Co Design

Co-design (within the context of humanitarian and international and community development projects and programmes – an more broadly) is about challenging the imbalance of power held by humanitarian and development workers, who make important decisions about others lives, communities and bodies. Often, with little to no involvement of the people and communities who will be most impacted by those decisions. As explained in the diagram below, co-design seeks to change that through prioritising relationships, using creative tools and building capability. It uses inclusive convening to share knowledge and power.

What is the co-design process?

Co-design is a design-led process that uses creative and participatory methods. There is no one-size-fits-all approach. Instead, there are patterns and principles that can be applied in different ways with different people. Importantly, co-designers make decisions, not just suggestions (Burkett, 2012). The diagram below describes the phases of co-design, beginning with the need to build the conditions for the genuine and safe (enough) involvement of people with diverse backgrounds and lived/living experience.

What are the principles for co-design?

  1. Share power When differences in power are unacknowledged and unaddressed, the people with the most power have the most influence over decisions, regardless of the quality of their knowledge or ideas. To change that, we must share power in research, decision-making, design, delivery and evaluation. Without sharing power, there is no co-design.
  2. Prioritise relationships Co-design isn’t possible without relationships, social connection and trust among co-designers, funders and organisers of co-design initiatives. Trust between people paves the way for conversations where we confront the metaphorical elephant in the room (or a whole stampede of them, in some cases). You can’t buy trust; it can only be earned – the better the social connection, the better the process and outputs.
  3. Use participatory means Co-design provides many ways for people to take part and express themselves, for example, through visual, kinaesthetic and oral approaches, instead of relying on writing, slideshows and long reports. Participatory approaches aren’t about relaying information; they’re about facilitating self-discovery and moving people from participants to active partners.
  4. Build capability Many people require support and encouragement to adopt new ways of being and doing, learn from others, and have their voices heard. To support that, designers can move from ‘expert’ to coach. Everyone has something to teach and something to learn.

How is co-design different from other approaches?

Co-design we is not a term often used in the aid sector. We talk about “nothing about us without us”, about localisation and the importance of partnering with civil society organisations (CSO’s) rights holder organisations (RHO’s), community based organisations (CBO’s), Organisations of People with Disabilities (OPD’s) etc, but what is co-design? The word ‘co-design’ is over-used, including to describe activities that don’t align to the principles of co-design. Unlike many other fields, co-design currently lacks a set of standards that can be applied to judge its quality, efficacy and safety.

The table below describes different design and participation approaches, focusing on where power is held and in whose interests it is exercised. We can design at people, for people, with people – or be led by.

What is the ‘social movement’ part of co-design?

To make co-design a reality, we need systems, organisations and communities to embrace the leadership and contributions of people from under-represented communities. Doing that requires different ways of thinking and being, which are missing from many teams, organisations and systems. The table below describes several social movements that are necessary to make co-design a reality and a norm.

Making decisions for people from under-represented communities we work withinMaking decisions with people from under-represented communities who have a lived experience of living through humanitarian or development contexts.
Valuing professional expertise above allValuing professional and lived experience* equally
Seeing people from un-represented communities as a burdenSeeing people from under-represented communities with lived experience of marginalisation and discrimination in a specific humanitarian / development context as resilient, creative and capable
Colonising, heteronormative, cisnormative, gender binary, sexist and ableist norms Compassionate systems that see and respond to dimensions of difference
Believing that resources are scarce to make changeSeeing an abundance of experience, ideas and energy for change
Focusing on ‘representative’ councils and committeesEmbedding participation in everyday practice
Rushing to solutionsSlowing down to listen, connect and learn

How can I recognise co-design?

We can ask the following questions to determine if something is co-design.

  1. Are people with from under-represented communities who will be affected by the humanitarian or development project / program and professionals involved as active partners (co-designers) throughout the design process?
  2. Are we building the capability of co-designers? For example, in research, identifying opportunities, conceptual design, prototyping, implementation, monitoring and evaluation.
  3. Are proposed approaches evaluated from the perspective of whether they create value for the people they’re intended to serve? Are they naming the outcomes that matter most to them?
  4. Is power named, challenged and negotiated?