From Slogan to Achievement: Analysing Age-Friendly Strategies Through Co-Creation and Co-Production

This blog is based on an article in Social Policy and Society by Martin Zuniga, Tine Buffel and Felix Arrieta. Click here to access the article.

The demographic transition which European societies are undergoing, characterised by the growth in numbers and proportion of people aged 60 and over, has brought issues related to ageing and care to the centre of political debate at all institutional levels. From the local to the national level, public institutions are searching for new ways of organising welfare and care systems, with the aim of improving responses to the challenges presented by the recent demographic, political and economic changes. The ‘Age-Friendly Cities and Communities’ (AFCC) strategy proposed by the World Health Organization (WHO) has become a global reference for the development of ageing policies, and more inclusive cities, neighbourhoods and communities that are supportive of the needs people as they grow older. 

One dimension to the age-friendly debate has been the influence of ideas relating to co-production and co-creation, which refer to the involvement of citizens in the design, management, implementation or evaluation of a certain policy or service. Such processes are developed on the basis that they have the capacity to make policies and practices more responsive to the needs and demands of the people involved. Furthermore, Co-creation and co-production are identified as relevant and necessary strategies because they provide a response to the search for new ways of structuring the “welfare mix” by building upon the collaboration between different sectors involved in the provision of welfare and care (public sector, market, third sector, voluntary and community sector).

In our article, this subject is examined by means of a qualitative study, analysing how three capital cities in the Basque Autonomous Region –Spain- (Bilbao, Donostia/San Sebastian and Vitoria-Gasteiz) are implementing age-friendly strategies, with the focus being on co-creation and co-production initiatives. In this field, Basque Autonomous Region represents an interesting reference point for a case study, not only because it is the Spanish region with the highest number of cities that belong to the global network, but also because it has its own regional network, as well as many local initiatives in operation.

The research followed a qualitative methodology in which an in-depth interview technique was applied. A total of 27 interviews were conducted, using a semistructured qualitative questionnaire. We recruited participants from different backgrounds with an interest in ageing policies in BAR, including politicians and policy makers, high-ranking public managers, experts and academics. Eighteen women and nine men participated in the study. Thirteen were from the public sector, and fourteen were scholars or experts. A similar number of public sector professionals were interviewed in each city (five in Vitoria-Gasteiz, four in Donostia- San Sebastian and four in Bilbao).

Our findings show that whilst the general assessment of the co-creation or co-production processes are positive, common difficulties and challenges can also be identified. Broadly speaking, these challenges could be divided into two main topics: how to promote effective participation and guaranteeing sustainability. In general terms, putting participatory and collaborative governance processes in place is always seen as challenging, but it seems to be especially difficult to engage certain groups of people, such as frail or otherwise excluded older people. In the same vein, the achievement of intergenerational projects was indicated as highly desirable, but difficult to accomplish. In other words, the engagement of both adults and young people in age-friendly initiatives is proving to be challenging, in part due to differences in capabilities, interests or the existence of shared places/spaces. 

Co-creation or co-production processes ideally start from developing a shared diagnosis or design at the start of a project. As has often been argued by the interviewees in our research, however, participatory processes promoted by public institutions often respond more to the needs of the administration itself rather than to those of older people and communities. In this regard, particular emphasis has been placed on the fact that there is indeed a risk of tokenism, by promoting participation merely as a political strategy. Another issue in the debate is how to ensure the sustainability or continuity of co-production or co-creation processes, and what role public administration should play in achieving this. In many cases, community-based projects aim to activate networks and relationships that can continue to function autonomously, without the public administration intervening. Yet the experiences accounted for here suggest that continuity may be difficult to achieve without the monitoring or ‘surveillance’ of the administration. Another issue in the debate is how to ensure it and and what role public administration should play in achieving this.

One measure that could be implemented to facilitate sustainability and continuity is to take a cross-sectorial approach in developing age-friendly projects and activities. This suggests a collaborative, inter-departmental approach, involving local authorities, and professional stakeholders from a range of backgrounds, as well as community organisations and citizens.

Our research suggests that political involvement, whilst necessary, is meaningless if the strategy is not embedded in the work of influential stakeholders, especially those community-based organisations capable of developing strategies in local contexts. As previous research pointed out, and this study confirmed, inconsistent implementation and lack of community structures which facilitate the translation of planning reports into ground-level actions are two of the most challenging issues when implementing community-wide planning strategies.

Collaborative and participatory initiatives such as co-creation and co-production processes are considered essential for the development of age-friendly strategies, but our analysis has shown that they are far from common and systematised in the way they are developed. The rapid success and expansion of the AFCC initiative in Basque Autonomous Region therefore carries the risk of becoming a slogan or tagline without demonstrable achievements. The analysed initiatives represent innovative projects within different institutions and require a new form of governance.

All in all, as argued throughout this work the idea of achieving ‘friendliness’ within communities should be understood as a strategy for all ages. Rather than defining ‘age friendly’ as a new programme or a trend in service delivery, this study suggests that it should be seen as an opportunity to re-think the way in which we live together.

About the authors

Martin Zuniga has a PhD in Social Work, Social Work Graduate and MA in Social Research,
Consultory and Innovation at University of Deusto. Currently working as R&D researcher at Grupo SSI, and associate lecturer at University of the Basque Country (UPV-EHU). His research fields are related to Social Work, Community work, Social Policy, Ageing, and Co-creation processes.

Tine Buffel is a professor of Sociology at the University of Manchester, where she directors the Manchester Urban Ageing Research (MUARG), an interdisciplinary group of scholars with an interest in understanding the relationship between population ageing and urbanisation. Building on a background of innovative participatory and co-production methodologies with older people, Tine has been particularly interested in studying questions relating to neighbourhood and community life in later life, social inequality and exclusion, urban deprivation and developing ‘age-friendly’ environments.

Felix Arrieta has PhD in Political Science and Political Science Graduate at University of the
Basque Country (UPV-EHU). He was Director of the MA in Intervention with People in Situation of Vulnerability and Social Exclusion at University of Deusto. His research fields are related to Public and Social Policies, policymaking and care systems.


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