Images, courtesy of Robynn Butler, are from a co-design initiative with Savannah High School students and SCAD Sustainable Design students, piloting frog's Collective Action Toolkit. For more information on the initiative, visit designethos.org
This is the third article in a series examining the potential of resilient design to improve the way the world works. Join designers, brand strategists, architects, futurists, experts and entrepreneurs at Compostmodern13 to delve more deeply into strategies of sustainablity and design.
I recently picked up The Best Dictionary for Students, an elementary school reference that my twin daughters use daily. It seemed perfectly suited to me because, who, after all, isn't a student. This small dictionary has 410 entries that begin with the letter combination 'co,' beginning with coach and ending with cozy. Co-design is not one of those words. But many of the words beginning with these letters are germane to the vibrant conversation around co-design: commitment, compassion, complex, congregate, consequential, to name a few. This is to be expected, considering the Latin origins of the prefix: together. With a multitude of English language concepts fundamentally connected through this prefix, it seems fitting to more deeply explore some of the affiliations inferred by their shared linguistic origin.
Today's designers have benefitted from the development of young fields of practice such as design for inclusivity, and human-centered design. These efforts focus on delivering solutions through immersive (for the designer) and inclusive (for the community) processes, which the designers then sensitively transform into 'solutions,' whether they be products, services, experiences, or tools (visioning, strategic, etc.). Other fields of practice—emerging more from the urban design context, and with an emphasis on community resilience—focus more on designing the potentials for solutions to emerge from the local context itself. As one example, Asset Based Community Development (ABCD) eschews the all too common 'needs-based' approach for the sake of identifying, celebrating and empowering assets that already exist within the community.
The gap between these two approaches has been narrowing, and the emerging bridge is being constructed through an array of creative experimentation. Growing trends in mass customization such as Open Source Ecology, and design-driven community resources such as frog's Collective Action Toolkit are examples of this materializing connective tissue. This essay is an invitation to more deeply consider the ideas that have been percolating in some of these spaces. I discuss two words from this 'co' bounty that are associated with the practice of co-design, then introduce a third word—quite literally—which explores a paradox borne of two contradictory root words. Together, the words act as a framing device that can aid in the exploration of the concepts behind this evolving process we call co-design, specifically in the social sector. The three 'co' words do not constitute strategies as much as reflections on the nature of committing to this dynamic arena. I invite more terms to be added to create (co-create) a Designer's Dictionary of 'Co.' Those compelled to consider the origins of co-design can find many sources dedicated to more rigorous investigations, such as Sanders and Stappers' Co-Creation and the New Landscapes of Design, as one of example of many.
Design as Conduit
A conduit is an entity of transition between spaces, states or usages. Accordingly, if the energy on one end of a conduit lacks sufficient order or density, or if there is an inability on the other end to 'carry the charge', then this kind of channel is little more than the means by which energy is transferred from one unproductive space to another, or worse, from a productive space to an unproductive one. Co-design is a conduit. And the energy that co-design aims to transfer exists within the wisdom, passion, creativity, and tacit knowledge of the parties involved.
Yet, there is another dimension here that relates to the nature of connectivity with individuals not in immediate contact with the initial co-design process. The people in these concentric and loosely defined rings represent not only those who may be influenced or changed in some way, but those who would influence still others further from the original process. This focus on connectivity and continuity is an important facet of co-design, and not merely as a cautionary reference to the law of unintended consequences—as important as that is—but as a reminder that ideas which emerge from co-design must be so deeply embedded in the community that members of that community who were not directly involved in the co-design process gravitate toward them intuitively. With IDEO's ">Human-Centered Design approach in mind, the arc of progression for the design process might run through stages that focus on: observations, stories, themes, opportunities, solutions, prototypes and implementation plans. Yet, the means by which designers build capacity within the community to design solutions themselves requires that this process is fully owned—and operated—by the community before the end of this sequence. A key aspiration of co-design could then be said to enhance the efficacy of other people to deliver energy further into their own social milieu. By this, we might mean nudging a new relationship into existence; nudging an old relationship into a new sphere; nudging the will of an individual toward a point of action; nudging a new or under-utilized tool into use; or nudging an idea out of an eddy of habitual neglect and back into a more active current.
Is it too provocative to ask the question; how is a community like an organization? Or, in systems language, where are the invariances of form between communities and organizations? In his book The Necessary Revolution, Peter Senge speaks of the need for organizations seeking a transformation toward sustainable operation to develop strategic microcosms and getting the system in the room, in this fashion: "...in practice, convening usually becomes a step by step iterative process—considering the system you seek to influence, thinking about the variety of key actors in the system; and remembering to include those who traditionally lack a voice in formal decisions or official policies, but who possess important circles of influence nonetheless." Continually asking the question, "who is not in the room?" can prevent assumptions from building up, and increase the potential for ideas to spread through a community in ways that build consensus rather than mistrust.
Assessing the capacities to provide on one end of the conduit, and the capacities to apply on the other, becomes a task that is as essential in determining the efficacy of a conduit as assessing the conduit itself. Extending the system boundaries of managing an effective co-design strategy is therefore necessary in ensuring a flow of energy from a productive space to a more productive space, or from an unproductive space to a productive one. This extension of the horizon, so integral in assuring continuity of forward motion, might require other strategies and partnerships that designers are not used to considering, as well as a rigorous challenging of the designer's own blind spots.
Design as Coalescence
Spontaneous connections between strangers are notable for the profound impacts they can have on everyone involved. And, the more intense these ephemeral connections are, the more lasting their residual effects are likely to be. This intensity can be heightened even more when the connections between individuals transcend cultures, backgrounds or socio-economic status. Such moments feel magical because they are uncommon, unexpected and instantaneous.
Designers and their equals in the co-design space don't have the benefit of encountering each other in such unexpected situations. The need for planning precludes the serendipity that chance meetings afford. In fact, unless the co-design process is handled carefully, the convergence of community members and 'outside' designers can set a tone far different than one of serendipity. Yet, to achieve the rarified atmosphere that an accidental encounter provides is a goal worth setting—a benchmark worth acknowledging for its opportunities for heightened connectivity. This is no 'feel good' suggestion, and no pie-in-the-sky ambition. This is not a suggestion that the room should be filled with jovial backslappers. What these encounters instead produce is a form of charged quietude, when a cacophony of words eventually gives way to a deeper form of communication, and a common, if unstated, understanding of a singular purpose drives the action forward. Discovering commonalities, seemingly through chance, can provide a cathartic atmosphere that is even more remarkable in the quiet restraint in which that catharsis plays out. In effective co-design scenarios, this energy is not moving in any one direction; it's moving in all directions. And in doing so, it transforms all participants. A realization that everyone is both vulnerable and valuable to the process at hand is cause for this intensified focus, bringing participants closer together, even as the autonomy of individuals is reinforced.
In this way, co-designing with communities is a form of experience design, where the sought after intangible elements exist at the moment of co-creation, not merely as the result of it. Designers are designing the experience of the design process itself, with the very moments of interaction between the community members and the community and the designers being the target experience. And part of that design process--the most essential part--is ensuring that participants have been adequately consulted, and aware of the basic framing, yet perhaps surprised by some of the conditions that allow the process to unfold with a serendipity of its own. And, facilitating the emergence of novelty, as Fritjof Capra describes it in his book, The Hidden Connections, can be a powerful focus for designers interested in leading such collaborative efforts.
Co-design could be said to ultimately exist within the scope of a meaningfully charged relationship—between people, between people and ideas, and between people and the material world. In short, developing the appreciation for connecting one form of energy to another is quite at the heart of co-design. Coalescence thus becomes the binding agent for the myriad conduits that co-design activates.
Design as Conflictollaboration
To strike together (conflict) + to labor together (collaborate)
Collaboration is like sex (not to mention that sex is collaboration). Everyone has a vision of the exemplar, yet few are prepared for the messiness that can arise from the process. Collaboration. Collaboration. Collaboration. Today's designers are enamored with it. And even more so are those designers in the co-design arena. Yet individuals who are new to co-design often end up frustrated, and surprised at the lack of glamour associated with the term's promise.
Thankfully, a new breed of designer has flowed into the co-design space; individuals who embrace the entirety of the collaborative milieu, and individuals for whom ideas such as empathy are not words in a dictionary as much as ways of being. That there is tension in the collaborative process that must be managed in as creative a fashion as any of the real-world problems co-design attempts to address is no surprise. That many designers consider conflict something to avoid or to smooth over in the collaborative environment is unfortunate. Perhaps a new word is necessary: one that clarifies the true nature of collaboration once and for all, so that anyone interested in working in the space can be prepared for what it entails. Collaboration is a fine word, it's just too damn salacious these days. Conflictollaboration is honest. It reminds us that the nature of working with other people is dappled with imperfections and disagreements. Yet, intertwined with those differences are more commonalities than we realize. Commonalities can often be shrouded in veils of difference. Commonalities wrapped in differences, and differences wrapped in commonalties: anything less complicated would be less human.
And the term conflictollaboration is more than simply honest; it's lilting, even goofy. It reminds us that we are never always right, that we are never always rational, and that we are never always above a self-deprecating glance in the mirror. Even if there are serious differences of opinions or ideas; even if our commitments run deep enough to make us vulnerable; even if we're grappling with serious matters that have direct and lasting consequences, we should not take ourselves too seriously. We will disagree, we will err in judgment, we will occasionally get facts wrong; we will trip over pebbles of disagreement even on broad paths of consensus. And acknowledging the shortcomings of our own will help us realize the true value of collaboration—only with others can we hope to get things right. The individuals we work with in the co-design process are conduits of ideas and energy that complement what we bring to them. Conflictollaboration: A celebration of differences through the merging of visions.
Conduit. Coalescence. Conflictollaboration. Three words of many that help us understand where design is headed in the 21st century. Let's continue to build our own vocabulary.
Explore the potential of resilient design to improve the way the world works next month with designers, brand strategists, architects, futurists, experts and entrepreneurs at this sustainability conference, held March 22-23 by AIGA San Francisco. Day 1 provides fast-moving presentations loaded with inspiring insights. Day 2 will be a Future Blitz workshop led by AIGA medalist John Bielenberg that grounds inspiration in action. Reasonably priced, Compostmodern is a can't miss event for anyone interested in the cutting edge of sustainability and design. Take advantage of early-bird rates through February 28th.