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GLASS-HOUSE CHATS: Inclusive & Open Design Engagement

Posted on 18 January 2022

Written by:

Jake Stephenson-Bartley

This month’s Chat, Inclusive & Open Design Engagement,  explored how we can make design processes more open and inclusive as well as considering how to get the “hard-to-reach” members of communities involved.  This is a question that we are often asked at The Glass-House, but there is no one simple answer. In this chat we were keen to explore what others are doing in these spaces, and to share what we have learned over the past months, years and decades on how to support community participation and leadership in design.

There has been a real shift in terms of the perspective of institutions, organisations (such as local authorities) and design professionals wanting to be more inclusive in their engagement. From design codes to community review panels, the importance of the role that inclusive design engagement can play in giving communities agency over the design of their built environment is becoming more apparent.

Key questions raised

Key themes

We had a variety of participants from various sectors that brought their own experience and understanding of what inclusive and open design engagement meant. As with many shifting landscapes within the built environment, the term “inclusive design engagement” held a myriad of meanings to each of us in the Chat as individuals, as well as and within each of our organisations. This included recognising the challenges and limitations that people face and identifying those most at risk of being excluded as a way of capturing a more inclusive range of voices. We considered how to move those who face the greatest risk of being excluded into the position of being able to contribute. It was discussed that this process should be intimately linked to listening to people, and understanding what they perceive the barriers to be to their own engagement. Engagement should create  a sense of welcome and accessibility, with the understanding that people are valued  for the voices and opinions they bring to the conversation.

Three clear provocations emerged during the Chat which could serve as catalysts for bringing us closer to consistently achieving more inclusive and open design engagement. Firstly, we considered the role of ‘play’ as a methodology in engagement, to help dispel the barriers of language and accessibility between different communities and people. We then spoke of the effects of fear within participative spaces: fear of being in these spaces; the fear of contributing, the fear of disagreement but also the fear of losing power. Could creating a safe space for nurture, creativity and disagreement assuage some of the fears and create a gateway towards confidence? The final thought draws on the importance of communication, the honesty and the time it takes to build trust and a rapport with one another, and with larger communities. All of these points intersect with the thought that we are all just people beyond our affiliations, and that being open with each other allows an opportunity to connect opinions and weave an inclusive tapestry of information and engagement together.

It’s not all about verbal engagement

As we grow older and transition into ‘adulthood’, the role of play arguably becomes less impactful on our lives as we become more heavily focused on work or family commitments.  We forget the value of being playful and making time for play. Within The Glass-House, play is often used alongside design or craft tasks during engagement activities to help activate conversations and build relationships amongst participants. Doing something playful and visual allows for everyone to take part as well as bridging the gap between language and accessibility. Some examples given during our Chat conversation included giving people disposable cameras, writing or drawing a postcard to the future or even using cake modelling as a catalyst towards inclusive engagement. Using play and non-verbal design tasks as a methodology for engagement can help overcome barriers of inclusivity. It also allows us as individuals to ‘let our guard down’ and becomes a route of accepting people as people.

How can we dispel that ‘fear’ and humanise our interactions?

Fear of disagreement, conflict, taking part as well as the loss of power that can often be associated with engagement emerged as another potential barrier to inclusive and open design engagement during our discussion. So how can we dispel that fear and humanise our interactions? Play was considered one way to assuage that fear, using play to connect people and see the humanity in the individuals and the situations that we or they may be experiencing. Often, the act of simply being playful, whether in conversations or more formal activities, is enough to break down barriers and help people engage more openly.

We also spoke of the importance of nurturing and protecting these creative spaces for discussion, and disagreement! Disagreement is not necessarily negative, and can often provide a useful route to identifying and addressing valid concerns. It’s important to recognise that  ‘disagreement’ is part of a journey towards identifying points of agreement and connecting with others’ realities within engagement. Conflict can become the foundation towards working together. Being open and transparent with our viewpoints and not being afraid to talk to one another in the room can begin to dispel this ‘fear’, which is often the root of closed and exclusive design engagement. It is the first leap into that space, which is often the most difficult.

Communication and honesty

Honesty is the best policy. Many barriers emerge which can often lead to a breakdown of communication or create the appearance of lack of visibility and honesty. For example a challenge faced with local authorities and larger institutions, which manage multiple sectors all with different focuses, that don’t necessarily all interact can allude or perpetuate a lack of communication between them and  communities they are working with.

If you’re honest people will listen to you, which is also about building trust between one another. Finding the circle and explaining why decisions have been made, acknowledging the thought process; even if a decision is not made in their favour it is about communicating those thoughts and reasons.

Time also plays an important role within communication and developing trust between those involved. Making time for conversation and creating space to build trust. This also draws on the importance of the last point that creating comfortable space to disagree, communicate and play will all contribute to more inclusive and meaningful engagement.

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.