participate
By: Keira
Posted: 09/11/2015

Participatory design: who, why, how?

As part of Architecture & Design Scotland’s DECADE – a series of talks on architecture and design celebrating their 10th year – Keira, alongside Dr James White, lecturer in Urban Design at Glasgow University and Cathy McCulloch of Children’s Parliament, presented and delivered a workshop for their “Participate” event. The following copy appears in the publication which will serve as the final output of the DECADE series.

“Participation” carried out with honest intentions and appropriate resource, can generate a far more impactful and long lasting legacy than mere consultation. Co-production, co-design, collaboration – or any other “co” term you might wish to mention – used effectively and transparently, allows the end user to play a significant role in the design of their environment. Thus, solutions answer the needs of their intended audience. Additionally, the process builds trust and understanding between decision makers and the public. Ultimately this will ensure the long term success and viability of any project. Great in principle – but there are some pitfalls to avoid and barriers to be overcome.

Here are four points to consider:

1) Who?

Consider the stakeholders – intended users, the wider community, professional staff,  decision makers etc. Engaging a broad range of individuals from these groups can prove tricky; frustrating even. Participation is a process which asks an investment of personal time and energy. We designers need to reduce barriers to a minimum. Take the work to potential participants. Offer the chance to engage at a variety of levels. Day long workshops, one off encounters, multiple times, digitally, face to face, by post, in public and private spaces, remotely etc. We must seek involvement from the unusual suspects – not just the loudest voices. We must be confident that the insights and opportunities we are identifying do more than scratch the surface. Go beyond listening to voices – support users and providers to show you how issues might be overcome. Use this opportunity to build a supportive community around your project for the long-term.

2) Why?

Why are you engaging people? What is their role? How can this impact on outcomes? Give a clear purpose for involvement. Establish this in participants minds before engagement and reiterate throughout. We should aim to be transparent about goals and processes. Participants must see that they are a vital and active piece of the puzzle. In addition – are there skills they will develop through working with you? How can you highlight and support this?

3) How?

Design is an evolutionary process. Co-production can not be achieved through a solitary workshop or event. Exercises which ask communities to approve decisions already taken are manipulative. It is not enough to engage communities only as research. Instead, lead participants through the full design process allowing them to contribute to it. We must do more than placate users and clients alike. Look beyond providing a platform for complaints. Create an atmosphere which draws on assets, allowing ideas to be born and flourish.

4) And then?

You engaged a wide range of participants. They were respected as experts in their own right and actively led through a design process. But what will happen next? When? What barriers stand in the way of a particular idea? Set clear expectations for your participants. They must see the bigger picture, see why certain decisions are taken or why their ideas might not appear as part of the final outcome. Without this follow-up you will create a disengaged, disenfranchised audience who wont be so quick or willing to participate again.

Participative processes are labour intensive, time consuming, resource heavy and expensive. Why subject yourself, your colleagues, your clients to this?

Carried out with respect for participants, honestly, with a clear strategy for outcomes and further actions – co-production delivers more than just a comprehensive solution which meets the needs of your users. Users will understand, respect and be invested in the process you undertook to develop your outcome together.

The community of participants built around your project and the extended community surrounding them will also take ownership of and embrace the final outcome far into the future. In the long-term, nothing can be more cost-effective than that.