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GLASS-HOUSE CHATS: Challenging stereotypes through co-design

Posted on 20 June 2022

Written by:

Elly Mead

Our June Glass-House Chat, Challenging stereotypes through co-design, emerged as a topic within The Glass-House when discussing our own frustrations when encountering stereotypes in design engagement circles, and was also requested as a future topic from previous Chat attendees. Stereotypes, oversimplified or fixed ideas about particular people or things, can act as barriers to engaged design and placemaking processes. More than this, stereotypes can put barriers between us and others, preventing open dialogue in all aspects of life. We were joined by an intimate group for this month’s Chat, including policy advisors and academics from the built environment sector, allowing us to dig into this topic from a diverse range of perspectives.

Key Themes explored

We kick-started this month’s Chat space by sharing the stereotypes we each encounter, and quickly reached consensus that whether they focus on gender, age or any other characteristic, the use and spread of them only disengages people from design processes  and can be dismissive of the effort, time and energy put in by those participants who do engage regularly. We spoke of how stereotypes and language are deeply intertwined, and how often stereotypes emerge through a lack of understanding of individuals or groups of people. 

We were keen to understand how or where stereotypes emerge in design processes, and how they are then perpetuated by those with power and privilege. It was acknowledged that to get to the root of stereotypes, we need strong champions in design spaces who feel comfortable challenging these preconceptions before they become rooted as stereotypes.

Challenging stereotypes through diversity

Stereotypes are everywhere, and in many ways are a natural aspect of human social interactions. As we try to process the diverse range of people we encounter, especially in large urban hubs, we all fall into trying to create groups, classifications or some kind of ‘order’ to how we understand and relate to people who may, at first glance, feel very different to us. Often, there are cultural tendencies linked to  where or how we grew up, which can influence how we behave socially, leading to stereotypes being applied to nationalities or cultural groups. However, this doesn’t justify the use of stereotypes or the damage they can cause, both within and outside of design processes.

We also need to be careful how we categorise people through their engagement, or lack thereof, in design and placemaking. An obvious example is the term “the usual suspects” which is actually dismissive of the effort, time and energy put in by those participants who engage regularly. “Hard to reach” was another term that we felt said more about the stereotypes that influence how engagement is planned, than the people these processes are trying to engage. We agreed that we need to continually challenge  ourselves, recognising when we are falling into using stereotypes and reminding ourselves of the individuality, complexity and diversity of people. We must also not be afraid to challenge stereotypes held by others.

Stereotypes are often rooted in misunderstandings or a lack of experience of people outside our own social or professional circles. . By bringing diverse people together in safe spaces, not just to converse, but to create space for disagreement and conflict, we can talk through differences to get to shared values and principles. This can help to broaden our understanding of others, which in turn can help to dissolve the stereotypes we once held.

We also spoke of how to turn stereotypes on their head, using them as starting points for initial conversations and inviting people to challenge them as a route into wider dialogue. As the late Jo Cox so eloquently put it, with a sentiment that many other great orators around the world have expressed over time,  ‘We have more in common than that which divides us’.

Recognising who has power

As in our May Chat about the use of jargon in design and placemaking, here we also explored  how power, in decision-making in particular, is strongly related to who ‘controls’ (uses and perpetrates) stereotypes during engagement processes, and beyond. Our Chat attendees felt that often stereotypes can be embedded into systems by those with power and/ or control, which then further perpetuates their use going forward. It can be difficult to pin down and tackle stereotypes created in this way, as once established it can be nigh on impossible to track their original origins. Instead, can we challenge the power systems, shifting power within communities ,removing barriers, and initiating continuous dialogue? 

We also considered this question of power from an academic perspective, particularly in the wake of troubling reporting from the architectural education sector on discrimination within higher education. We agreed that teachers are leaders, and as such carry a position of power and responsibility to those who learn from them. If, instead of considering academia as one-directional learning spaces (from teacher to student), we considered them as spaces for dialogue, for teachers to introduce concepts and ideas which can then be challenged and unpicked, could we redistribute this power to create equitable learning spaces which are about sharing expertise rather than imparting ideas.

We reflected the evolution of  our own Glass-House public-facing events programme, which in its original form involved events with speakers, which we realised involved a lot of talking at people, rather than with them. After several iterations, we settled on our current system which involves using co-design and co-production to create more equitable spaces for dialogue. By removing the hierarchy, we were able to move past one-directional learning and create spaces in which people could both co-create and challenge ideas, and in turn be challenged by others.

Creating the time and space for play and mess

Following on from our two previous points, time was again the common factor which we see emerge from many of our Chat spaces. Time to challenge stereotypes, to convene diverse groups, time for these groups to mix and converse, to disagree and then come back together in consensus around shared values, but also time to empower champions who are comfortable flipping stereotypes on their head. By creating time in design processes, which often is the hardest challenge given the strict time constraints many design projects face, we can then create space for building empathy between individuals. 

Making time for ‘play’ within design processes is an important tool to eke out feelings and thoughts around place. It also can breathe space into design processes that have a tendency to feel rigid, giving room for messy creative spaces to emerge. One of our participants spoke of ‘The Serious Game’, developed by Stirling University, which uses a board game to explore how diverse stakeholders come together to design and manage an imaginary town. Reflecting on our work within The Glass-House which uses role play to challenge stereotypes and create empathy, we talked about the challenge this presents in its own right – how to use roles without relying on stereotypes.

We agreed that often these ‘messy’ spaces, where there is time to throw lots of ideas at the wall and see what emerges, are the best part of projects and often the most fruitful because people, without the pressure to produce specific outcomes, develop the best ideas when given time and freedom. They also create space for people to move beyond stereotypes through collaboration.

We ended our Chat agreeing some strategies we could apply to our own work and champion with others: 

It is only through both interaction and collaboration that we can move beyond being either nervous or dismissive of those who are different from us, and turn stereotypes on their head. 

You can view our past Chat takeaways here.

Please email with your suggestions for new Chat topics.

You can sign up for our next Chats via our Events page.