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Participatory Design and Co-creation in Commonfare

If a commoner navigates to the 'what is Commonfare? page, they find instead of a what is, a list of values and principles that guide Commonfare. Fair enough, those values are important. But i am guessing that people coming here for the first time, even commoners who've been around for a while, might eventually want to know, what is Commonfare. (edit: since the writing of this article the what is information has been updated) There's not much more background on the site, but of course, a person could download one of the Commonfare book series (book 4, Computing and the commons is a good place to start) but honestly, only the most dedicated commoners will make it that far. Of course, Commonfare is nascent so it's not yet clear what it is, but if we look at it's foundations, how it was made, we can begin to understand what Commonfare can be. For this we look at Commonfare from two design perspectives, Participatory Design and Co-creation.

If and when we do dive into the Commonfare books, or click through to the original PIENews European Project website and the publications there, we find one of the main themes explicitly tracked throughout the descriptions and reflections on Commonfare, is that of Participatory Design. OK, that's a start to understanding what is Commonfare, but what is participatory design, or PD as it is called in academic speak? PD was initiated in the 1960's and 70's as a political movement in computer science and social design research, a democratization concept that meant to empower stakeholders by including them in design processes. This challenged traditional top-down, "if we build it , they will come" attitudes towards design, as involving potential stakeholders in the design of things, so goes the idea, will result in the development of things that are more meaningful and useful for stakeholders. In research settings, that stakeholder participation can be the main focus of a project, studying and learning how people work together, and engaging stakeholders and designers to come up with relevant solutions, imagine potential futures and reshape real-world and social values. Yet research environments typically have more of one resource, that is time, and can develop highly evolved relationships with stakeholders and follow innovative processes to arrive at mutual understandings of design parameters. To do it right, PD requires infrastructuring and planning, trained facilitators and an interdisciplinary approach to co-creating and evaluating engagement outcomes.

Time is key, and in design industry, PD implementations ranges from nonexistent, to occasional, or it can be a regular feature of design practice. A dedicated team might facilitate participation over the long term, or the participation activities could be performed and discussed by untrained team members over morning coffee. More involved processes that incorporate the wealth of PD research and practice techniques may or may not be fruitfully enacted before funding, publication deadlines, or technological constraints force concrete design decisions to be made. So although the engagement of stakeholders, users or consumers in design development invariably gathers inputs and insights from participants,  in the end the designer, financier, developer, and the material, social and political considerations that influence them shape the eventual design and implementation to much greater extent.

Co-creation is often referred to as another form, that differs somewhat from Participatory Design (PD), even as the concepts are intrinsically related, interdependent. Both Co-creation and PD imagine to engage users in the design process, both incorporate individually and socially structured activities and engagements meant to draw out creative discussions, examine the perspectives of various stakeholders, and eventually generate new or fresh constellations of ideas that inform a design project. And these two design perspectives stem from alternate origins, while PD was a democratization process in socially conscious design, Co-creation, lets remember, emanated from a marketing concept, a commercial tactic to generate goods and services more attractive or useful to consumers, and develop long-term brand-associated relationships between companies and consumers.  PD and Co-creation have over time evolved into a variety of perspectives, which brings us to another relevant resource, an article titled  "Co-creation and the new landscapes of design."

Sanders, E. B.-N., & Stappers, P. J. (2008). Co-creation and the new landscapes of design. Co-design, 4, 5-18.

This document picks apart the concepts of PD and co-creation, and traces some historical trajectories of the development of participatory design, focussed on the differing levels of engagement of user or stakeholder in the design process. The authors do not acutely differentiate the many facets of PD such as user-centered design, design thinking, participatory design, co-design, human-centered design or co-creation, but they acknowledge that one's perspective of co-creation can be similarly situated in a variety of related practices. Co-creation in product product design and development can emerge as an advertising tool, or a User Experience UX component such as personalisation of a product or social media engagement. In Organisational Change, co-creation takes on more interpersonal, inter-group relationship and communication roles, as design inspiration workshops, deep team synergy exercises or human resources development seminars, working with small design groups to large corporate communities. The resonant co-creation of consciousness studies presents another granularity, developing the same resource materials into a transformational, even spiritual interaction process to guide practitioners in conscious business practice and ethical investing.

These various schools of participatory design and co-creation have significant overlap, and (for me) the challenge of understanding these approaches has been that I have approached them at the same level, and examined them temporally as they reach out from the literature. Usability, User Studies and User Research grew out of design for technology and Interaction Design, and the attention to involving the user or stakeholder first in the testing phase, then in the design phase, and eventually in the conceptualisation phase of project development has changed the relationship from end-user to participant to stakeholder. This process begat User Centered Design, which studies the user and the impact of a design to inform further iteration and refinement. Then Participatory Design, which promotes the engagement with users, that they can participate to some extent in the design process. Design Thinking emerges then with the aim to bring designer much closer together with user or stakeholder. More recently Co-design and Co-Creation are attempting to break the traditional identity roles of designer and user/stakeholder altogether, and surely in the next years there will arise new permutations, the next levels.

In the paper, the authors offer a broader, more concise definition of co-creation that brings a fresh perspective: Co-creation is a higher order of engagement, it is collective creativity, a networked and facilitated state of shared, intellectual, reflective and generative emergent consciousness. Co-creation could be any generative process performed together, and as such, PD and all of its manifestations are also acts of co-creation. This differentiation allows us to examine the permutations of PD focussing more on the identities, roles and relationships of participants than on the activities, responsibilities and data provided by participants in a design process.

