How to Co-Create

A new library is leading the way 
How to Co-Create

With an increasingly diverse population and evolving expectations of what it means to be a citizen, the collective wisdom and effort of a community may be the answer to drive public participation, deliver greater public value and nurture social ownership.

Co-creation taps the knowledge and inputs of a community in meaningful ways to improve public services or to share knowledge for the public good. The power of co-creation is that it develops shared ownership and shifts the paradigm from a “Government knows best” mentality to a “let’s do this together” attitude.

Community projects and consultative exercises to participate are starting points in growing co-creation efforts, and building competence and capacity that can then lead to deeper levels of participation.

The new library@chinatown offers some insight into what it means to begin the co-creation conversation. It is the first library in Singapore that is “powered by the community”. The library is set up and funded by Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temple and CP1 Pte Ltd, owner of Chinatown Point Retail. A group of experts in Chinese arts and culture comprising journalists, educators and language experts was consulted and their views helped to shape the library’s collection of books and audio visual materials.

How to Co-Create
WORKING TOGETHER WORKS Library volunteers Mdm Siti, her daughter Norafifah and Doris Choy work closely with NLB manager Chan Wai Ling (right) to run library@chinatown.
Here’s where it gets even better: a team of 40 volunteers – from retirees to working professionals – now runs the library’s daily operations with little supervision. Ms Chan Wai Ling, a manager from the Public Library Services, National Library Board (NLB), drops by several times a week to oversee operations and engage the volunteers. The idea of a community-run library stemmed, in part, from the growing readiness of existing volunteers to participate at a deeper level, says Ms Chan. “For us, it’s good because it helps the community re-imagine what the library is to them and reconnect with us.”
How to Co-Create
Doris Choy, 65, a head teacher at an infant care centre, has been a long-time grassroots and library volunteer. “I’ve done storytelling at Toa Payoh and Bukit Merah [libraries] for the past five or six years, she says. Extending her role to help out in operations and gain a behind-the-scenes look was something she says she finds “interesting” and “more meaningful”.

To enable the volunteers to perform their duties well, NLB gave them training in keeping stock of books and shelving, as well as in understanding how library programmes are structured. Soft skills training – handling customers and conflict management – alleviated some of the volunteers’ concerns about dealing with customers.
How to Co-Create
How to Co-Create

Some aspects were tweaked as well, reveals Ms Chan. The book numbering system in library@chinatown is less detailed than in other libraries, so books are easier to shelve. “We also have more tier guides (labels on shelves) to make it easier for volunteers to identify where to put the books,” she says.

Based on volunteer feedback, shifts were shortened to better suit their schedules and to involve more people. As a backup, a booth also connects library users with NLB’s Cybrarian, a library staff who gives advice remotely via phone and computer.

With the library still in its early stages, the scope for further involvement and more volunteer autonomy remains, says Ms Chan: “The ideal end state would be to have volunteers also run the library in terms of programme curation and selection of the collection.”

Know of good co-creation initiatives? Let us know at 


How To Co-Create


Observe and listen intently to your potential co-creators’ needs, expectations and dreams. This helps to determine their readiness to co-create and co-own a project.


Appeal to co-creators’ ethics, values and hopes for the future. This gives people meaning, which motivates them to pursue a larger purpose that is beyond what they see now.


Respect co-creators’ contributions by working with them on solutions to the issues they face. This also encourages co-creators to develop a sense of ownership.

How engaged or involved is the public really?

In 1969, Sherry Arnstein wrote her landmark paper, “Ladder of Citizen Participation”, to illustrate the different levels of citizen involvement in the US. It remains a useful reference for assessing how genuine public engagement is. The lowest rung is “manipulation” (for example, when citizens are put on committees to rubber-stamp decisions), while the highest rung is “citizen control” (for example, when citizens are highly involved in the planning and making of policies and in managing programmes).

Read more at 

High level co-creation: Code for America

The San Francisco-based non-profit organisation, nicknamed the “Peace Corps for geeks”, ropes in tech geeks and “seconds” them to work with city governments for about 11 months to scope out a project, develop a plan and deliver a solution (apps, IT tools) to help improve local facilities and services, and “fundamentally reframe the functions of government” that is scalable and engages civil society.

Watch: Read more at 

    May 14, 2013
    Sheralyn Tay
    John Heng
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