March 20, 2020

Co-Design, Online: How Quarantine Can Lead Us to a Better Collaborative Process

With the rapid spread of COVID-19, we are in a period where virtual convenings are necessary. In the past week, we’ve been collecting guides for taking all kinds of important social labor totally online: from working better with a distributed team, to doing social research, to making use of the right digital engagement tools. Co-design—the process of creating policies, programs, and services directly with those that will deliver or use them—must also make that transition. And while we aren’t excited about this (done well, there is no substitute for people coming together!), there is a silver lining: virtual co-design can actually lead to better solutions.

There is a frequent misperception about co-design that can crush its potential: that smart, sustainable ideas can emerge and mature during a single, in-person workshop. But that frequently doesn’t work. At in-person workshops, the networking “hallway track” often overshadows the main objectives; the time pressures don’t give people enough room to do their best work; and waiting to ideate in-person becomes an excuse to not do the prior work to ensure that time is well-used. And there’s often too-little invested in driving forward the solutions generated—partly because ideation crowds out concrete workplanning, and partly because conveners aren’t sure what they can commit to, with ideas coming and going so rapidly.

We’ve seen these dynamics play out in our ten years of facilitating collaborations around messy social problems. We’ve led many large-scale, intensive co-design gatherings—like, 200+ people exercises— to develop bold new solutions. We know what it takes to push a group to connect deeply, to dream big, and to organize for change—and the amazing things we can accomplish when that happens. We’ve done this for highly distributed movements and organizations, from open knowledge enthusiasts (hey, Wikimedia!) to human rights defenders around the world. And our work has been most successful when organizers invest in the longer, less flashy steps following a gathering.

A big part of pulling off a successful virtual gathering is acknowledging the things the format does well, and what is more difficult. For example, we know building community virtually will be tough, especially without the happy hours or opportunities to break bread together. It’s not impossible, but it takes more time and inventiveness (more small group FaceTime? Digital Potlucks? Virtual Dance Parties?). Running lots of breakouts to share information on different topics will also be harder to do, as will giving people organic opportunities to share about their work. Yet, designing together—the underlying purpose of many of our gatherings—may actually be more successful for four reasons:

  1. You aren’t pressured to do everything in a single, compressed meeting.
  1. Participants can take time to process and reflect over multiple days, compare notes with colleagues, and answer open questions with more space in-between meetings.
  1. Ideation can transition into concrete action.
  1. You can reinvest budget for travel and logistics into testing or piloting some of the resulting, co-designed proposals.

As a small, highly-distributed team, much of our work has always been collaborative and remote. We organize daily across our two hubs in Brooklyn and Abuja—but with our many remote staff, consultants, and clients and our frequent team travel, we’ve become experts in remote collaboration. And not just in the daily tasks: we recently completed a three-month process to co-design our new organizational strategy, honing new virtual techniques that have worked remarkably well for us.

In our virtual co-design series, we share from our experience—as co-design organizers, and as an agile, distributed team—general principles for doing this work, and a model for how you might structure a virtual co-design process in the shadow of quarantine.

Image: Adapted illustration from Pablo Stanley. Used with a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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