Collaborative innovation: the advantages of co-design in creating sustainable technological solutions

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Collaborative innovation


Katrina Petersen | Research Manager

Date: 23 May 2018

How can new ideas find their way into and transform the society we live in?

This is often the starting question for innovation. Traditionally, the answer would be based on a problem-solving approach: users define a problem and technology designers develop a solution. However, this methodology has not always proven to lead to successful uptake of the solutions, partly because developers and users have very different perspectives.

The challenge is then how to bring the different expertise together to reshape how creative ideas arise in the first place to include both what’s not working at present and what’s possible in the future with new technology. This is where co-design comes in.

Katrina Petersen, senior research analyst at Trilateral Research, reflects on how a co-design approach can lead to successful innovative technological solutions. This is particularly relevant for us at Trilateral, since our work aims to transform research in technology that has a positive sustainable impact for society.

 What is Co-Design and why is it useful?

Co-design is a participatory process that treats end-users and technology specialists as equals throughout the entirety of design. In doing so, it aims to define the problems and envision their solutions simultaneously.

While seemingly contradictory (how can you solve something before you know the problem that needs fixing?), co-design recognises that when we define problems, we do so in ways that often limit the range of possible solutions. When we design towards needs, the needs carry with them the limitations.

This happens because while end-users can define their needs, they are not versed well enough in the potential of novel technologies to picture how they could work or make a change. Similarly, technology designers don’t have the knowledge necessary to envision how end-user practice could really adapt to a new design.

Co-design suggests, instead, these experts should work to piece together a problem/solution puzzle. Focusing on who is served, how they work in the world, and the broader societal values, this increases the chances for the solutions to move from cool invention to true innovation with sustainable uptake

co-design to meet society's needs

So what does this mean in practice?

First and foremost, end-users should be involved in the design process from start to finish. Second, methods have to be generative and focused on outcomes.

It is very difficult to verbally explain to someone how to ride a bike (e.g. just relying on interviews or focus groups to understand a domain). Even showing them visually doesn’t mean they can then go off and do it themselves (relying on observations of practice). Or, if you just have riders on bikes on tracks (demonstrations) it doesn’t give insight into the features that would make it useful and safe in a different context, or why and when someone would value riding a bike instead of driving a car. Riders and bike designers have to play around – together — with different possible bike configurations and potential uses to figure out (to generate) what makes a bike work for them (outcomes).

A common technique is to have all co-design participants work hands-on with prototypes or mock-ups to begin to answer questions like:

  • what outcomes are you seeking to achieve?
  • what is the change you want to see?
  • why is this of value to you?

Even if just rough mock-ups, having something to play will puts those involved in the design process closer to riding different bike configurations together. This then becomes the frame within which to explore the qualities and features that will make the design requirements; repeating and validating along the way. This work can happen through a range of methods from design games, affinity diagramming, scenario-based workshops, protocolling, to co-authored papers.

When might it be a useful method?

  • introducing difficult to imagine technologies
  • needing to communicate the rich, tacit skills of users to designers (e.g. how a police officer judges visually that something is a threat)
  • users’ environments and contexts matter to the success of innovation
  • where diversity and disagreement, not just consensus, should be valued
  • managing asymmetric influences, where one design value (e.g. usability) overpowers others (e.g. gender equality).
  • organisational and technological change are both necessary for innovative success
  • wanting to encourage better cooperation across disciplines

One great example is Whittington Health’s new Ambulatory Care Centre. Knowing that to really build innovative space they had to bring together a range of experiences in that space, they prototyped with over 70 diverse experts from managers, clinicians, administrators, infection prevention and control staff and patients. The end result is not just a new building, but a transformation in how they provide a public service.

Another very successful example is EcoDA (‘Experimental co-Design Approaches’); a project focused on practices initiated by local communities, or involving local communities, and aimed at enhancing their economic, social, civic or ecologic resilience.

Building on such successes, Trilateral is currently integrating co-design methods in the development and piloting of our risk management solution, STRIAD, for law enforcement agencies and community safety partnerships in order to build strong, sustainable, and future-looking collaborations.

Please feel free to contact our team to discuss more Trilateral co-design approach.

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