The notion of an ‘infrastructure for collaboration’ is not a new idea, and came into the ethos of The Glass-House very early on in our journey as a charity. Some of the community group members who attended our early Design Training programmes told us that it was fantastic that we were working with them to build their confidence to work with design and placemaking professionals, but that it was pointless to do it without also building capacity for professionals to work better with communities. They asked us point blank, “What are you going to do about them?”.
There began our departure from being a charity that was predominantly aimed at working with communities, to being one that sits at the crossroads of different sectors and disciplines, trying to create processes and resources that bring them together to collaborate with mutual respect and an appreciation for what each brings to the table.
We have consistently seen over the years that so many of the great success stories in engaged, collaborative design and placemaking have pivoted around individuals with a passion and commitment to fight against all odds to champion engaged and inclusive processes. We have relied and continue to rely on those champions across the sectors we work with to help us test and iterate approaches and methods, to bring diverse audiences together and to make interesting things happen. These champions are invaluable, yet often undervalued within their worlds. More often than not, they are having to create space in their work or personal lives to make these things happen on their own time, and having to fight to have their voices heard.
However, we have also seen that when these champions leave a group, organisation or network, or can no longer take on such responsibilities, it can become extremely difficult to pick up and continue with someone else in the same way.
When it comes to community engagement in design and placemaking, there has undoubtedly been a huge shift in the general interest and intent among those leading projects within local authorities, social housing providers and design practices. There are growing numbers of people and organisations who are genuinely more interested in, and committed to, more engaged design and placemaking. This is also reflected in a sharp rise in built environment degree courses that boast modules on community engagement.
However, there is still a huge skills gap around design engagement, and perhaps more importantly, there is still a lack of coherent and consistent systems and processes to support both those tasked with delivering design engagement, and those who would like to take part, but simply can’t find a clear route into participating.
There is also a lack of appreciation for the role that engagement in design and placemaking can play in catalysing connections and collaborations within a place. If we begin to see engagement less as a space to gain community buy-in and instead as a space to activate those we engage as potential contributors and partners, then we can move from a position of confrontation to one of collaboration.
Collaboration requires clear routes into dialogue as well as the space and time to identify shared values and objectives while acknowledging and valuing differences. We need to create more safe, equitable and indeed catalytic spaces in which we can unearth and mobilise collective assets and drive forward ideas, projects and change with local people and organisations. The way we tend to do engagement on a project or departmental basis means that an attempt at creating an infrastructure to support this collaboration is limited to strict timelines and budgets. Each project and department sets up its own systems and reinvents the wheel, often finding itself competing with other projects and departments to engage local people and organisations.
So, what we need is a more systemic and systematic approach to collaboration through the route of design and placemaking, but connecting into a bigger conversation about that place, and a network of initiatives at different scales and led by different sectors. This is about finding a way to make the whole greater than a sum of its parts through catalysing and nurturing collaborations. Place is the natural frame for this. We all inhabit it together and every aspect of it is influenced by the others within it.
For example, how might a small community food growing project both enhance and benefit from new housing being led by the public or private sector? How might local businesses and community interest groups work together to activate and manage an underused space? And how can a design process help reveal such opportunities?
Shouldn’t we be thinking about more place-based infrastructure for collaboration, which sets up clear systems, opportunities and accountability that can then support multiple projects and initiatives? Surely there is a role for that infrastructure, which can create a growing and evolving community of interest and stewardship. This will only happen if we pool our resources, break down the silo walls and work together as partners, recognising that engagement on any project, policy or service should be part of a much larger, ongoing infrastructure for collaboration.
Read more about research we are doing in this area:
This blog is the third in a series of think pieces, which we hope will serve as prompts for discussion, innovation, reflection, and iteration around engaging communities in design decision making, and to encourage others to share ideas, approaches and stories. You can read the rest of the series here.
If this blog, or any other in this series, spark some thinking or experiences you would like to share, we invite you to write your own blogs on these themes or simply to get in touch and explore how we might collaborate on them. You can contact The Glass-House team at email@example.com.
Feel free to join the discussion on social media @GlassHouseCLD.