Co-design for Social Good by Ingrid Burkett

January 21, 2016By Ingrid Burkett

What is co-design?

Co-design literally means collaboratively designing services, products or processes. It is about engaging consumers and users of products and services in the design process, with the ultimate goal being to create benefits for both parties.

The design process is about finding solutions to address problems, practical innovations that open up possibilities and improvements that enhance people’s lives.

It makes sense then, that co-design has a significant place in social services.

Many social and community organisations in Australia were designed and started by or with ‘consumers’. Many organisations have also promoted the importance of working with service users, resulting in a ‘person centred’ practice, where citizens become active partners in the change process.

Co-design is not new. There is a long and rich tradition of participatory engagement in the social sector: think cooperatives, friendly societies, credit unions. There is a whole raft of organisations who embraced the concept from their inception.

In recent times, however, there has been a renewed interest from citizens, service providers and policy makers in how all these stakeholders can participate in the design and production of social services. This co-design at its core and underpinning this term is the idea that collaborative, cooperative and community-centred approaches to creating social good will lead to more effective services and, ultimately, greater social impact.

There are two key reasons that co-design in the social sector is important:

1. User-led services and advocacy are gaining growing recognition both in Australia and internationally. Where people experience exclusion, they are increasingly taking action and organising responses to their own situations. This is further fuelled by the explosion and continued growth of social media, with citizens more actively engaging and communicating with social services.

2. The increased professionalism of the social sector over recent decades has meant that citizen participation has sometimes been more tokenistic. Terms such as ‘partnership’ have been used without real engagement of people experiencing exclusion. Co-design, if done right, can form a foundation for exploring a meaningful re-engagement of citizens.

However, there are two significant gaps that exist. Firstly, there is a real and significant gap in research that tracks outcomes and impacts of involving users in the design and delivery of services. And secondly, following on from the lack of research, the results out there are mixed.

The true effectiveness of these co-design processes remains largely unproven. To help us to better understand how and why we should adopt the co-design model in the social sector, further research needs to happen. These models have the potential to lead to much greater – even radical – opportunities for citizens to work alongside service providers to co-design more effective services.

Opportunities for radical co-design

More than good intentions are needed for co-design to work in the social sector. Merely opening up possibilities for choice and participation will not necessarily lead to more personalised or effective services. We need to ensure that service users have access to the information, skills, capacities and support to participate effectively in co-designing services.

It is important to realise that co-design is not simply a new set of methods and approaches to add to our toolboxes.

It potentially represents a cultural shift in service provision, changing the roles and relationships between providers and users. Any radical conceptions of co-design are built around the belief in the potential for positive change and faith that people have the capacity to participate in, and direct change in their lives. Design processes require an openness and a belief in limitless possibilities.

So, does co-design lead to greater social impact?

In a word: yes. It makes a great deal of sense when we think about how important it can be for each of us to have a feeling of control and choice in making decisions about our own futures, so the same should apply to people experiencing social exclusion. Involving and engaging people in developing, designing and delivering social services creates better services and ultimately results in greater, meaningful social impact.

The use of co-design in the social sector may seem challenging but there can be no doubt that the potential for improving outcomes is profound. To ensure we know that, we need effective methods of evaluation, reporting and communicating the impact of co-design.

This article originally appeared on ProBono Australia. See more at:

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