Community based design

Community based design

Out of all the work we do, probably the most fun part is the community interaction. We believe passionately in making the community an integral part of the design process and try to involve as many stakeholders as possible throughout the project. While we have gotten to the point where it is almost second nature, we occasionally get asked why we do it and how….. So here is a quick rundown on the why and how with some examples of the process that we have been going through in Nicaragua.

The community design process consists of a series of exercises performed by both the design team and the community.  The games and exercises serve the dual purpose of learning from the community and introducing them to the practice of long term thinking, working, and planning.  Ultimately, the process should help the community take direct ownership and responsibility on the design of the village.

 

Goals – The Why

Learning

 The exercises and games allow the design team to learn about the communities priorities, hopes, desires and concerns. By identifying the priorities of the community, the design team can directly respond to those things that the community considers most important as well as begin to address any desires or customs that may be detrimental to the long term health of the community or not feasible due to budget etc.

The design team is required to make assumptions as part of the planning process. The current design team is designing for a population that it is not a part of and therefore is prone to cultural misconceptions and errors. The community design process provides a framework for the design team to solicit feedback and check those assumption with the population being served. This feedback loop allows for a design tailored to the needs of the community it is intended to serve. 

Teaching

While many of the exercises are designed to solicit information, the majority also take the opportunity to ‘teach’ a concept. The population being served is one that has generally lived hand to mouth and therefore is not well versed in future planning and staged decision making. We use limited resource, turn based games and decision sequence exercises to introduce the idea of long term planning around physical space.

Engaging the community in participatory planning at the earliest stages of the design allows for a gradual build up in long term planning capacity. As Agros works with communities for extended periods of time, this process can continue throughout the growth of the village. At the end of Agros’s direct involvement, the community should be able to make informed long term planning decisions.

Methodology – The How

Our process utilizes games, exercises and drawing exercises. We generally do not use surveys or interview for two main reasons. First, there is often a cultural/class differential that tends to lead those interviewed to try to give the ‘correct’ answer. Secondly, the language barrier makes interpretation a problem for us. Games and exercises often remove us from the equation and allow the community members to work and compete among themselves. Drawing exercises are often vague and difficult to ‘game’. We often find that vague instructions produce unexpected and interesting insights. 

Village layout exercise 'discussion' Village layout exercise 'discussion'

Games and Exercises:

Limited resource games: In these type of games we limit a specific resource but provide an overabundance of choices which forces the participants to make value based decisions. For example, a participant may have three ‘chips’ to spend but ten things to spend them on. By seeing which choices the participants make, it can be determined what the key priorities are. Depending on the sophistication of the participants, rounds and/or trading can be used to solicit more nuanced information.

Village layout exercise with community voting Village layout exercise with community voting

Binary decision exercises: In these types of exercises, participants are given two opposing choices on specific concepts and asked to vote. This is particularly effective in soliciting feedback on designs where cultural and class differences might make straight forward solicitation of feedback difficult. It is important that the concepts being illustrated are sufficiently removed from specific designs to allow for unbiased feedback.

Woman voting on building location Woman voting on building location

Drawing exercises: In these type of exercises, participants are asked to illustrate concepts. It is important that the directions be vague enough that there is no ‘correct’ answer. For example, we often ask participants to ‘draw a typical day’. From those directions, we are often able to determine what the pattern of daily life is. We also ask participants to ‘draw your village, now and in the future’ to see what their current living conditions are and what they hope to see in a new village.

Kids drawing of a typical day Kids drawing of a typical day

Community based design and planning is getting a lot more attention these days than it used too.