This month’s Glass-House Chat on Connecting students and community-led design projects sought to explore the increasing practice within built environment degree and qualification courses to link student work with live projects led by local communities. Having some experience of helping to make these connections, and of training and mentoring both the students and the community groups involved, we were keen to explore perceptions of other people and organisations in this space. While some of the participants had extensive experience in this space, others were simply curious about it. What emerged was a thoughtful discussion that looked at practice in use, posed questions, and created pause for reflection on approaches and methods in use, and ultimately developed some clear recommendations to those organising them.
We set the scene by asking the following questions:
- How can the talents of students best contribute to community-led design initiatives?
- What will the students (and participating communities) learn in the process?
- How can we ensure that this interaction is beneficial to all involved?
Key Themes explored
As the discussion progressed, we began to identify a series of frustrating disconnects that Projects that take students into real-life projects within local communities sit within a kind of ‘magical space’ that crosses the boundaries between education and practice, creating invaluable learning spaces for students whilst simultaneously injecting expertise into community projects. However, in order for them to feel productive, equitable and safe spaces, it is essential that these collaborations are clearly defined, and that those taking part have a shared understanding of objectives and parameters. Successful collaborations and programmes do not magically happen, and require the right infrastructure to support those involved, with clear routes into and pathways out of the shared project space, and ideally networking opportunities.
A Magical Space
Student projects vary from one university and faculty to another, but they share the same objectives of giving students the opportunity to both test and further develop their skills and confidence. It is one thing to learn about participatory design and engagement in theory, and another altogether to experience it. Therefore, successful student projects must create a safe space for experimentation, for the students to apply what they have learned and to test it in the field. It is also a vital space to develop skills and experience of working within a project team and with clients who have objectives to satisfy and expectations to manage.
This can also be a magical space for participating community groups and organisations. Students bring with them a wealth of ideas, knowledge and skills, and student projects create a targeted workforce to help groups drive a project forward. As it is usually linked into their learning curriculum, student time is generally given for free or for a relatively small financial contribution. This means student projects can make a huge difference to groups operating with a small budget. It can also introduce these community groups to design thinking, tools and methods, as well as provide fantastic project outputs that can be utilised beyond the timeframe of the collaboration, not to mention creating relationships with emerging professionals.
As with any kind of collaboration, clear communication is key. As one participant, an experienced organiser of these live student projects, put it, it is important to help people step into this space “with honesty and care”. Everyone should have absolute clarity about what they are stepping into and feel that this is a safe space to ask questions, share concerns, test ideas and share knowledge, skills and experience.
This starts with clear guidance on how the collaboration will work, what the expectations are of all involved and the mechanisms to keep lines of communication open before, during and after the dedicated project period for the students.
In this way, student projects can also be a valuable means of building communication, relationships and networks with and within their communities. Inviting collaborations in and effectively celebrating projects and successes with the wider community further extends that network of communication and relationships.
Infrastructure For Collaboration
The infrastructure required to support effective projects to connect students and community initiatives not only enables collaboration, but is reliant upon it. All of those taking part must be willing to put the time, people and systems in place to get the most out of the collaboration. For the universities, who generally serve as the organisers, connectors and support mechanisms for both students and community clients, it is important to set out clear processes from beginning to end, provide the right information briefing and training, and to create navigable pathways into and out of the programme and projects.
Once working together, the students and community groups must also create their own infrastructure for collaboration, setting out their respective and shared values and objectives, creating their mechanisms for communicating and working together, and for how they will invite others into their participatory design space.
Training for both the students and “community clients” can help create a shared language and foundation for collaborations, equalise power, and help all involved get the most out of the process.
We left the Chat feeling that the scope of impact with these student projects is immense. They can be engaging and productive spaces for collaboration and learning, and can make a huge difference to people and places. The thought of connecting what could be an enormous student force for good with the communities around them is both inspiring and exciting. However, experience told us that these collaborations should not simply be thrown together, or what is conceived as a positive and mutually beneficial space can actually cause harm. We agreed that we should collectively be doing more to share our experience and learning and to share best practice in this space. We should also take time to champion and celebrate the fantastic contribution that students can make to community-led initiatives.
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