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Reliable witnesses? Community feedback, translation by experts

Updated: Nov 29, 2022

In the moment, my 3-year-old research assistant tells me she enjoys the small KFC (kit, fence, carpet) playground in Paris’ Parc Buttes Chaumont as much as she did the Japanese Octopus slide that stands in Copenhagen’s Superkilen, but I can see that’s not true. I won’t still struggle to bribe her away from here after two hours, even with the promise of ice-cream. And when she’s home weeks later there’s only one of these she is still talking about.

It reminded me of an anecdote I first read in Tim Gill’s Urban Playground but originally comes from this blog from Playlink.

A large black octopus where the legs are slides or create tunnels

“Matthew, aged eight, was observed for two hours at a play area. On arrival he went straight to the flying fox, where he played for ten minutes. The rest of the time was spent transferring water (in crisp packets) from a paddling pool to a sand play area where he built dams and channels. Asked as he was leaving what he’d liked best about the play area, he cast his eye around and said ‘the flying fox’ – a more obvious visual feature of the space, and an experience much easier for him to articulate.”

Children aren’t alone in producing such research fallacies. Consultation exercises — particularly on changes to the built environment — often fall flat because, without creative support, it is difficult for residents, participants, respondents to imagine the possible, rather than repeat the landscapes of their experience. Other times when presented with a theoretical diagram of image, they provide either what they think is expected or a resounding ‘no’ to the suggestion of unknown or misunderstood change.

Well-constructed participative and community-led design means allowing people to show you what’s really important to them.

A boy climbs on a skatepark with a full circular concrete tube
The Skatepark at Nike's EMEA HQ Campus in Hilversum, Netherlands

On my Fellowship travels I met with Jorick Beijer, of Blossity, who also acts as a sort of-house consultant with the Nike Real Estate team in the EMEA Region.

I first came across Jorick when I saw Blossity share an image of a ‘co-design’ session that aligned closely with my own concept of ‘pre-activation’. Here 30 children in the pouring rain made use of a temporarily constructed BMX pump track.

As Jorick explained to me, “60% was just play – them riding bikes. 40% was chatting. From how do you envisage a pump track? To more meta questions; what is a pump track? What would it look like? What elements would you want?

The questions were in aid of plans to construct a pump-track as a meanwhile site on land owned by Nike and planned for housing. But Jorick is conscious of the potential pitfalls of giving too little input in co-design.

“Asking people – particularly kids – what they want without any context is very difficult. We over-estimate how much participation we can expect. We as designers have a bias of understanding… yet we expect kids to have this spatial context...

[We can get] kids making things, doing things…[but] it is on us to develop good scenarios use design as a research tool and have good conversations about those scenarios – not just here’s the LEGO what can you build?”

This reminds me of StreetSpace, an organisation of which I am a trustee of the charitable arm. When Street Space were trying to understand what would make women feel safer walking through a green space in Barking, they didn’t just ask them to come up with the answer for them. They asked questions like ‘If you had £50 to throw a birthday party for a friend here what would you do witht the space?’ Then they took these answers and created a low-cost temporary intervention that allowed more people to interact with the space in a more positive, creative mindset. They then took further lessons from those interventions to explore and develop further.

When GAME built their first Streetmekka facility in Copenhagen, the young people they spoke with were already participants in their street-based activities - they had been through a ‘pre-activation’ process. They knew that for them, they wanted more than just a space to perform. ‘What would be happening in the corners?’, was their key challenge. Would there be space to hang out there, somewhere to graffiti here, a place to grab a soda?

This didn’t mean that the designers literally dumped a vending machine and some spray cans in the literal corners. The experts used their experience to design social spaces on the edges of the courts, and in later designs even centrally with the activities surrounding a staircase of informal seating translating the theory of legitimate peripheral participation into sport and place-making. They listened to what they were being told not just explicitly but implicitly. And, of course these designs went back to the young people to be checked and challenged that they had been heard.

Narrative Translation

These examples all remind me of my work with the Sport England research team in the late noughties. National Governing Body officers understood their sport and knew the questions they wanted to ask but couldn’t find those in Sport England's data. Researchers could often explain data but didn’t have the day-to-day context for its application. I often felt, as a member of the research team who had come from the development side of things, I was most useful as a translator providing context and a helping to tell a story. That was even part of my motivation for later becoming a journalist, to improve my ability to construct that contextual narrative.

So, lets create consultative experiences that have intrinsic value for the communities we seek to engage, and lets allow them to enjoy those experiences and use our expertise to transform and translate their feedback into the world of knowledge and possibilities that they might never know existed.

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