th century, when siloed, center-to-periphery media industries predominated.  People specifically noted the persistence of these models at film schools, journalism programs, museums, technology and science streams at universities, media institutions such as broadcasters, and funding and distribution agencies.  The loss in relevance of this model, and the organizations that continue to hold fast to it, is not news.  Ironically, it is evident even to the industry, as traditional notions of and business models for journalism erode, as new technologies and use patterns pressure ‘content industries’, and as those industries that have figured out how to scratch the itch of collaboration (albeit in a self-serving manner) rise to prominence.  The loss of relevance seems widely acknowledged, even if it is not always acted upon.  But the loss of legitimacy is another story.  Legitimacy serves as the last refuge of imperiled legacy systems, their raison d’etre even when the bottom begins to fall out.  And fortunately for them, the emerging order has yet to sort out its ethical priorities and frames of reference, so the legitimacy of legacy still hangs in the room.   

As legacy media organizations try to figure out what to do in an ecosystem dominated by upstarts like Alphabet and FaceBook, they’re simultaneously scrambling to make sense of, contain, and make use of networked digital culture. The problem is that they attend a little too much to the siren call of SEO, ROI, and whatever’s cooking on the algorithmic front, and underestimate the social dynamics of the changes we are experiencing.  And the social is ultimately the source of legitimacy.   

So at this juncture, legacy organizations are doing their best to grapple with changing conditions, but neither they (who direct their content to the social world) nor the digital upstarts (who make their profits by harvesting the social world) have empowered people (who constitute the social world!).  And that’s where we see the added value of co-creation: its power emerges from its social character, and its fundamental sociality highlights the current crisis in legitimacy.  We’ve argued that co-creation has a long history. It’s intrinsic to the development of our languages, belief systems, and great narratives.  Its current resurgence owes much to the affordances of digital networks as well as the disruption of the status quo.  But at heart, it remains profoundly social.  And its legitimacy ensues from the social dynamics of creativity, from the methods by which vision and power are structured.   

In the report, we’ve taken care to state that our embrace of co-creation does not constitute an attack on authorship (although some of those we interviewed do), or in the context of this question, legacy organizations and their legitimacy.  They occupy an important place in our social encounters with the world, and have values such as attribution that are increasingly important as noise fills the system.   But we are saying that the potentials of co-creation have been for too long occluded by economic and legal systems that privilege concentrations of power.  And especially now that we are seeing an undermining of legacy systems by the distributed logics of social data harvesters, now that things are in flux and uncertain and polarized, we are saying that deeply collaborative modes like co-creation are more important than ever. 


Katerina Cizek is a two-time Emmy-winning documentarian working across emergent media platforms. She is the Artistic Director of the Co-Creation Studio at MIT’s Open Documentary Lab. Recently, she wrote (with William Uricchio and 12 co-authors) a ground-breaking field study on co-creative practices in the arts, journalism and documentary, entitled Collective Wisdom. As a documentarian for over a decade at the National Film Board of Canada, she helped redefine the organization as one of the world’s leading digital content hubs, with the Filmmaker-in-Residence and HIGHRISE projects. Both community-based and globally recognized, these two ground-breaking serial and digital projects garnered: a Peabody award, a World Press Photo Prize, 3 Canadian Screen Awards, amongst others. Cizek has forged unconventional, co-creative partnerships with such diverse organizations ranging from an inner-city teaching hospital to Mozilla Foundation, to The New York Times. Her projects are also interventionist, and co-creative: they have significantly contributed to conversations about health-care policy, urban planning as well as the health outcomes and living conditions of the participants themselves. Cizek’s earlier human rights documentary film projects have instigated criminal investigations, changed UN policies, and have screened as evidence at an International Criminal Tribunal. Cizek's films include the Hampton-Prize winner Seeing is Believing: Handicams, Human Rights and the News (2002, co-directed with Peter Wintonick), In Search of the African Queen: A People Smuggling Operation (1999, co-director), and The Dead are Alive: Eyewitness in Rwanda (1995 editor, co-writer, narrator). She is frequently invited to travel internationally to teach, advise and share innovative approaches to the documentary genre, emergent media and journalism.

William Uricchio revisits the histories of old media when they were new; explores interactive and participatory documentary; writes about the past and future of television; thinks a lot about algorithms and archives; and researches cultural identities and the question of "Americanization" in the 20th and 21st centuries. He is Professor of Comparative Media Studies, Principal Investigator of the MIT Open Documentary Lab, and faculty director of the MISTI-Netherlands Program. He is also Professor of Comparative Media History at Utrecht University in the Netherlands and has held visiting professorships at the Freie Universität Berlin, Stockholm University, the Georg-August-Universität Göttingen (Lichtenberg-Kolleg), China University of Science and Technology, and in Denmark where he was DREAM professor. He has been awarded Guggenheim, Humboldt and Fulbright fellowships and the Berlin Prize; and was Holtzbrinck Fellow at the American Academy in Berlin. His publications include Reframing Culture; We Europeans? Media, Representations, Identities; Media Cultures; Many More Lives of the Batman; and hundreds of essays and book chapters, including a visual "white paper" on the documentary impulse ( He is currently completing a book on the deep history and possible futures of documentary; and another on games and playing with history and historiography after post-structuralism.