Collective Wisdom (Part II) An Interview with the Open Documentary Lab's William Uricchio & Katerina Cizek


What do you see as the core ethical commitments that need to shape co-creative media-making? What happens to co-creation when those ethical commitments are not in place

The people that we heard from in the field offered numerous lessons to help ensure that ethical commitments shape creative work and working relationships. They range from deep listening and dialogue, to building specific contracts such as “Community Benefit Agreements,” to focussing on project sustainability, to healing from trauma at individual and community levels rather than just focussing on media as an end-product, to plain old transparency.  In the report, we’ve distilled them down to ten lessons. 

While co-creation has a proven track record of negotiating and helping to suture divides, and while the results generally emerge as greater than the sum of their parts, it’s also important to note that co-creation can also be abused, and certainly, as you pose it, when its ethical commitments are not in place. Participants in the study warned that co-creation could:

●     Threaten editorial integrity and artistic independence.

●     Heighten expectations of trust, commitment, and time on all sides.

●     Marginalize makers and their work by categorizing them into the sub-genre of community media, especially artists of color.

●     Have unintended consequences, especially online and with AI.

●     Exploit labor, steal ideas and profit from them.

●     Be co-opted for the marketing of projects that reproduce power inequities.

These are not insignificant dangers.   Tools, alas, can be used properly or improperly; they can do good or ill; and while the collective nature of co-creation gives it a strong inclination to serve many needs rather than the desires of a few, we nevertheless need to stay alert to the possibilities of exploitation and abuse.

From the start, you make the case that co-creation is not a new idea, that it dates back to pre-historical petroglyphs, so what factors give a discussion of co-creation a new urgency today? What makes this a “new” or “emergent” (or at some points, re-emergent) space, as you also suggest many times here? 

To the extent that Google’s ngram viewer offers an insight into trends, the term ‘co-creation’ has grown exponentially over the past twenty or so years. There’s more than enough hype to go around, but, indeed, the practice is not new. Throughout history, we have evidence of co-creation as the norm.  As we noted earlier, it was the cultural operating system behind the development of our languages, religions, music, stories and more. But like undergrowth in a forest, it was overshadowed by the trees of single-authorship, which prospered in the West during the Enlightenment and emerged as a privileged form with the institutionalization of intellectual property.  Eager to envelop single authorship in precedent, its proponents retrofitted the model onto the co-creative work of the past, casting about for attribution and searching for individuals to credit and in the process overwriting alternative modes of creation.  History sometimes seems more concerned with retrofitting the present onto the past, than exploring the past for new insights about the present.   Nevertheless, co-creation practices, even if described by industrial era cultural arbiters as ‘folkish’ or ‘amateuristic’ or ‘craft’, have continued to offer alternatives to projects sparked by single-authored visions.  One of our goals in this report was to discover and learn from this long-marginalized cultural work. 

Today, we face the perfect storm of a pervasively mediated culture, a new generation of networked technologies, deep fissures in the social order, and an increasingly urgent search for alternatives.  Re-enter co-creation.  Co-creation has been newly enabled by the very same technologies and behaviors that intellectual property holders lament as eroding their business models.  Long present in marginalized communities where it offered a means of survival, it is moving into the mainstream where today it offers the hope that we can work together, build trust, and minimize exploitation.  OK - we have seen some of that potential deflected into the pseudo-social media as a new business model. But conditions are also ripe for more equitable co-creative practices. 

Co-creation is increasingly recognized in such areas as education, healthcare, technology and urban design. And although each of these and other fields have distinct approaches, fundamentally co-creation is an alternative to—and often a contestation of— a singular voice, authority, and/or process. Further, within digital infrastructures, the lines between audiences, subjects, and makers are blurred, and often erased. 

So the new-found relevance of co-creation might be argued technologically, through the pervasive spread of networked media; it might be framed economically and politically, with the weakening of legacy center-to-periphery models and the rise of distributed alternatives; and it might be positioned socially, with the weakening of traditional centers of cultural authority, the amplification of long-suppressed identities and epistemologies, and the ensuing tensions in the social fabric.  There is plenty of evidence in the form of today’s platform industries to suggest that those with an interest in power have found ways to harvest our collective impulses on both technological and political-economic fronts, using them for profits and control.  We need to critique that, and embrace more robust, equitable, and relevant alternatives such as co-creativity.  But our study also revealed significant progress and promise on the social front, as an enabler of trust through creative collaboration, but also as a resource and site of strength particularly for marginalized communities. 

What are the strengths of a co-creative approach for dealing with “the complex problems we face in the 21st century”, such as climate change? 

