Article: From participatory design to co-design


Participatory design engages citizens in urban planning and makes them experts of their own environment. Innovation adviser Tuula Jäppinen at The Association of Finnish Local and Regional Authorities, and Tuuli Mattelmäki, Professor of Design at Aalto University have advice on how to engage people in a productive way.



What is participatory design?

TM Participatory design originated in the Nordic countries during the 1970s as a movement with a strong political background. The idea was to involve the users of the service in the design process. New systems were brought into the workplace with the help of the users’ expertise, fostering commitment to the systems. Participatory design sees the user as a person, who tries to actively express what possible design solutions could be. In user-centered design, the role of the user is slightly more passive.

TJ I would like to draw a distinction between participatory design and participative design. The former happens from the top down – the latter is a genuine partnership. Involvement was a 1990s concept; back then citizens were heard and they could voice their opinions. In the 2010s, the active participation and co-development by citizens has come to mean equal participation in the development, decision making and provision of services.

How can participatory design benefit the development of cities?

TJ In the ideal model, local residents take part in the preparation and decision making of projects as part of an official process. This way they don’t have to be content with just complaining about decisions after they’ve been made. Cities also benefit when they get local residents involved as added resources and active change agents in designing a shared future.

Who should get to participate in developing the city?

TM The participation of citizens is necessary in a democratic country. The huge influx of digital channels and people’s activity in it should be made use of: a lot of know-how and enthusiasm exists there. Say we don’t know what the essential aspects of elderly people’s lives are, for example. We may end up offering them the wrong services, which is a waste of money. Other groups than the end users, such as decision makers and customer servants should be involved too: get everyone in on development. Then we’re talking about co-creation. A person-based approach is essential. You need to believe that relying on hierarchical expert knowledge or bureaucratic decision making are not the only ways to do things.

What's the most fruitful way to make it happen?

TJ By the book, you should first gain experience from other’s cases and educate yourself in what participative planning is, as well as what the interactional methods of service design are. Then you can find external expertise to help the process. You don’t have to know how to do everything yourself! It’s enough to be an educated client.

TM Building trust and motivation is important. A lot of workshop practices have been developed for this. It’s worth seeking out the existing research and putting it to use. Organizing co-creation workshops and investing in the initial phases of the process are good habits. Participatory design may lead people to believe that all ideas will be implemented, which can quickly deflate morale if it doesn’t turn out that way.

Read on


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Participatory design is most productive when other groups in addition to the end users are also involved. Then it becomes co-design, say innovation adviser Tuula Jäppinen at The Association of Finnish Local and Regional Authorities, and Tuuli Mattelmäki, Professor of Design at Aalto University.

From participatory design to co-design


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