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A brief history of co-creation

September 1, 2009

Einstein reputedly said, “The secret to creativity is knowing how to hide your sources.” The same can be said for co-creation. The word “co-creation,” at least in its popular, limited definition, is associated with a decidedly modern view of how customers can engage differently with companies, often by building social communities mediated by some form of technology. We think of eBay, Apple, Facebook, and Twitter. But co-creation was arguably born much earlier, in the 19th century on the French countryside, to be precise.

You will have to excuse me. I’ve been in France for more than a week, and if you stay long enough, the French will try to convince you they have been first at everything, from inventing the bicycle to flying the first airplane (come on now, we all know Americans did those things). When it comes to co-creation, though, the French may have a point. The start-up of the French bank Credit Agricole at the end of the 19th century, for example, was arguably co-creation in action. A bunch of local farmers in the French provinces did not have enough of a regular cash flow to warrant the attention of banks (crops have a way of getting wiped out by weather or pests), so they decided to lend money to each other. It was an eBay of sorts, with money being the merchandise exchanged for a fee. The rating system of lenders and borrowers was a transparent one, where drinking guaranteed the farmer immediate rejection when applying for a loan. This “too much wine, no money” edict may not have been as sophisticated as the modern-day consumer credit algorithms, but it did allow all these local farmer co-ops to grow and enabled Credit Agricole to federate itself into one of the largest global banks.

The French also claim they invented mutual insurance – another instantiation of co-creation – In the 1930s. The most legendary of the mutual insurance firms in France, MAIF (French people love acronyms that puzzle foreigners), was started by high school teachers. These guys drove slowly and washed their cars every Sunday. They’d also seen those farmers organize a bank, so they figured they might as well organize an insurance company since the bank idea was already taken. MAIF had fewer losses than the other segment of French population called the non-high school teachers, and it grew rapidly. At some point, MAIF figured it could invite descendants of high school teachers to join in, on the assumption that even though they had lapsed by not becoming teachers themselves, maybe enough good genes had remained. And so the French invented co-creation, first in banks, then in insurance.

Some skeptics point out that wine growers on the banks of the Rhine in Germany were doing exactly the same thing at roughly the same time, creating a German version of Credit Agricole called Raiffeisenbank, also a very large bank today. I will refrain from mentioning more because there have been enough difficulties between those two countries already without igniting a war over co-creation (although the unabashed promoter of co-creation in me thinks it would have great marketing potential).

Since then, some of my Mexican and Brazilian friends have argued that Latin America invented co-creation long before anybody else, initiating the concept of community lending or tanda (related to the French word tontine, which the French use as etymological proof that they were there before the Latin Americans, since they gave them the word in the first place). And the popularity of micro-credit in Asia has prompted some Indian scholars to research the early appearance of group lending in rural villages in Asia, showing that it predates the appearance of co-creation on all other continents.

So maybe co-creation was not invented by the French after all. Perhaps the concept was, well, uh, “co-created.”
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