About three years ago, prior to entering UBC’s School of Community and Regional Planning, I had a chance to attend a demonstration of the co-design method pioneered by architect Stanley King. This article will give a brief rundown of the major activities involved in a co-design process, This will be followed by some links to other resources about co-design, examples of projects that have used the co-design method, and how King is moving forward with integrating co-design methods into current work.
What is Co-Design?
Broadly speaking, co-design brings members of the public together with artist-facilitators to dialogue and collaboratively produce a community vision. These visions can guide and inform planning and design activities as a project unfolds. Stanley King has been using this method with communities since 1971 through The Co-Design Group, an informal association of architects, designers and researchers based in western Canada.
The bulk of these activities occur during an event commonly known as a co-design workshop (although, depending of course on the circumstances of the project, this may be paired with other activities such as an ideas fair). Members of the public are invited to the workshop – often, a day-long event. As with many participatory activities, broad representation — by age, background, activity — is key, although groups within the broader community may need special consideration.
As with all dialogues and participatory activities, setting expectations and boundaries is key. As explained in the report of the use of co-design in Vancouver’s Woodwards Project:
Participants were asked to observe 3 rules during the visioning:
1. Speak for yourself – say “I” not “We”- let others speak for themselves.
2. Avoid negative criticism – if you don’t like an idea suggest your alternative.
3. Don’t attempt solutions – think of the life of the place, consider possibilities.
A co-design workshop often starts with a Site visit and Walkabout, allowing the facilitators and members of the community to jointly learn or re-discovering salient features of the site, like lighting, topography or existing infrastructure.
With the atmosphere of the space fresh in everyone’s mind, the public is asked to brainstorm an Activity Timeline. As a group, the public discusses what kinds of activities they envision taking place in the space over the course of a day. I sometimes refer to this as, “A Day In the Life.” This brainstorming serves as an opportunity for people to give voice, in a large-group setting, to how a place would fit into their daily lives.
Next comes what is referred to as the Image Creation phase, and the heart of the co-design experience. The artist facilitators take what is said in the brainstorm and categorize it into general guiding themes that they will be focusing on for their drawing. Members of the public are then broken up into smaller groups and assigned to work with the artist-faclitators on those themes. The artists then begin to sketch an image of the place, in close discussion with their group as they discuss specifics. It can often result in a dialogue process rooted in the constructive: what should be here? What will the people here be doing, and how will they be doing it? (Artists, King notes, cannot draw absences — at best they can draw two desired things co-existing.)
Once all the groups have completed their images, the specific elements that have been included and highlighted in the image are listed. The images are displayed and the larger group is invited to view all the images produced and to express their preferences for the qualities and features in the images, as well as their suggestions for what might make them work or not work in the particular place.
Co-Design in Action
- This site from the City of Vancouver has three co-design reports for the Woodward’s Project in Vancouver, and can give you a good idea of the output of a co-design process as well as the way a co-design workshop might be coordinated with other community engagement activities.
- I was fortunate to get to see King and the artist facilitators at work as part of my course work focused on a community visioning process for Britannia Community Centre in Vancouver. See him speaking about co-design in this video on the Britannia community engagement process. (Disclaimer: I shot and edited this along with two colleagues in my Multimedia for Planning Engagement class in 2010, and also participated as a student in the urban design class.)
- This video is from Stanley King’s work on the Little Mountain Housing Project. It has been edited together by a local community group and provides an overview of the workshop and shows some of the resulting images. (Stanley himself appears 7:53 into the video.) The community’s groups description of the video highlights an important point that is true of all participatory tools — that what happens during a co-design process needs to be integrated and followed-up in a planning and development process.
- My blog post of a co-design demonstration from 2009 also contains some images of the consensus process where people vote on the features in the images.
- Here is a photoset of images from an adaptation of the co-design workshop adapted for the City of Vancouver’s Transportation 2040 transportation plan update public consultation activity.
- See more about the co-design method in this 1973 film called Chairs For Lovers. (Note: Dial up the National Film Board nostalgia.)
Co-Design Moving Forward
Stanley King and his colleague Susan Ng Cheung are applying their experiences with co-design to better engaging youth in planning activities. They recently released a book called Youth Manual for Sustainable Design:
Together they created a Co-Design Youth Program to help youth participate in the ecological design of the spaces they will ultimately inherit. Recently, the program has enabled youth to participate in school garden design, architectural design of a waterfront and also in transportation planning. Currently, Stanley and Susan are researching the connection between co-design and the ecological interactions of communities.
As you can tell, I’m a big fan of the method, because I think people inhabit a different frame of mind when they are in engaged in constructive processes of making things together in addition to the usual talking, discussing and deliberating.
It’s been pointed out to me that it may be challenging to some for relegating planners in a seemingly passive role, of recording and notetaking the public’s interests rather than more actively applying planning skill. I would respond that by hypothesizing that an awful lot happens in those conversations while the artist-facilitator is drawing. Furthermore, I’d be interested to see what role the images created in the process might have in identifying community assets for implementing what is brainstormed, and coordinating that with more formal activities involving developers, architects, designers and planners.