Reflections on The Co-design Symposium

An exploration of participatory design practice in Melbourne

I’ve had the distinct privilege of being involved in a couple of huddles around participatory design practice lately. Whilst I missed out on the Design for Social Innovation symposium in Aotearoa NZ recently, I was delighted to be able to attend Workchops (also in NZ) with the excellent Liz Sanders.

Last week, I was very thankful to be asked to run a session at Peer Academy’s Co-design Symposium, which was part of Melbourne Knowledge Week. I was delighted to participate with my Roller Strategies hat on, bringing a little dose of systems thinking to the mix (a core part of our social labs approach).

This post is a short series of reflections on my own participation in the Symposium, rather than an extensive run down on the event itself.

Codesign is relational

At the heart of it all, (co)design is about people.

“Design lives in the world. It is social and situated, people use our designs as part of their everyday lives. This means we have a responsibility with regards to how and what we design.”
— Penny Hagen, Co-design: Some Principles, Theory and Practice

Whether it’s about the people who are supported to participate in the design process, the people who will benefit from the design, or the social capital which is built in and around the initiative — codesign can’t function without relationships.

We also need to look at this focus on relationship as an opportunity…

“We are a community of possibilities, not a community of problems.
Community exists for the sake of belonging and takes its identity from the gifts, generosity, and accountability of its citizens.
We currently have all the capacity, expertise, programs, leaders, regulations, and wealth required to end unnecessary suffering and create an alternative future.”
― Peter Block, Community: The Structure of Belonging

Thinking multi-modally

One of the sessions I most enjoyed was with Lisa Grocott of Monash University. She ran a session called “Beyond Stakeholder
Mapping: the promise of reciprocity”.

I particularly enjoyed moving through a range of modes of stakeholder mapping. We began with a simple 2D map with little instruction about how to structure it, which initially I found odd. But very quickly we shifted to the next part of the exercise — a 3D map based on a pre-prepared structure, something I’d not done with stakeholder mapping before. We were told to think a little about each of the planes (and what they might mean), as well as the connecting flaps and what they may signify, as well as the base-plane as the foundation of the project. Here’s how mine formed which I had decided to use my MDes project as a case study:

Stakeholder mapping in 3D at Peer Academy’s Co-design Symposium

Finally we were invited to go one step out from this, and start thinking about mapping value exchanges. Out came the duplo :)

This exercise helped think in an entirely new mode — about a flow of value, and that this flow may not be directly reciprocal, it may be between several interconnected entities in a ‘circular economy’. Of course, with the introduction of characters, we were also able to think about which of these we would include and why.

My map looked a little like this:

4D Value Exchange Mapping at the Peer Academy Co-Design Symposium

We then spent time reflecting on our own process, and I would have loved to reflect on other people’s creations too.

It really reminded me how minimal a workshop could be in terms of activities, but how quickly you could individually and collaboratively build up new insights through a process of making and reflecting.

Building In Systems Practice

When I first spoke to Kylie at Peer Academy, I suggested I run something a little left field — a systems mapping workshop.

I realise that many designers think in systems, but rarely have I seen systems practice being actively used in design processes. Obviously that’s not to say it doesn’t happen.

However I felt the opportunity to introduce it into the Australian Co-design awareness was too good to miss, so I put together a 101 to get people started an de-mystify the approach as I often hear people start, get overwhelmed and stop — instead going back to individual journey maps, or ‘designing the new’ without really questioning how ‘what is’ really works now.

I made the workshop very simple; I framed it around mapping a food system (as most people have some comprehension about the existing reality), and we collaboratively mapped:

  • People & Organisations
  • Events & Activities
  • Positive and negative consequences of the Events & Activities

I was fascinated to watch a range of approaches emerge between the 3 groups, which represented Food Production, Food Distribution and Food Consumption. Whilst we only scratched at the surface of systems practice with this 65min session, the insights which they generated, and the reflections they spoke to were really valuable.

Systems Mapping in action at Peer Academy Co-design Symposium

People reflected sentiments such as:

  • My peers came up with things I just didn’t realise about the system.
  • When we were grouping and analysing data, I learnt about connections which my peers could see / knew about, which I didn’t.
  • The language that we used in ‘production’ was vastly different from the team which worked on ‘distribution’ — any concern for the farmer disappeared and it became cold and logistical.
  • I feel like I learnt a lot about how my peers think and where their strengths are, even though we didn’t talk about that directly.
  • I really want to bring more of this way of thinking into the project I’m running, I think it would really reduce some of the conflict and miscommunication.

These insights delighted me, because at the end of the session I repeated the aims of systems mapping:

  • Build clarity
  • Find leverage points
  • Enable faster learning & adaptation
  • Nurture connection within a team or group

Heading to Sydney

I’m excited to be running a deeper version of this workshop in Sydney on 20 May 2017, so if you’re in the area — please do come along and join us! You can find the event here.


I want to acknowledge this fantastic resource from The Omidyar Group:

The Omidyar Group (2016), Systems Practice. Available from Kumu or Social Labs Toolkit (4th resource down).

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