Taking Commonfare as an example, let's look at its participation and its co-creation. Commonfare is a PD project, to be sure, developed over three years between a consortium of diverse academics and professionals, with multiple design and iteration arcs which included stakeholders in various workshops, demos, events, festivals, interviews, studies and public engagements. Review and reflection on the interactions provided insights throughout the process. Central themes of the project were elaborated through direct exchange with potential users or stakeholders. All of these activities entail some form of collective creativity, or co-creation. These engagements afford varying levels of end-user participant influence, and although the process is participatory, the framing of Commonfare (storytelling, info resource, cryptocurrency system) was decided through the development stages by the design group.

Now, I have personally witnessed some of the Commonfare developments, participated in workshops, discussions and brainstorming sessions, both in person and online, and observed the group's practices vicariously. And apart from the public stakeholder engagements, I observed moments of intense, balanced and productive co-creation, in workshops and design-group meetings. There and then, ideas were generated, played with, discussed, enacted, and elaborated, working through various mechanisms to arrive at conceptual groundings together. In these sessions, the dynamism between consortium participants and the immediate, emergent evolution of ideas drawn from a collective was clearly visible, call it core co-creation. The ideas that emerged from this dynamic co-creative synergy of project partners were arguably more impactful to the shaping of Commonfare than any stakeholder engagement. (In my opinion, such people, the designers, sociologists, researchers, technology developers, hackers, activists and many more cultural agents who comprised the consortium of Commonfare are a better template for actual users/stakeolders and potential future commoners.) Certainly the personas developed at the beginning of the project, approximation of the platform's prospective users, dont seem to be writing stories. In fact the people sharing their voices seem to be designers, sociologists, researchers, technology developers, hackers, activists and cultural agents, a seemingly priviledged but strangely, equally precarious  group of people. But that's another article...

In the example of Commonfare, that collective creativity of co-creation is evident in the participatory design practices, but much more impactful and formational within the design group. All the while, the project is based on the idea that the commoners, the users or imagined stakeholders, will build the value of Commonfare, through their participation. So is co-creative in and of itself? Now that we have Commonfare built for us, with its story, group, and coin functions, we as commoners can use it to facilitate our own networks, and (hopefully eventually) connect with the collective of all participants. By participating in, writing stories, using group features and coin, and in particular by contributing goods and services to the Commonplace (really it should be called something like CommonMarket or CommonBazaar, because a place isn't only shaped by exchanging value stuffs), together we are co-creating the value of Commonfare. As the stories become more full of diverse ideas and perspectives, it will become more attractive, gathering more commoners. As the marketplace grows, and the diversity of what is on offer for commoncoin is extended, the coin itself will become valuable, and that value is co-created by our activities.

But what if, for example, a commoner or a group developed a different interface to Commonfare, perhaps another language of engagement that they feel is more appropriate for the commons? What about when game engines begin to tie into alternative currencies, and someone realizes the potential to dissemminate Commonfare participation in other communities (such as MMORPG gaming). What if a group decided a mechanism for time as value exchange would be more suitable for their uses than a coin? As no mechanism for participation in extending the platform yet exists in Commonfare, nor are such suggestions for infrastructural amendments to Commonfare solicited, the form and function of Commonfare is not co-creative. Until commonfare is opensourced, and some mechanism for participation is created, the platform itself will remain static.

We can use (or not) only those tools given to us, by the designers. And here we seem to have reached again the fallacy of "If we build it, they will come". Commonfare exists, and now many of those who should just happen along, will realize its potential, join, and start contributing, right? Well, until that starts happening en masse, I think the participatory design and stakeholder engagement activities need to continue, to find out why, and establish for example, who are the actual stakeholders in, and what are their exigencies, to better shape the thing so it will be used.

This brings us to another part of the paper,  'Co-creation and the new landscapes of design.' which introduces the discussion that PD that has traditionally focussed on the engagement of user/stakeholders in the design process, but contemporary co-creation centric forms such as co-design and even Design Thinking are attempting to disrupt the traditional roles and identities of designer, developer, financier, stakeholder and user in the design process. In particular, these new forms of design and research enable participants to contribute in new and different ways, the voices of stakeholder and end user can begin to provide insights, design directions, and visions of potential, preferred futures that previously were the purview only of expert designers. The hegemony of designer over user can be finally overthrown.

Here the authors address that previously expert position, as the designer asks [But what about Me?] in light of common people taking over their responsibilities as designers and challenging their status quo. Well, the designer's expertise will always be needed, to facilitate co-creation, and of course their tacit knowledge and experience of material, social and political considerations in design work are still invaluable to the process...but yes, the designer will have to give up some of their power. With Commonfare this might require building different things, and a significant time and value investment, a change in technological and organisational structure that could allow commoners to participate shaping Commonfare in new and different ways, rather than simply adding to what's available on Commonfare.

Again the sharpening of the term co-creation, not as a design form but as emergent collective creativity allows us to examine higher orders of cooperation, while the strains of PD, UCD, co-design and others bring about practical interpretations and involvement of core participants. For me the perspective in this article is refreshing, and makes me reflect on the actual collective that is commonfare, and its potential creativity, and for me begins to answer the question, What is Commonfare?"

Have a look at the paper, and please do share your ideas on that in the comments, or join commonADA's discussion "What is Commonfare?" je za, sa i od ljudi.

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1 Komentar

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Lipanj 06, 2019 at 14:48

Thanks for this interesting reflection. Waiting to comment on it more deeply, just a consideration. With respect to privilege and the (increasing) Commoners group, see the story by Miss K: