Building Co-design Skills

4 October 2023

Can you confidently articulate how your architectural process embraces co-design? The concept has been around for a while, but it’s only lately that it has become a key part of the selection criteria or as an opportunity to provide a value-add in the procurement of public works projects. Alicia Brown from New Doors explores the challenges and benefits of co-design.

When co-design is directly referred to in a tender, it’s in the context of a client-appointed specialist consultant facilitating the co-design process, and the selection criteria asks proponents to describe how they will engage in a co-design process and develop a design solution accordingly. The most recent example of this that I have seen was within a local government tender for a new community centre.

Additionally, we see the incorporation of meaningful engagement with marginalised and disadvantaged communities, most often with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander stakeholders, as a requirement in tenders. While co-design may not be directly mentioned, it provides an excellent model for demonstrating your approach.

Among architects, there are some misconceptions about co-design and how it affects the design process. It’s not ‘designing by committee’, and it doesn’t diminish the role of the architect. It’s the gold standard for stakeholder engagement.

Looking for an informed definition of co-design and seeking to understand why it’s suddenly so in-demand, we contacted the Australian Centre for Social Innovation (TACSI) for some answers. Formed in 2009 as an initiative of the South Australian government, TACSI is an independent social enterprise working on projects and initiatives across Australia. They are co-design experts who have been bringing people and organisations together to creatively tackle society’s toughest challenges for over 13 years.

We chatted with Brugh O’Brien, Principal Social Innovator at Future of Home, TACSI, who explained why co-design is gaining traction as an innovative method to address complex challenges across various sectors, including services, policy, community and place-based settings.

What is co-design?

Co-design is a participatory approach that involves making and testing things with the people who will be directly impacted or who will use, visit or inhabit the final product. It brings together multiple forms of expertise, allowing diverse stakeholders to make joint decisions. The practice revolves around designing with, rather than for, the end-users, creating genuine and authentic spaces for collective decision-making.

Unlike traditional consultation, which often occurs after a design is developed, co-design integrates community members and stakeholders throughout the process. It is mindful of sharing power, ensuring that decisions about the project’s direction, brief, problem definition and success criteria are democratically shared among all parties involved.

In a co-design process, expertise from various participants (professional or otherwise) carries equal weight. This interdisciplinary and integrated approach that values expert and lived-experience input equally allows people with different perspectives, pedagogies, lexicons and tools to come together, fostering mutual trust and understanding. Through this alignment of views and values, participants can collectively define a successful outcome and ensure that tools and language are accessible to everyone involved.

Why is co-design suddenly so in demand?

Co-design has become increasingly necessary due to the limitations of existing systems and the failure of many solutions to meet their intended objectives. Often, the latest and greatest innovations fall short of expectations because they need more input from the communities they are meant to serve.

Furthermore, there is a recognition that modern challenges, such as inequality and issues affecting marginalised groups, require diverse perspectives. Co-design includes stakeholders like older people and individuals with disabilities, whose needs and experiences have historically been overlooked or undervalued in traditional design processes.

What are some of the challenges with implementing a co-design approach?

While co-design is a promising approach, it is still a relatively new and evolving concept. There is an ongoing effort to expand its potential and impact further. TACSI is aiming to shift the focus from co-design to co-production, where the right types of expertise are involved at all stages of development. Co-production emphasises the integration of diverse perspectives from the outset, ensuring a more inclusive and comprehensive design process.

Implementing co-design has its challenges. It requires philosophical alignment and a willingness to embrace the collaborative nature of the process. Additionally, co-design is not a one-size-fits-all solution, and its application may vary significantly based on the context and stakeholders involved.

Moreover, the term ‘co-design’ itself can be limiting, and some critics argue that it causes confusion due to its ill-defined nature. Nevertheless, the core principles of co-design, such as collaboration, empowerment and inclusivity, remain crucial in modern design practices.

How can built environment professionals build co-design skills?

TACSI provides various resources, including free downloadable guides and toolkits, fee-based webinars, courses and coaching. Check out the following:

Some readers may also be interested in TACSI’s action area on The Future of Home, the culmination of over seven years of research by TACSI and other social innovation organisations all over the world. It brings together over 25 projects into a vision for what a future ‘system for home’ could look like. It’s a system that addresses housing problems in Australia and provides the foundation for all Australians to reach their potential.

A transformative shift

Co-design represents a transformative shift in the design paradigm, fostering genuine collaboration and empowering communities to be active contributors in shaping their futures. By bringing together diverse expertise and perspectives, co-design holds the potential to create innovative and impactful solutions that genuinely address the needs and aspirations of society.

Incorporating a co-design approach may also be viewed as a value-add in the context of appropriate projects, even when it hasn’t been directly called for. In these instances, offering a fee option that covers the additional stakeholder consultation time and the role of a specialist consultant (if required) is warranted.

As we continue to acknowledge the limitations of existing systems and the urgency of addressing complex challenges, co-design becomes ever more prescient. By embracing this collaborative approach and moving towards co-production, we can harness the power of collective resources, knowledge and experience to build a more equitable and sustainable future for all. Listening, adapting and skillfully weaving together diverse contributions are essential to realising the full potential of co-design and its positive impact on our communities and society.

Alicia Brown is a Marketing Strategist and Director of New Doors, a marketing agency servicing the built environment industry. The New Doors team have nearly 20 years experience writing awards and tender submissions, as well as providing business marketing and strategic advice for a range of medium and large practices.