Anticipate or Participate?

Many companies are beginning to embrace and facilitate prosumption with profound (and profitable) results.

05/01/2014 By Alex Lorimer

Design proposals often originate from an extrapolation or reimagining of what has been successful in the past. Often this process of reflecting on previous success is effective, and design precedents provide a useful level of objectivity. Profitable product development, for example, has long been based on following and anticipating demand through careful, retrospective market observation. But this anticipatory process is undergoing a significant transformation to a new model of direct consumer participation, or co-creation.

Futurist Alvin Toffler predicted this consumer “revolution,” in his 1980 book, The Third Wave, in which he coined the term prosumption to describe a progressive blurring of the border between producers and consumers of goods and services. He also suggested that through competitive necessity “institutions will fight to remain in business against prosumption” and resist consumers organizing themselves outside of institutional boundaries.

Instead, it has become increasingly insufficient for companies to predict demand simply by following consumer trends and market research. Now, competitive firms are increasingly inviting customers to dictate, inform, and actively redesign supply, according to C. K. Prahalad and Venkat Ramaswamy, authors of The Future of Competition—and those companies that embrace the process often do so with profound and profitable success.

the fruits (and quirks) of co-creation
Founded in 2009, Quirky is a product manufacturer focused strictly on crowdsourced inventions. The company regularly receives thousands of product ideas from its fast-growing community of over 800,000 would-be consumers. Every week the company launches three new products, which have been whittled down by a combination of community voting and staff selection. More importantly, these three products are first refined by the online community and the Quirky design staff, who collectively generate developmental ideas, pricing information, and punchy taglines.

Quirky has already attracted over 160 million dollars in venture capital, and has made huge waves in the traditional retail model through the pace of its innovation, bringing over 400 new products to market in just 5 years.

Quirky Founder Ben Kaufman has described his company’s consumer engagement process as generating “data that is completely conclusive,” by demonstrating consumer interest before manufacturing takes place. His statement effectively sums up the predictive and creative power behind the concept of co-creation.

No longer agents of passive consumption, prosumers are emerging as essential players in the production process. After all, it is their opinion—and with it their collective buying power—that will ultimately decide the success or failure of commercial ventures.

With that in mind, it would appear mildly irresponsible of a design team not to gather as much consumer insight as possible throughout the development process—a notion one might expect to be particularly true of architectural development, given the time and capital investments required for such projects. It is often financially crucial to get things right the first time around.

Ironically, it is precisely this element of risk that may be leading architects and designers to shy away from more participatory design approaches. Unlike consumer products with shorter lifespans developed through multiple iterations, architectural developments have far less flexibility to test new ideas and take a “fail fast” approach. New indicators may be showing, however, that the competitive advantage to participatory design is winning out.

signs of change
In a 2014 post on Quirky’s open discussion forum, I asked a simple question: Could Quirky find value in challenging the online community to help design their future retail stores? As expected, the question sparked a discussion full of consumer-provided insights. Within 24 hours, user Ernesto Tan had even uploaded SketchUp scenes depicting his initial contribution for how the store could look. Should Quirky choose to exploit this opportunity, the company has a distinct advantage in facilitating prosumption architecture. Not only do they already have a proprietary mass collaboration platform, but they also wield a community of avid prosumers who are willing to steer it.

For now, these kinds of systems are largely confined to consumer product development, but as this practice becomes more mainstream, it is easy to imagine co-creative pressure filtering into the design process of customer-oriented architecture, like it has at Quirky. If consumer co-creation is to become the future of commercial design, how do architects and designers stand to benefit from embracing this shift?

  • Commercial consumers can provide valuable feedback to creative designers during development, maximizing profitable and targeted value in the outcome.
  • Commercial consumers help generate design concepts, and sift through a vast quantity of their own collective ideas by community voting, enhancing the creativity of the development process.
  • Commercial consumers who are engaged in the design process are also likely to share a sense of responsibility or emotional investment, prompting them to promote a project’s outcome to their peers.
  • Particularly relevant to architectural investors, consumer insight can prevent a company from spending millions of dollars on a building that consumers don’t actually want or that they won’t find appealing.

To apply this model of value creation to architecture and take full advantage of these features, designers simply need a platform that facilitates consumer discussion, feedback, input, and general creativity en masse.

what the future holds
Stickyworld, a 2010 startup founded by architect and CEO Michael Kohn, is an early example of such co-creation services taking root in A+D. The web-based software allows end-users of architectural projects to place insightful sticky notes inside developmental virtual tours. The focus here tends to be on neighborhood, residential, or educational projects, but Kohn plans to expand Stickyworld further into the commercial sector. “My gut feeling is that the future of physical retail is about getting closer to the customer and giving them the opportunity to have a say in the experience they pay for,” he said.

There are also web platforms emerging that are even more congruent with the idea of co-creation, such as Betaville, which allows consumers the freedom to provisionally alter and tweak design proposals within virtual 3-D environments using a program as simple as SketchUp. Afterwards, other users can make further changes, or leave comments and ideas in order to influence the project’s development. The typical fuss involved in participation is often conducive to “a big fat headache,” according to Carl Skelton, the Betaville initiative’s director. “What I’m talking about is making that big fat headache into a really good investment.”

So far Skelton has only trialed Betaville within academic contexts and through demonstration deployments, but the company is now in the middle of an “in-the-wild deployment,” redesigning a public recreation center in Los Angeles, he said, adding that commercial establishments are certainly an intended architectural category for the future.

As Skelton suggests, a system like Betaville “does imply a fairly radical bit of willingness to think about the designer’s role in new ways.” Through these arising technologies architects may find themselves as mediators and coordinators of a significantly larger, more insightful, and profoundly productive team. Those that engage in this practice might therefore be the only ones that remain ahead, capable of providing the most competitive and commercially successful service to their clients.


Alexander Lorimer is an architectural theorist and researcher at Plymouth University in the U.K. His work focuses on the commercial value and anticipated implications of digitally facilitated consumer-driven design across creative industries.

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