This month’s Glass-House Chat, Making the case for investment in inclusive design, brought together a range of people, including community activists, spatial researchers, engagement managers and local authority members from across the UK, to explore ideas around investing in design engagement that brings together diverse stakeholders and users groups to shape the future of our shared spaces. This Chat topic was suggested during last year’s series, but it is a theme we come across often within The Glass-House, as an organisation that consistently makes the case for this investment in inclusive design within the various facets of our work.
The landscape around community design is beginning to shift, with a greater demand for community-focused processes that value diverse stakeholders and users within design journeys. But still the question remains of how we best convince those in positions of power to dedicate the time and budgets required to develop meaningful design engagement strategies and programmes, as well as communities who may be apprehensive of the inclusive processes due to unsuccessful previous experiences.
We began this Chat by asking participants to consider what had brought them to the Chat space, with answers ranging from wanting to utilise inclusive design within their own practices to general interest in the topic. It is clear that more professionals in design spaces are beginning to include inclusive design in their toolkit, and that empowered community members are demanding engaged design processes, but how do we push for continual investment in inclusive design? By unpicking what investment means to our participants, we built a rich tapestry of conversation that explored not only the importance of long-term investment but on building in feedback loops and capturing the diverse effects to continually make the case for more inclusive design.
It was agreed that investment should be a two-way street, and instead of asking others ‘What can we do for you?’, instead the question should be ‘What can we create together?’. This subtle reframing changes the process from a service-receiving relationship to a collaborative effort, and values the two-way investment that goes into inclusive design from both professionals or services providers and individuals and organisations within communities.
What do we mean by ‘investment’?
It was noted that when talking about investment, there is a usual assumption that we are referring to investing time or money into a process or outcome. However, investment should be considered in broader strokes by looking not just at the time or money that can be put into a defined ‘consultation or community engagement stage’ of the process, but at the opportunities and mechanisms that can be embedded throughout that spread beyond the confines of any specific project or scheme. Investment in inclusive design processes should also be about investing in communities, and creating spaces for people to get involved as early in a design process as possible. Investment should talk to people about what, and who, they feel is missing from the design process, and from the place being transformed, and embed mechanisms and infrastructure (e.g. training, job opportunities etc.) that build the social capital, and a collaborative investment in the future stewardship of the place.
One of our participants gave the beautiful analogy that investment in an inclusive design process is like building a jigsaw together, but without the image on the box. You don’t know exactly what you are putting the blocks together to form, but you can identify the pieces that are missing the further you progress with the puzzle. Socially-led, inclusive design should be a mechanism for investment in social value terms, but there must be a willingness to learn, adapt and overcome. A collective willingness to invest in the journey, even if the outcome is not clear beforehand.
We discussed how time is one of the most important aspects of investing in inclusive design, not just the timing of getting involved, but the timeframes of that investment. Often, projects run by local authorities or private practices have clear timeframes in which to deliver processes or outcomes, when the reality is that the development of places never ends, and there is no such thing as a finished place. We are constantly iterating the spaces and places around us, and communities are timeless facets of this conversation, weaving and adapting as our urban spaces shift through time.
In order to have worthwhile and meaningful investment in an inclusive design process, the relationship and dialogue built should be long-term. This not only gives an opportunity to design and develop inclusive practices which are specifically suited to each unique project, but also to understand the wider-reaching effects of inclusive design on people, communities and places.
How do you capture the effect of inclusive design?
The benefits of inclusive design processes are often less prominent than the built environment they affect, creating a cascade of positive,but intangible effects that can be difficult to accurately and comprehensively capture and translate into clear data sets. Building networks, knowledge and confidence in design spaces are difficult results to record, and as one participant aptly stated ‘How do you measure emotion?’. This tension between qualitative and quantitative data (of which inclusive design often produces the former) can be a barrier to communicating and therefore advocating for inclusive design processes within projects. Building on the conversation about longevity, it was highlighted once more the importance of maintaining long-term relationships within inclusive design processes and reconvening groups after shorter-term project delivery to understand the true and wider-reaching impacts of inclusive design. This is often not built into project and funding cycles, but is an essential part of investing in learning and of constantly evolving and improving practice .
To truly capture the diverse positive effects of inclusive design, there is a need to create a feedback framework that appreciates and captures the different types of impact at each stage of a project, and that values the different types of data which will arise from this. At The Glass-House, we are particularly interested in compiling and presenting data that captures and values impact at different levels of interaction, from the individual to the group to the wider community.
We left the Chat space, as we often do, buoyed by the in-depth and stimulating conversation, and by the rising number of practitioners and community members we encounter who take the question of investment in inclusive design so seriously. A core takeaway from our conversation was the importance of conversation, and of staying in touch with communities and creating strong relationships. By removing defined ‘start’ and ‘end’ lines within a project’s process, and moving towards ongoing place-based conversations, we can measure both success and how to invest in continuous dialogue and collaboration in placemaking, rather than by just the built outcomes and consultation statistics of a single project. Making the case for investment in inclusive design is complex, and requires early buy-in from all parties, as well as confidence and trust in the multi-faceted benefits that inclusive design brings.
You can view our past Chat takeaways here.
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