Well, one thing is for sure: the complex problems we face in the 21st century are too big for the narrow perspective of our top-down, discipline-bound, and often mutually-exclusive legacy systems! Overwhelmingly, co-creative veterans name the climate crisis as a top priority, to be tackled from the ground up. Complex problems need large teams, diverse and wide-ranging perspectives; and solutions are often found in the communities that are impacted most by the problems. Julia Kumari Drapkin of ISeeChange connects dots of data with stories, from the ground up to the sky, using NASA’s satellite images.

She states:

“Climate change is so large and big and coming at us from such large amounts of time and space. We need to be drilling down into the specifics of how a community is experiencing it and what's causing it. It's that tangible community context that allows solutions to happen, that allows the journalism to happen.” 

“The world is so complex now,” said Patricia Zimmermann, adding:

It's so interconnected, the problems of the Anthropocene and global climate disruption, the problems of poverty, the problems of racism, immigration, the problems of nuclear disaster, the problems of underfunding health care around the world, the problems of clean water. The majority of the world does not have clean water. One person cannot make a film about any of that, it's impossible. It's too complicated to do alone. When I look at these individualistic models, I don't see a lot of energy in these projects at all. They feel formulaic to me. 

“Will it really matter what we create, whether it's a project or an initiative, if we don't have clean air to breathe?” asked Opeyemi Olukemi, further stating:

If we don't have water to drink? If we have a series of superbugs that start to kill off entire populations? Not just to create, but to be responsible and have people realize that we are entering new territory and that this is a possible way to help address and stem the damage of what is coming down the pipeline. 

The anthropologist Anna Tsing has developed the concept of collaborative survival. Co-creation can likewise provide a set of methods and techniques to pursue that hope, and to distribute resources and governance more widely.  Precisely through its embrace of multiplicity, its attention to the experiences of people, and its concern all of us rather than special interests, co-creation offers broad-spectrum approaches to complex problems.  

You seem to suggest that with co-creation, the process may be more important than the outcome. In what sense? 

This is a big debate amongst those we interviewed, and our discussions have evolved over time.  Process, of course, can be transformative.  It’s where the dynamics of collaboration and co-creation play out.  It’s the space where people reveal themselves, where relationships can be built, where learning and skills are exchanged, and where trust can grow.  Process is the enactment of the social, the generator of the legitimacy that we spoke of earlier.  And we’ve placed great emphasis on process in the report because, just as we are trying to recover co-creation from the taken-for-grantedness of the single author, so too ‘process’, which we are trying to recover from a culture preoccupied with ‘product’.  And just as this by no means entails a rejection of single authorship and attribution (it’s the dominant, we’re just trying to give some attention to an urgently needed alternative), so too product.   Outcomes obviously matter as well, and not just in the sense of the “product” of the media, but also the “product” of its impact.  Indeed, it’s fair to say that many media makers are frustrated with the weight placed on deliverables over outcomes in conventional funding and evaluative models. Co-creators suggest that when we place more emphasis on process, on the dynamics of conception through execution through impact, we end up making better, more relevant and thoughtful work.  

In the 20th century, some co-creative projects, such as the National Film Board of Canada’s Challenge for Change program, insisted on the primacy of process over product.  An organization famed for its high-quality products, the NFB could occasionally afford to be indulgent about process, and be celebrated for it.  But for many other groups, especially community media organizations, the situation was historically different.  For decades, community-based media work was associated with low-quality aesthetics and unrefined narrative structures.  Makers were confronted with difficult issues of access to expensive equipment, processing, training, and more.  And while the experiences of media-making and the process of working across a community were often transformative, the outcomes tended to stay at a very local level.  In some cases, community media ‘products’ even conjured up derogatory associations.  

That sentiment seems to have changed, and thus the ‘big debate’ that we mentioned.  Now that media tools are more accessible, and high-quality visuals and narratives are more ubiquitous, and now that alternate distribution networks have enabled near-global reach, co-creators have become far more insistent about creating attractive and engrossing products.  They want to be heard and make a difference beyond their communities, in addition to enjoying the transformational benefits of process.  As paige watkins of DNA commented during a group discussion:

If you want the product to actually have impact past the choir, past the people who already understand what we're talking about and are agreeing with our values […] it has to be competitive up against the harmful things that are getting maybe more money or more resources. 

“Projects emerge from the process,” is how Heather Croall, director of the Adelaide Fringe Festival, summed up co-creation in the 21st century. For most co-creative teams, it’s not one or the other.  Product and process are complementary.


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.