In the last decade, co-design – or participatory design – has frequently featured as a practical model for large public projects – with a significant engagement component. In short, co-design is an approach to design that actively involves all stakeholders – from employees, corporate and government partners, customers, citizens and end users – in the design process to ensure results meet their independent and collaborative needs and that the design is usable.
At co-design’s core is the simple notion that because problems are complex, finding solutions means considering multiple perspectives to develop policies that address their causes, rather than just their symptoms. This leaves ample room for experimentation – and for failure. Key to co-design’s success is, in fact, to try and fail early so that the field of sustainable solutions narrows quickly and chances of success increase rapidly.
Co-design and public policy
Co-design’s presence has increased in public policy-making practices throughout the world, particularly as a trend of shrinking public budgets has led to projects becoming more commonly funded through public-private partnerships (PPP). Broader engagement on policy has, thereby, opened a way for forms of decision-making that reflect shared governance, and co-design is an innovative model for this kind of multi-stakeholder collaboration.
Public planning for urban renewal is one such area of policy development where co-design has been applied with enthusiasm from policy-makers and participants alike. After all, the rejuvenation of urban areas entails far more than just new homes and new services – renewal must accord holistically with what the public wants, otherwise investment can end in failure. The rigid, centralized urban planning of the post-World War II era often resulted in urban planning outcomes that focused on function at the expense of form. The attempts of governments to envision how we’d live and work in the future didn’t entail asking those who’d be calling these new towns home, so often failed to create community and a sense of social justice. Planned urban developments, like Cumbernauld and Milton Keynes in the UK, fell far short of improving society through a new built environment where they were shaped around cars, not people. Co-designed urban renewal considers form and function to be equally important, and adds a person-centred philosophy to avoid the pitfalls of planning that only caters to narrowly conceived ideas of what makes urban community work. In this way co-design holds the potential to plan things right the first time.
The success and failures of Northern Adelaide’s renewal projects
The success of co-design in urban renewal has been demonstrated at the local level in the north of Adelaide, South Australia (SA), in projects that form part of the ‘Playford Alive‘ urban renewal development. With a mix of re-development and new development of housing and suburbs, it is designed to provide the social, economic and physical infrastructure for Adelaide’s fastest growing urban region. As a strategic partnership between the state government, Playford’s council and local community members, ‘Playford Alive’ utilizes co-design principles of addressing the greatest needs of the local community through consultation between all parties on urban rejuvenation projects in one of Adelaide’s most economically and socially disadvantaged areas. It exhibits the principles of co-design where collaboration identifies potential problems that might result from the project, and then makes deliberation central to the way projects arrive at solutions that meet everyone’s needs by constantly responding to emerging issues.
The ‘New Town Park’ is a primary example of a co-designed project within ‘Playford Alive’ that delivered good outcomes after engagement and consultation on what local residents sought in their new public space. Positive results were measured by a Community Reference Group ensuring that feedback and information about progress helped inform project managers of the community’s views so that the decision making process produced outcomes that were truly reflective of the co-design approach. A large and growing population of young people calls ‘Playford Alive’ area home, and young families in general will make up the bulk of its growing population over coming decades. Because of co-design the Park reflected community needs and expectations where, for example, it included a skate park, playgrounds specific to different child age groups, and flexible-use public event spaces. The path to realizing the finished product was iterative – plans emerged as the process of public engagement narrowed the scope of solutions to key features of the community’s shared vision. The result has been continuous use of the Park’s facilities since its opening more than a year ago.
Yet, just next door to the New Town Park another co-designed project, the Stretton Centre – a flagship integrated use facility involving local, state and federal stakeholders – has so far not demonstrated significant impact on the local community. Although it includes a public library, a job-seeker hub, and office space for collaboration between government, industry and universities, public engagement was missing from its development.
The contrast between these examples indicates that co-design’s efficacy as a model of public engagement has been recognized at SA’s state bureaucratic level and rolled out across all state government urban renewal initiatives. But although the uptake of co-design at this level demonstrates the concept’s value, it is also where the greatest barriers to more effective co-design outcomes become apparent. Whilst these barriers relate to experience in one jurisdiction, they quite likely apply to government systems in general.
Thinking through co-design, policy and planning
Principally, it is not yet evident that co-design’s ideology has transformed bureaucratic systems despite its embrace in state government policy. Planning with co-design requires not becoming too attached to ideas, because its experimental nature means things can change quickly. The bureaucratic systems that continue to serve us are products of the twentieth century and are not adequately geared for rapid change. Hence, long-term planning still tends to define the budgets and funding mechanisms of government organizations, even in times of acute fiscal constraint.
This has had negative implications for otherwise well-intentioned co-design efforts: where local planners have asked for small amounts of state funding, they’ve been knocked back for not seeking enough. Although co-design is a model designed to minimize risk by not spending huge sums of money, the state’s mindset remains fixed on risk and lengthy procedure in any and all decision-making processes. This includes the co-design process despite it being designed to minimize both risk and outlay.
It’s evident that the state’s priorities can differ markedly from local ones: where a co-designed urban renewal project might require local leadership to adequately reflect community needs, the state may only view it as another piece of public infrastructure. Schedules and spending take priority over thorough outcomes and shortcuts that cut out engagement are taken to stay on time and within budget. Risk becomes the defining feature of project delivery and so local communities often feel as though consultation is simply a ‘box checking’ exercise. This is the antithesis of co-designed public engagement efforts.
The future of co-design in renewal initiatives
Co-design is fast becoming a mainstream way of engaging the public on urban renewal projects. But like the New Town Park project demonstrates, the greatest success stories are found at the local project level. As involvement, responsibility and cost ‘scales up’, the bureaucratic legacy of planning more often becomes an impediment where it stifles actual co-design in local projects and leaves public voice out of the policy mix.
Yet, government is crucial to building a sustainable policy environment – so how does the co-design approach to large urban renewal projects become synonymous with public engagement without old planning practices complicating better solutions? At present, SA’s state government has embraced the rhetoric of co-design, but further efforts are needed before philosophy permeates policy. It is likely that similar drawbacks to co-design’s efficacy exist elsewhere simply because a key feature of bureaucratic systems is their slowness to change.
Co-design may well be a key concept to facilitate multi-stakeholder projects into the future. But unless governments can embrace more than just the rhetoric, it will be hard to use the co-design model to transform government systems in ways that are more responsive to community needs. Such a shift in planning development will require great political commitment. But co-design is a potential first step to reshaping the systems we’re bound to rely upon for public engagement into the future.
Mark Dean is a PhD candidate in political economy at The University of Adelaide where he is completing a project on the policy responses of governments to manufacturing deindustrialisation in South Australia. He is a Visiting Researcher at the Australian Institute for Industrial Transformation at Flinders University.