Our last Chat of 2022, Co-design Legacies: What Happens Next?, sought to explore how co-design can bring together diverse people and interests to respond to individual and collective needs and aspirations. As recognition for co-design as a valuable placemaking tool continues to grow, we wanted to use this Chat to explore not only the what and how of co-design, but also the legacies that are left behind by co-design processes. We were joined by a diverse group of participants, including academics, students, professionals and policy advisors.
We kick started this month’s Chat by exploring the diverse interpretations and applications of co-design. From creating collaborative spaces for diverse audiences to explore design, to moving beyond talking about decision making processes, we found it difficult to pin co-design to just one static definition. We talked about the different situations co-design can be used in, exploring specific design challenges to developing participative approaches to the big questions addressing our society at the moment.
We spoke of the challenges of capturing the impact of co-design throughout an entire design process, and more generally how this then affects the design of buildings, bid processes, funding models and the post-design and construction of buildings in the UK.
When exploring these ideas, we felt there is a danger that co-design is currently being used as a ‘unicorn’ concept – something seen as universally good that is used for its positive connotations. But, often the phrase co-design is being thrown around in projects without a good understanding of how it can be applied in practice.
Can We Define Co-design?
When talking about working with different groups of people, and especially with a new group, we often recommend starting with language to ensure that there is a shared understanding of key words and phrases. So, with that in mind we kick started this month’s Chat space by asking our participants what co-design means to them. If we unpick it as a compound phrase, co-design is shorthand for collaborative or cooperative design. But, as designers rarely work in isolation, isn’t all design collaborative by nature?
We agreed that what sets ‘co-design’ apart from ‘design’ is the further collaboration with wider project stakeholders (local people that work, live or play in or around a site), not just with ‘professional placemakers’, in a way that invites them into a conversation beyond talking about already confirmed designs or decisions. Co-design moves beyond ‘what can we design for you’, shifting the conversation to instead ask ‘what can we design together?’. In doing so, co-design simultaneously acknowledges the inherent right, ability and power of everyone to be a placemaker and the specialist knowledge and skills that built environment professionals and communities bring to the process.
We also agreed that co-design can take many different forms, and can be used to answer specific design decisions (such as housing estate regeneration), or applied to more open questions. For example, how can town centres transform to suit the shifting needs of local people and communities? When used in the latter, co-design can help create collaborative visions, approaches and solutions to explore participative futures for places that better address local needs and wants.
So, instead of searching for a fixed definition, we can instead think of co-design as a method of designing defined by its values and principles. This allows us to understand that there are many different ways of co-designing, each with a different approach, reason for use, application, group of co-designers and level of participant influence over larger design pieces. It also acknowledges and gives freedom for co-design to be different in each individual context, where the built, natural, political, economic, demographic and social landscape is unique.
Making the Intangible Tangible
When working in the built environment, often our conversations, actions and therefore systems are built around tangible outcomes – the buildings and places that are produced from the design process. As we know, this outcome focused approach can often miss the mark, producing architecture that doesn’t meet the needs and wants of local people as not enough time has been invested in conversation, capacity building, sharing realities – the intangible elements of the design process.
One of our participants gave a fantastic example of some of these intangible benefits from a scheme in South London. Residents had been engaged through the development of low-traffic neighbourhoods (LTN). One of the residents involved in this process, who although didn’t have any formal urban design experience, was so inspired by how it had activated his local community that he wanted to be further involved in developing meanwhile uses for spaces reclaimed through the LTN. He developed project management, delivery and financial skills through this process, and delivered meanwhile use projects for his local community in the LTNs, including mini-libraries and pocket parks.
Examples like this illustrate the diverse range of benefits that co-design processes can bring, but how can we measure these intangible outcomes? We discussed the qualitative evaluation methods that can go towards converting these feelings into datasets, but also agreed that often the way projects are currently set up means that there is no opportunity (or financial ability) for post-design or build evaluation to happen. Often, it is this evaluation which reveals the cascading benefits of co-design processes amongst local people and communities.
Can we change this? A lot of this power lies with commissioning bodies, project bid writers and brief developers who have the ability to put a bigger emphasis (and pot of money) on post-build evaluation and use. But placemakers (in all their forms) and built environment designers also have the power to shift their own mindsets when approaching design questions. What if instead of just designing places, we are designing ways of bringing people together? People who can then impact and create place through collaborative action, and this can then become the legacy of co-design.
Co-design as a Collaboration
Whilst the purpose of co-design can be quite simple, it relies on a collaborative approach to designing. Traditionally, architects and other placemaking professionals have been educated to approach design as a top down process. Placemaking professionals gather the skills to design place-based projects through education and practice, which are then delivered without the involvement of local stakeholders. One of our participants aptly described architects as ‘short-term professionals’, in that they are often brought into a place for a project-length period to produce architectural interventions, without any lived knowledge or experience of that place.
But, it must be acknowledged that professional placemakers (architects, urban designers, planners etc.), have important knowledge and skills that are essential in navigating design and planning processes. Co-design is an approach to sharing this knowledge and skills with people in order to embed their wants and needs in hyperlocal placemaking structures.
However, this sharing is not one way, and often it is more useful to think of it as an exchange of knowledge, ideas and skills with local people. Their lived experience of places allows them to understand localities in ways short-term placemaking professionals cannot. In order to work with people and communities to tap into this knowledge, we must leave our professional hats at the door and learn from one another as equals.
This month’s Chat covered diverse themes around co-design with a group of diverse, passionate participants, but ended on a note of hope for the future. The growing recognition of co-design as a placemaking tool brings with it challenges, and a greater need to build understanding, skills and methods for both professionals and local people engaging in co-design processes. However, it also brings ideas and systems for a more collaborative, equitable future that can help us build more sustainable and resilient places.