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UCL Public Engagement Blog



Locked down but not out of co-production

By Rory, on 15 May 2020

This blog has three co-authors: Sarah, Clare, and Helen. They were some of the 91 people who attended our Co-production Network Session (‘Virtual Co-production: Is it actually possible?’) on the 12th of May 2020

Last week, the UCL Centre for Co-production hosted its first virtual event in the shape of a Co-production Network session on Zoom, we were excited to see 91 of you participate, share ideas and make connections. The topic was virtual co-production and whether or not it can actually be done. We asked our attendees to share their reflections after the session through a survey, as well as write blogs for us if they felt inspired to do so. It is really enlightening to see the event through the eyes of others – we attended the same event but noticed different things, so having it written down in one blog really outlines why sharing and reflecting collaboratively is so crucial when co-producing. We hope that this blog gives you some ideas to use when developing your own virtual co-production, it has certainly helped develop the Centre approach, we learnt masses!


As someone who has been in the co-production scene for several years in a variety of different roles including ‘expert by experience’, leading projects and embedding this way of working with others, joining the Co-production Network was something that just made sense for me. Seeing the opportunity to hear how others have started approaching digital co-production and engagement I jumped (virtually) at the chance to learn, as my whole world has become digital co-production as of late. For us at Ambitious about Autism we started digitising our interaction with young people before lockdown, we scoped out options by determining our groups access needs and began hosting peer support groups which resulted in shifting our usual face to face groups online. There’s been a continuous learning curve of assessing what is going right or what needs to change. We co-created our code of conduct and how we run sessions, ensuring that safeguarding and engaging the widest range of people is at the centre of what we do. We’ve even chatted to youth workers alongside our young people in a webinar about the impact of moving everything online in a time distinctly lacking stability. Here is a whizz-through of two hours of co-production fun and learning…

When I joined the Network Session it was exciting to see so many others join and made me realise that we’re not alone in this. I was encouraged seeing the experiences, diversity and challenges that are faced by others when a part of digital co-production. Seeing so many new and familiar faces reminded me of just how vast this network is, we were all on a level playing field, bringing only our knowledge of ourselves and recognised faces from the weird and wonderful ways connections form. A new kind of icebreaker in the shape of a Zoom poll helped us to understand the mood of the room; 31% were feeling the positivity or ‘sunny’, 62% of us felt cloudy with bright spells, and a minority felt a storm brewing.

A screenshot from Zoom of 25 of the participants in the Co-production Network session – each picture appears a tile with the person’s face or name on it

Faces from across the country and the world (Hong Kong, Australia and Canada) joined the session as Nicc gave a quick run-through of the plan for the afternoon and where the Centre is on its development journey. With the stage set, Nicc handed over to Lucy and Jane from Involve4Impact to share how they’ve developed from their typical face to face meetings to an online equivalent that holds onto the best of face to face but with the practical needs of digitally engaging those they co-produce with.

For Involve4Impact the current pandemic brought a ‘wave’ that could either overwhelm them or they could ‘surf’ to new methods of working with people. Together Lucy and Jane chose to surf and navigate with their group on how the current situation was impacting them and the positives that could be found. What they shared was reflected by the wider chatter amongst participants in the session, there were difficulties arising to which many were finding creative answers but there were also positives in these new challenges. From their experience, Involve4Impact were now making many changes to their session lengths, agenda, methods, how to implement breaks, managing talking tangents and the fatigue we all feel from such high-intensity interactions.

As part of their work, Lucy and Jane build upon common interests to build relationships. To showcase the impact of building group cohesion and commonality, we were split off into breakout rooms with 3 people each to find the specifics – not generics – that we had in common. They also discussed that whilst the feature of a breakout room is terrific it’s not a universally positive experience, especially if you can’t get in! After 5 minutes we came back together as a whole and reflected that whilst we could find some commonality it can be difficult or awkward to do so in a short space of time with strangers, as you navigate conversations through the tangents of what we share.

As we began to grasp more of the pitfalls of digital engagements inclusive and exclusionary aspects, Lucy and Jane shared their highlights:

  • Using just your first name on video labels can break down the power imbalance of roles and is how we normally work in real-life engagement.
  • The chat box can have some positives, but some may find it distracting as multiple conversations move on at once and at different paces.
  • Don’t let digital software dictate the rules of engagement, set your own that suits the needs of your group.
  • We all need information in slightly different ways to support us to understand, and bringing these creative engagement methods from face to face sessions can empower people to take part.

By this point I think we were getting it, digital engagement is hard, it’s usually not immediately right but the important part is trying and finding a way that meets the needs of those co-producing together. Taking these points and aiming to create practical solutions through talking to others, we split off into networking breakout rooms which were randomly assigned and started sharing what we’ve learnt from pandemic reactive working.

Having that space to be authentic about wins and losses is important, it’s not something you can share with everyone as some just don’t get it. In my group, we became problem-solvers who spoke with honesty about how difficulties do arise when everything changes at once and your functional-but-imperfect systems must now change for a whole new world.

To wrap up, in traditional UCL Centre for Co-production style, we reflected on what had been said today and how we can move forward together, this isn’t a journey to be had alone but one to be had bringing together all the people we can.


