Last Monday, on April 4th, the programme series ‘Together We Design’ kicked off in Pakhuis de Zwijger as part of the two-year-long research and activity programme ‘Designing Cities For All’ (DCFA). DCFA seeks to answer how designers contribute to creating cities of belonging – for and by everyone, where everyone feels at home. This triptych is about participation and co-design, with a focus on who we see as designers, the potential challenges of co-design, and how we can make a tangible impact using this form of design. We specifically zoom in on the design methods available or being developed to truly design a city with and for everyone.

Regardless of any study field or discipline, concepts similar to ‘participation’ have always come to the fore. ‘Collaboration’, ‘co-design’, ‘co-creation’ and ‘public engagement’ are just a few to name. The way these terms are overused in different domains creates a risk they will simply remain buzzwords, and people might forget the importance of true participation. Coming from an urban planning background and studying in the same field for the last five years, I realised that there are some missing pieces in the stories of participation that have not received enough attention. In this article, I will discuss the one that seems most important to me.

Let’s agree on defining ‘participation’ as an “act of taking part in an activity and event”, as described in the Oxford Dictionary. The first question that comes to my mind is: which parts of the participation process can people take part in? Which parts of the design are done together with the people or user? I want to focus more on the word ‘together’. In Farsi, my mother language, there is a prefix called ‘-ham-’, meaning ‘together’. If you add the prefix to any word, the word accepts a ‘togetherness mode’. As an example, adding it to the word ‘travel’ changes this word’s meaning to ‘a person with whom you travel’. Similarly, I would say the prefix ‘co-’ has the same function in English. Merriam Webster Dictionary defines ‘co-’ as “company”. Following this, co-design implies the design process is done together with others. To understand whether this is true, we should take a step back and map out the participation process to find the missing ‘co-’pieces from beginning to end.

It seems that current participation practices are more of a step-by-step pre-dictated form of participation in most cases. I would call this a ‘checklist participation method’, with a list of activities that have to be done one after another. Sending out invitation letters, organising workshops and brainstorming sessions, using online participation tools and the like keep people in a trap. How? By ticking the boxes at the end of the so-called participation process, designers or government officials are satisfied: participants collaborated truly! This sketches an illusion that participation has been sufficiently practised. One problem with this type of participation is that the challenge that needs to be addressed has been pre-defined. But by whom?


In the ideal scenario, the government, public sector, companies and other in-charge organisations spot the challenge that they are trying to solve with the co-design themselves and ask for people’s input to provide solutions. In some cases, this collaboration is limited to asking for people’s input during a couple of participatory sessions. This problem identification phase is mainly done without people’s voices being heard – what if the problem is not defined correctly or completely from the very beginning? Based on the limited literature and practices I reviewed, it is safe to conclude that the general assumption is that co-design only stands for designing the solutions and performing the activities.

© Photo by Fortytwo through Unsplash

However, a true participatory practice will include co-defining as well. Where does the word ‘co-define’ come from? Again, the prefix ‘co-’ represents an activity to be done with others, such as co-design and co-creation. ‘Co-define’ is an early stage of the participation process, during which you sit down with the participants and ask them about the challenges and problems they are facing. Do they indeed consider your proposed problem a problem? To clarify, here’s a simple example of removing parking spaces in a small neighbourhood. You may ask residents to give their suggestions on how to achieve this and what to do with the freed up space. While many residents may show up and get involved, possibly even more would prefer not to take part in this activity. The reason? They might not experience this to be a problem – in fact, they might consider other problems to be more important and want to address them first.

By including ‘co-define’ in participatory practices, different stakeholders – primarily the users – will be actively engaged in identifying the challenge. Not agreeing on the problem in the first place might be a reason for the target population of the design not to be involved in participation. Identifying the problem with them leads us to a different, more experience-based and bottom-up understanding of the problem. The ‘co-define’ step is one of the missing parts in current participatory practices, and including it can drastically increase the level of involvement.

Following all of the above, we should take the scale of participation practices into account. Problem identification with a small number of residents in a small neighbourhood will not need the same conditions as a large-scale national-level infrastructure project. But the first step for all practices is to be aware of the fact that there is a need to include the people and the end users in the process.

The discussion on inclusion and true participation has no end, but in the ‘Together We Design’-series we touch upon some prerequisites for successful participation. In the first livecast, we discussed who are considered co-designers and up to what point they should be engaged in participation. Make sure not to miss the next editions! For the second session, the focus will be on the challenges and barriers during the participation processes. Finally, we will wrap up the series by discussing how to make tangible impact with real-life projects by including users as designers.

If you think of any other missing pieces in participatory design or relevant research, we would love to hear from you! Check for more info or contact us via [email protected].