Designing WITH rather than FOR the community.


Just had a great chat with Chris Vanstone from The Australian Centre for Social Innovation (TACSI) about co-design.

This was a part of our ongoing conversation with leaders from the Edwardstown Community Church who we are collaborating with to dream about what it might mean to work together with the local community towards a thriving future.

One of the great perspectives that TACSI bring to the table (as well as some very sleek design and business thinking) is the very strong methodology of working to create solutions WITH communities not FOR them… or worse of all TO them!

I hear too many people complaining about attitudes of “entitlement” and “dependency” from the people attending our programs and services.  But I want to pose the question: how can we expect anything else if we work from a service model approach?  If all we do is seek out people’s needs and try to “fix them” aren’t we creating a culture of entitlement and dependency.  Even if we are more polite about it and ask/survey them about what they need/want first… if we don’t then involve them in the solution; if we don’t allow their creativity and strengths and participation in the resolution; if we only work towards solving a list of problems (as opposed to dreaming together for a new future)… what else can we expect?

And over in the creative world a group of people started asking similar questions.  In that world, end-product-consumers (mum and dad users) contribute to the look, feel, design and marketing of most of the products we consume and they started asking: “if this is the process of big corporations whose purpose is to get our money; why isn’t it the case with social design where the end product is infinitely more significant?”

As someone who has lived with a graphic designer for the past six years I can appreciate from our endless dinner conversations on the topic that everything: from our homes to our schools; from our bus routes to our political systems  … is designed.  The questions that remains is simply how well and how intentionally.

From a community perspective: how well and how intentionally can our systems be designed in order to create change for people …and then grow and spread this change effectively?

My favourite take away from TACSI is the importance in this work to start with questions rather than solutions.

Some of these questions might look like:

  • What would it mean for this individual/family/community to thrive?
  • What would it look like if this community were more connected?

“Starting with a question avoids pre-supposing a solution before you fully understand the context and the core of the problem. As you learn more from people, and from testing, your question will be refined. Radical solutions start with big questions, more incremental improvements with more tightly defined questions.” (TACSI website)

Starting with questions also communicates a belief that people are indeed experts in their own lives and context.  We know this when we’re working overseas in foreign contexts (ethnography) but some how we seem to forget this when we’re working in our own communities. People “can provide surprising insights into problems that can serve as the launch pad for new solutions.” (TACSI website)

These questions, and the people and groups we ask them of, act a launching pad.  They are not the end product but, as with anything creative, we must test our questions, our hunches.  We must test them to expose our own prejudicious; the limits of our theories; and the outliers of those we have questioned.  We must test them in order to let some of them fail.

I’ve said it before: Failure is hugely important in community development so long as we do it well!  As long as we manage expectations and use our failures to advance positive ideas and possibilities.   If we fail early and on a small scale we avoid spreading solutions that don’t work or refining our solutions so that they are more attractive, more cost effective, more culturally appropriate. TACSI calls this prototyping, social work might call it piloting.

Of course this isn’t a static process but one that must be applied and reapplied constantly to our work to ensure continued relevance and community ownership.

(from the TACSI website)

So what questions might you ask WITH your local community?

How might you frame these questions and whom might you ask?

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