Does co-design work? Let’s reframe the question.

I changed careers late last year. I left the social innovation agency where we were working with communities around New Zealand to improve social connections, physical health and mental wellbeing. Through that work, I had experienced the magic of ‘design thinking’ in bringing together diverse groups of people to collaboratively and creatively address some really tough social issues.

Community ‘insight gatherers’ on the Mangere Young Driver Project (photo © innovate change)

But, coming from an academic background, I kept wondering: what were the theories and methodologies underpinning our practice? How could we be confident we were doing more good than harm when working with vulnerable groups? What had others tried and tested that would help us to advance our work? Could we build evidence around our practice to better understand when and how (and, importantly, if) it has value?

I joined The Policy Lab at The University of Melbourne with a mission. In addition to my role supporting the team as Research Coordinator, I have a unique opportunity to pursue research on creative and participatory approaches that could improve policy-making. In particular, I’m interested in developing useful knowledge around co-design for public policy. This will mean exploring — through research and reflective practice — the possibilities, challenges, and the conditions it might require to succeed.

To my great delight, I’m not the only one who thinks the world needs this research. I keep hearing public servants ask, “where is the evidence?” Some want to be able to communicate the value of co-design to their colleagues and leaders. Others are wondering what on earth all the fuss is about and whether this is just a passing fad. Meanwhile, researchers are scrambling to understand this emerging practice.

“Does co-design work?” is the question burning on everyone’s lips.

But it’s the wrong question.

Just imagine asking, “Does democracy work?” Which form of democracy would that be? To do what, why, where, with who, and how? With such a broad question, the response isn’t likely to be anything other than: “democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time”. This tells us little about which models of democracy, or which components of those models, work well, and in which circumstances, or why they are superior to alternative forms of political organisation. Perhaps co-design is also the worst form of public or social innovation except for all the other approaches that have been tried.

Why is it that the standards of evidence demanded for new ways of working are much higher than for business-as-usual? To avoid risk, quite simply. If our current approaches to all the social, economic and environmental challenges we faced were working well, that would make sense. It would be fair enough to be skeptical of alternative methods and mindsets. But our existing approaches are so clearly inadequate. If we want evidence of whether co-design works, we should also ask for evidence of the value of current approaches to complex issues.

We live in a world where — despite all the progress we’ve made technologically, socially and economically — we’re facing rising levels of inequality, chronic diseases, loneliness, and unemployment. We’re losing animal species and human languages at unprecedented rates in human history. We’re facing the prospect of increasingly frequent natural disasters and widespread water shortages in coming years. And I haven’t even mentioned our messed up political systems and the huge loss of trust we’re observing around the world in democracy (as it currently exists) and political institutions…

Many of us who’ve had firsthand experience with trying to address problems like these using human-centred or participatory design processes have been won over. We’ve witnessed previously-voiceless people have a say in matters that affect them, and we’ve seen how transformative this can be for participants. We’ve been involved in coming up with solutions that turn existing approaches on their head and show real promise of meaningful change. Design thinking has reshaped how we approach our work and we don’t want to go back to how things were before. It may seem like we’ve drunk the Koolaid and are grasping at reasons for you to have some too.

If we don’t generate evidence about this practice, we may as well be telling you to use homeopathy to cure cancer. Lived experience — so valued in design-led processes — might be what is needed to convince you of the value of co-design. Yet how can we convince you to give it a try in the first place? This is made even harder by lots of activities out there masquerading as ‘co-design’, some of which you may have sampled only to leave a sour taste in your mouth.

Co-design can (and, I would argue, should) be more than a workshop full of sticky notes and plasticine. I’ve seen it work best when practised as a process of innovation that incorporates the principles of participatory design (with their historical and theoretical underpinnings), and involving the skilled selection and application of practical tools to a particular problem situation. I’ll write more about all that in a future post!

For now, I’m simply inviting you to join me on this journey gathering evidence about the process, principles, techniques, challenges and impacts of co-design for policy. Whether you’re a believer or a skeptic, I’d like to hear from you. If you’ve got questions you’d like answered or suggestions of places to look for the answers, please let me know in the comments below.