I’m working on a project to improve participation in perinatal mental health in Scotland. I found out about the session through social media. I’m fairly new to the theory of co-production, but I’ve been around the mental health “expert by experience” movement for 6 years, and it’s good to have a name to describe what we’ve been doing.

First off, I was mightily impressed by the smooth running of the technology. Zoom has been getting a bad press of late, but I felt like it was used very creatively by the session organisers. I loved the “breakout rooms”, and felt a bit bereft when we were called back to the main room, and lost the (albeit brief) connections we had made. Hopefully I can follow up on the chats I had.

Screenshot of a breakout room

A screenshot from Zoom of one of the many breakout rooms we had during our event. Two members of this group are using video and audio to connect to the discussion but one person is only using audio. It is nevertheless still possible to have a lively discussion.

In my own work, I know I’ll use the techniques to help the group understand who is in the room – so important when the usual tried and tested methods are absent i.e. small talk, coffee breaks etc.

I’m a member of another group that uses Zoom and we’ve been talking about the idea of hand signals to indicate feeling, or consensus. We use a tweaked version of the Occupy Movement’s Hand Signals. If you would like to you can read more about the movement and the signals and there is also a handy infographic describing the hand signals, which is very powerful.

Thanks to the UCL Centre for Co-production for arranging this event, I look forward to hearing more from the centre, and participating in future events.


Twitter is often the academic’s silent networking friend, and it’s how I found out about the UCL Centre for Co-production Network Session. For the past two months, this has been a question I’ve repeatedly asked myself, so upon discovering it, I registered for this event immediately. And I’m glad I did. The two-hour session was a wealth of knowledge and experience from ‘doing’. The facilitators spoke first-hand about their experiences in online co-production, including what works. But perhaps more importantly, they also gave concrete examples of things that need to be approached differently when working online.

Network Session

A screenshot of the Zoom meeting room while a poll is being shared by the host. The question was about what type of learners are we, Visual, Auditory, Kinaesthetic, or a mixture of three. It is important to consider these difference when presenting information online.

My day-job is research. I am a fellowship holder, funded by the National Institute for Heath Research to understand the barriers people with hearing loss face when using amplification (e.g. hearing aids), and develop tools to help overcome them. My work is grounded in the lived experiences of adults with hearing loss and those with whom they regularly communicate. The work I had planned to complete with this group in person must now be moved online for the foreseeable future. This is a substantial change and unsurprisingly this felt daunting. Having attended the co-production networking event, this change no longer feels daunting. I’m excited by the exciting opportunities that the ‘new normal’ way of working will afford me, and the research.

I also got to network with some fascinating individuals during the breakout sessions. It was inspiring to hear about the different applications and focuses of co-production taking place, and share tips and tricks with others.

What did I learn? There are some simple rules for successful co-production online:

  1. Do not try to mirror in-person methods, they simply won’t translate.
  2. Do consider your platform carefully. Be mindful of the accessibility and preferences of those you are working with.
  3. Do be succinct. Online, talking less is more. Consider sharing materials to digest beforehand so that online information sharing is ‘light’. Regular breaks can help maintain engagement.
  4. Do think about how information can be shared in different ways (verbal, written, pictorial). This will provide variation and appeal to individual preferences.
  5. Do think of practical activities that can bring people together. Effective co-production relies on group cohesion and trust. The sharing of information, ideas or common interests can help break down barriers.
  6. Do plan how information arising from discussions and activities will be captured and recorded. For example, typing notes in real-time whilst screen-sharing could act as a reflection tool, aiding the conversation as well as allowing for immediate clarification and edits to be made.
  7. Do think about the practical, technical and personal support attendees may need to fully engage with these online methods, and provide this well in advance.

In terms of my own co-production journey, here are some things I’ll implement straight away:

  • Pilot sessions with my colleagues to ensure smooth running and avoid technical stumbling blocks.
  • Create clear guidance and offer support for attendees to: 1. access and use the chosen online platform (e.g. Zoom, Skype, Google Meet, Microsoft Teams etc.) and 2. understand the session format, e.g. information provision, interactive activities such as polls, breakout room discussions and breaks.
  • Explore how working online might help reach individuals that face-to-face co-production may previously have missed.
  • Keep online spoken information short and fluent.
  • Be aware of online exhaustion during virtual co-production, a universal issue, but one that might be particularly pertinent for those with hearing loss.

Thank you from Rory

Thank you so much to all our contributors for sharing their experience about the Co-production Network Session on 12 May in their own original style and giving us much to think about. Also a huge thank you to everyone who participated and made the event such a lively space to discuss co-production practices and challenges. For me personally, the most interesting part was the splitting up into individual groups through the breakout rooms feature. Although it was a bit daunting in theory, it was actually very exciting in practice! It was a thrill to find out who I was grouped with and I was very glad to learn so much in such a relatively short period of time. I was struggling a bit to maintain a stable WiFi connection, so I had to resort to using audio only but the group in my breakout room had no problems adjusting to this slight problem. I also loved the use of the live transcribing tool Otter.ai which meant that those who were deaf or hard of hearing could still take part in the session.

If you would like to join us for our next Virtual Co-production Network Session on 14 July at 14:00, please email us at coproduction@ucl.ac.uk to sign up!

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