An invitation to design participative processes

“Designing participation” is a fascinating challenge and a growing need in various sectors. Culture is one of them. Participation has been assumed by institutions and cultural groups as a very important aspect in the way of being and behaving. Recognizing that much of the public wants to participate and be recognized by participants, raises, however, the question of how? How to create processes that maintain respect for public input and recognize the diversity of roles between the public, participants, experts, facilitators, artists and cultural institutions? How to balance their diverse knowledge? How can this all be combined in processes and projects that will be a qualitative advance in relation to culture?

Nowadays, with the arrival of two point zero technologies, technologies of mass collaboration online, these questions have been raised again urgently. Many times they have been answered only from the technological aspect, reducing  rich complexity of identities and social relations of production to a simple process of collaborative content contribution, ideas, maybe “feedback” and, hopefully, generating dialogue about culture , projects, art, and planting the seed for the community and new relationships with cultural institutions.

Known are the many varieties of participation that have been articulated from the concept of “Participative Museum” which was inspired by the possibilities of web 2.0 technologies, that abstract some participatory patterns of interest.

An easy reading of these proposals has focused more on the use of technologies to their underlying patterns of relationship and collaborative production. This has created participatory processes that proliferate around many projects that have chosen the simpler and less inclusive possibilities and levels of participation. There are many projects that reduce participation to consultative relations with the public about the initial ideas or feedback on the request of the cultural product end. The predominant use of “crowdsourcing” in its simplest reserves a small active role and a very reactive one to what was formerly known as the public.

The use of of the shallower technology capabilities creates a vision trap. So it is that participatory projects become little more than a timely contribution invitation to the public. But the public, as a group of participants, has more potential than the interaction allowed by a social network created for this purpose, a forum of discussion or a platform to contribute content or ideas. These are indeed some of the common variants that some institutions have as participatory initiatives. The catch is that depending on how they are managed, they re-create unequal relations with the public and hardly provide anevolution in participation levels

Leaving the trap

How can one transform an opportunity to participate into a real evolution of public and institutions? How can one cultivate more transparent and productive relationships with audiences without falling into old mistakes? Perhaps by starting to think about participation as a process, not as a result. In particular, by nderstanding and assuming it as a constructive process that changes the institution and the public.

This attitude, which is the one we have, requires both to have a deep respect for the public’s ability and to recognize it as a partner, but especially as a co-designer of very specific realities.

There are various traditions of design and codesign with users that start from a recognition of knowledge and initiative  of what was “formerly known as the public”.” From  Alexander  design and other patterns in architecture, to user-led  or  social innovation design through the initial proposal for participatory design.

Participation has many levels and colors. But sometimes it has become a “must”. It seems that all institutions should be participatory to the same extent and in the same way. They shouldn’t be. This premise is so obvious that we seem to have forgotten it.

Our proposal intends to critically reconsider the possibilities of participation. We must know what commitments are required for each level, what consequences and changes are required: attitude, skills and ways of organizing, both for established institutions that hold iconic spaces and for more recent and more fluid ones, defined as group actions on the network and scattered citizens spaces.

The toolbox of participation begins with an attitude that recognizes the complexity of social processes. Complexity is a source of complication if not used accordingly.

Beyond 2.0

The impact of social technologies, the 2.0, relational and cultural habits are by no means something that should let off the radar by anyone related to culture. People accustomed to two point zero technologies are audiences that many institutions prefer: they read more, write more, communicate more and have a high level in terms of demand and expectations about the cultural and institutional offer(Kelly).

At the same time, 2.0 technology defines a broad group of excluded and resilient. For example, those that can not or do not know how to use social media. Or those who openly oppose them either from the perspective of outright rejection for lack of familiarity or strategy (Keen), or after a long experience in the creation and use (Lanier). On the opposite side one can find two point zero  optimists (Shirky, Tapscott). Also among cultural institutions and managers one would find representatives of each of these positions (W.A.G.E).

But, as we say, participatory processes have a long tradition and can be nurtured through other technologies are not necessarily related to information technology, internet or web.

Our starting point is through complexity, work on designing participatory processes that also rely on the use of 2.0 technology but not exclusively.

The workshops will learn to play with the complexity of the dynamics and participatory processes and to understand the methods and technologies (both 2.0 and others) that allow not as much to design the final process  but the conditions that can allow the emergence of creative complexities.

The three strands that we will ensamble in the workshops

The aim of the workshops is to leave with projects defined (or redefined) after having considered three points of view related to complexity:

  • tradition and participatory design methods run by users, particularly  open design with users and new contributions from the complexity (Pangaro) and constructive dialogue (Jones).
  • methods and collaboration technologies (Bacon).
  • processes and methods for quick and agile management of collaborative projects.

The working procedure is simple: we will review previous and illustrative projects and start practicing techniques from each of the three “threads” from the proposed work the participants have submitted and shared before starting the workshop. We hope to go beyond the proposals that promote dialogue without action or construction, and those that undertake levels of participation that have been chosen. We will surely prototype, remodel, and design tricks for the growth of communities, we will outline the relationship with new active agents and will give a new point of view to initial proposals.

We expect a few days of intense learning and shared creativity. The morning activities will, we believe, be nicely complemented by presentations and evening discussions.

We will have the presence of:

  • Bob Ketner, head of the Virtual Tech, who has worked with us in various participatory projects.
  • Waybe Labarthe, director of the Liberty Science Center content and promoter of the concept of open exhibition. He works in the workshops on innovation and creativity of the American Association of Museums.

We will also have the presentation of:

    • The 2.0 Manual of the CCCB
    • The “work in progress” of the association A + C + C, an initiative born of a group of participants of the editions of last year’s these same workshops at the CCCB.

Some references

  • Bacon, J. (2009). The Art of Community: Building the New Age of Participation. O’Reilly Media. Also online.
  • Benkler, Y. (2006). Peer-based commons production. En The Wealth of Networks. How social production transforms markets and freedom (1st ed.), New Haven, Conn: Yale University Press, pp. 528, ISBN 0-300-11056-1
  • Eyebeam. Beyond models of consensus.
  • IDEO. Open Ideo.
  • Jones, P. (2009) Dialogue as participatory design.
  • Keen, A (2008). The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet is Killing Our Culture. Crown Business. ISBN-13: 978-0385520812.
  • Kelly, L. (2008) Museum 3.0: informal learning & social media. In Social Media and Cultural Communication Conference Sydney.
  • Lanier, J. (2010). You are not a gadget: a manifesto. Knopf. 2010. ISBN-13: 978-0307389978.
  • Lapuente,I., Sangüesa, R. Ketner, B. Stephenson, R. (2010). Engaging Users in Science and Technology Exhibition CoDesign Online and Offline: the Expolab Experience. Proceedings of the 11th International Conference on Public Communication of Science and Technology, PCST-2010. New Delhi, India. November 2010. Accessible here:
  • Pangaro, P. (2010). Rethinking Design Thinking. Guest lecture at PICNIC’10:
  • Shirky, C. Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations. Penguin. ISBN-13: 978-0143114949
  • Schuler, D: Namioka, A. (1993). Participatory Design: Principles and Practices. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. ISBN-13: 978-0805809510
  • Tapscott,D. (2006).  Wikinomics. How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything. Portfolio. ISBN-13: 978-1591841388.
  • Tharp, T. (2009). The Collaborative Habit: Life Lessons for Working Together. Simon & Schuster. ISBN-13: 978-1416576501
  • W.A.G.E., Working Artists and the Greater Economy.
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An invitation to design participative processes