Codesign as strategy?

Alastair Somerville
4 min readNov 1, 2017


I’m preparing a couple of new workshops on codesign (or participatory design) and Indigenous Research methods for a client.

I have run workshops on this topic before. The last big one was More Than Users at Interaction 17 in New York in February.

However, these workshops are going to be about the running of codesign workshops using ideas and techniques developed in Indigenous Research and how those workshops are centered in the whole design process and project.

In general, codesign seems to be spoken of in terms of being a tactic or a specific moment within a project.

I am not sure Strategic Codesign is a thing.

I’m writing this post to discover if anyone thinks it is.

Codesign as a problem

Codesign as a tactic has big problems.

It’s one of those things that sounds lovely yet the more you look at it, the more the shadows appear.

Bringing people with lived experience into a space to discuss their problems and to explore possible solutions sounds good.

Bringing professional designers in, to provide a framework of ways of thinking about problem stating/solution making and tools for applying a better veneer to ideas and prototypes, also sounds good.

And yet…

Cinderella’s ball (which isn’t hers)

The closest analogy I can describe is to imagine the people with lived experience as Cinderella.

Invited, magically, to the palace. Surrounded by the lights, the sounds, the smells of a different world.

Suddenly, people who never pay attention to them are offering drinks, asking opinions and having fun with them.

People care. People listen.

Then it ends. The bell tolls. Everyone leaves.

Unlike the story of Cinderella, the people with lived experience return to their homes and never come back.

Their stories, their ideas, their lives have been taken.

It’s a fairy story without a happy ending.

Colonial thinking

What this most reminds me of is another aspect of Indigenous Research techniques, Decolonisation.

Codesign as a tactic is merely a form of colonial thinking.

It exploits the unprivileged. It arrives, strips them of their value and leaves.

Empowerment and humbleness

Now, in general, I have previously dealt with Codesign only as tactical problem.

The fix is in using ideas from disability rights, Humble Inquiry and Indigenous Research Methods to adjust the power and privilege issues with the people, in the room, on the day.

However, that can’t be enough.

If the thing is colonial, then playing with its format will not change it.

The whole structure needs work.

That means strategic codesign. Maybe systems codesign.

And I don’t know if they exist.

So that’s where I leave this post for now.

Does codesign embedded through a whole project exist? Do people successfully integrate lived experience into the whole process?

Or is it just a tactic? A colonial moment? A fairytale?

Update 1

I have had a number of interesting chats on Twitter since publishing this post yesterday.

The most interesting idea is CoRealisation (thanks to @WelshFlier on Twitter).

There’s a research paper here.

CoRealisation may be a strategic tool to deal with the Conjuration problem of CoDesign.

The problem of how people with arcane powers can invoke a place and time in which problems and solutions are recognised. Other times, places and people remain unheard and invalidated.

How we could build tools for CoRealisation is an interesting possibility.

Update 2

Just had a very good link sent over by Lee Ryan on New Zealand ideas of codesign.

This is exactly the mix of Indigenous Research methods and respectful codesign I was hoping for.

It’s the Nga Aho Tikanga Māori Co-Design network

You can read about it here and here.

What this clearly defines is the act of codesign is about respectful conversation with people about how they personally and their communities encounter real problems in their lives and how they can work with agencies to cocreate services that meet needs.

Additionally, the act of codesign is to return to community (via individuals involved in the day) confirmation that their lived experience is both heard and validated by the larger power system.

But not just that.

The codesign system is to build skills and capacities within communities to identify, report and demand future changes.

Codesign embeds itself into the community to strengthen connections within it and to enable it to take greater control of both the political and system streams of any future redesign efforts.

Now that could be Strategic Codesign.

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Alastair Somerville

Sensory Design Consultant, usability researcher and workshop facilitator. Twitter @acuity_design & @visceralUX

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