Participatory design is very hot in humanitarian architecture right now and it seems every project is boasting about their collaborative approach, but why has it all of a sudden become so popular?
Participatory design is an approach to the design process which actively incorporates all individuals involved in the final structure. This means that designers and architects are now working with teachers, students, and communities to design schools, and working with doctors, nurses, and entire communities to design hospitals and doctor's offices. This new approach gives the users of the building a voice in the design process that they have never had before. It also provides designers with information that they would not have had access to otherwise.
Armed with this new information architects and designers are no longer hiding off in their offices designing spaces, but getting out into the community and talking to the people who will be using the structures. This is a large shift in the design process and a very large shift in how designers are approaching the entire design process.
The popularity of participatory design is easy to see. It just makes sense for designers, and makes for great content to give to donors and potential donors in the humanitarian sector. The information that designers acquire through actively engaging users is invaluable to them and creates the potential for a much richer, more successful project, while simultaneously making it easier for organization to raise the necessary funds to construct the structures. Simply put, it makes it easier for the project is be a success.
Take our current project, classrooms for a secondary school in Cameroon. The research stage involved interviews, random chats, and soaking in primary source information during dinners, walks, shopping in markets, and just passing by others talking on the street. This primary source information was mixed with secondary source research and synthesized down into a design for a classroom in the village of Ngong. The initial design was then passed back and forth to principals, teachers, and other members of the school and community for feedback. The design was then altered based on this feedback to better fit the needs of the users and passed back to the users again for additional feedback and further design changes. This cycle continued for some time with smaller and smaller changes being made. The design is now at a point where most individuals involved are happy, but until the buildings are constructed, there is still time for adjustments to be made.
Having continuous feedback from users gives the individuals using the structure a feeling of ownership that isn't present when designers create space alone in their office. After the classrooms are built, the community in Ngong, Cameroon will still feel that they were an important part of their design and construction, and will have a sense of ownership that is the hallmark of the long term success of a humanitarian project.
This may be the single most important reason why participatory design works. It creates a feeling of ownership and pride in a structure that wouldn't be possible without it. Look at low income housing in many cities, for instance. These apartment-style homes are built economically with no feedback from the users. When families move in there is no consideration for making this new space 'theirs', and because of this there is very little incentive for the families to treat their home with respect. What has been discovered is that including low income families in the design process creates a sense of ownership that translates into proper maintenance and upkeep of their home. It's the exact same reason why renters never take better care of their apartment than the home owner does.
Looking at participatory design as a fad or a trend that will pass is silly to me. Why would designers move away from working directly with the users? Yes, in many ways it is harder for designers to work with multiple parties who all have differing opinions, but not working harder to find a solution that works for many people will lead to the ultimate failure of the infrastructure.
At Design Cause we care about compassionate design and helping others through design. Compassionate Design is all about working directly with those in need to creating a sense of ownership and pride in the infrastructure being built to benefit them and their community. Participatory design is an important piece of this that I really hope doesn't become a fad because design and infrastructure need to, above all else, connect to the user.
A reminder that our online campaign is still running and we could really use your help! Please consider making a donation to support the construction of a classroom in Cameroon!