Community expertise: Adding contextual richness to technoscientific decisions

In early November I was invited to share my research at the weekly project share at the DAB Faculty. I gave a brief introduction about the drivers of the research before speaking about how the workshops I’ve been helping with in the Hunter have been going. This post is more about the things I started thinking about when preparing the presentation.

At the heart of my research is a desire to promote the value of community expertise in decision making regarding sustainable transitions, particularly those concerning the phase out of coal mining and power generation. For my research I am working alongside two community groups in the Hunter Valley as they go about pushing for sustainable change with the community at the centre. The groups are Hunter Renewal and Hunter Jobs Alliance.

Since September we have held five online workshops with community members, put a survey into the field, and I plan to augment this data with interviews over the next six months. In all we have reached around 314 people with this engagement.

I have lent my designerly skills to the community groups to help them design and deliver these workshops and the survey. I will go into the details of the workshops in a moment, but first I’d like to tell a story to help put my research into context.

The story comes from planning and social justice scholar Jason Corburn.

He describes how in the 1990s, the Greenpoint/Williamsburg area of Brooklyn was chosen as a test site by the EPA because of the extremely poor health of its residents and heavy levels of environmental pollution. Rather than the usual expert-led approach, the EPA employed a ‘community-based cumulative exposure assessment,’ that looked more widely at cumulative exposures, multiple determinants of health, and would include community members as part of the research team to coproduce knowledge through citizen science, town hall meetings, and qualitative interviews.

During conversations between scientists and locals, it was found that the scientists were unaware of place-specific social practices when they assessed risks of exposure to hazards in the air, soil, water, and food sources. Local experts helped them to see that diets in Brooklyn were more diverse than those the public health officials had been basing their modelling on. Moreover, the scientists learned through interviews that many locals supplemented their meals with fish caught in the river. Without these conversations, the risks to the community from polluted fish would not have been known.

Corburn (2007) describes the value of the co-production of knowledge whereby different knowledges are heard in discussions around technoscientific decisions. In doing so, taken-for-granted conceptions of expertise are questioned, as is the supposed value of supposedly objective views of knowledge.

But Corburn warns us not to romanticise local knowledge. He also said that in narrative accounts they learned that these residents were supplementing their diet because they do not have access to more affordable food. They knew of the pollution but believed they could tell the difference visually between a good fish and a poisoned fish. Until there was more affordable food they would continue fishing to be able to put food on their table. For the government officials this meant avoiding regulatory responses that would ban fishing, as this would not solve the real problem.

Though not an example from the transition arena, the Brooklyn case study suggests a need to rethink how local knowledge is characterised so that it is valued for the contextually relevant contributions it can bring to making change. Corburn notes that this is not just “giving voice” to the community but promoting a discipline of making decisions based on holistic understanding of people and place and how decisions will impact lived experience.

As I said in my literature review, a participatory approach to the planning of sustainable transitions is essential because the information required to make decisions that affect a whole community require a broad understanding of local conditions, governance frameworks, technoscientific implications, and how solutions might be accepted in a particular location (Chilvers & Longhurst, 2016; Fischer, 2000; Hendriks, 2009; Johnstone & Hielscher, 2017; Lawhon & Murphy, 2012; Shove & Walker, 2007). No single entity can hold all this knowledge, which means the quality of decisions will be compromised should they be made by one group at the exclusion of others. This demonstrates the value of greater public participation in decision-making arenas of sustainable transitions.

When thinking about this I thought perhaps this is some sort of epistemic activism. Then I did some searching on that term and found some interesting reads.

Kristie Dotson, an assistant professor of Philosophy at Michigan State University says that epistemic oppression is when one’s ability to take part in knowledge production is inhibited (2014, p. 115). She distinguished between reducible and irreducible epistemic oppression by saying that reducible epistemic oppression “can most often be addressed utilizing epistemic resources within that same epistemological system” (p. 116). This makes me think of Collins and Ison’s (2009) view that the old models of engagement may not be suitable for the ways in which knowledge production needs to occur for addressing complex systems problems like sustainable transitions.

Bickel at al. (2020) say that rethinking the way that knowledge production happens can support climate action. Lawhon and Murphy (2012), too, have said that transition management needs to move beyond mainstream approaches to knowledge creation that are embedded in positivist and western views of there being an objective truth. They say that what is needed is a much broader conception of what constitutes valid knowledge within socio-technical systems change.

This story highlights one area of theory I looked at a little at the beginning of my first year which was the difference between problem solving and problem posing. Problem solving is at the end of the process. It is about solving a problem that someone else has already set. Problem posing, however, allows more flexibility in setting the problem to be solved. Being involved at this stage means that a broader frame of what matters is set.

I also spoke in the project share about what I had been learning about my role as a designer in transitions. Cameron asked a question about craft. About the handson aspects of design that some wish to isolate as not as important anymore, at least now that “design thinking” has emerged as somehow more important and lofty. I said that my ability to be able to render the comments of the lay public into a format that is seen as valid means their contributions to the debate around the Hunter’s future may be seen in a more serious light.

This is not designing for consumption so much as designing for comprehension. Or designing for legitimacy within a policymaking arena. This is different to how much design in policymaking continues to risk being an agent of neoliberalism and technomanagerialism. I’m thinking of some research I looked at with respect to Design Labs in the UK government that in a way were legitimising the reduction of government services by raising capacities of communities to DIY through social innovations.

Carl DiSalvo in his 2015 response to the Transition Design Symposium provocations reflects on what models for designer engagement there might be in a post-capitalist world where the designer is no longer in service to capitalism but rather to new, alternative economies. This model he sees as more akin to an in-house designer: someone who has a long tenure and can really work on creating the change that is needed. He offers the following challenges to current modes, practices, and mindsets of design. Firstly, how does one teach designers to be engaged with something for the long-term? DiSalvo also talks about the risks inherent professionally when a designer who works long-term on a transition project does not necessarily have a large body of work that they can show. This might prove problematic, he says, if there is a weakening of the designer’s identity (personally and as a field I am guessing).

DiSalvo goes onto say that what is important is not to valorise design in transitions, but to ascertain how design can work with other disciplines:

What are productive engagements between design and biology, economics, chemistry, and policy? What might design contribute to those practices that in turn contribute to the endeavor of transition? How does design as a practice (not as a discipline) give shape to those other practices in this ecology, and how must it change in order not only to fit but also to contribute to the thriving of the ecology of practices that must be Transition?

De la Rosa et al. (2021) have proposed that there is a role for design in deploying participatory methods to continually capture, interrogate, and build upon community visions for the future. They say that doing this through “ongoing community engagement could potentially create a rich bank of information and reveal macro trends in a community’s perception of their future” (p. 294).

I’ve been a “designer on call” in my work in the Hunter with the workshops I have helped design and deliver alongside Hunter Renewal and Hunter Jobs Alliance. These workshops were conceived following a NSW government announcement that they would create a Hunter Expert Panel and Royalties for Rejuvenation program to fund and coordinate spending in coal-affected regions. The workshops were aimed at gathering the community’s perspectives and priorities on what the money should be spent on. They were also aimed at ensuring that the community was able to play a role in transition planning.

There were five workshops in all, held online between August and October 2021. They were intended to be held in person but COVID put paid to that. The workshops were complemented by an online survey. The workshops were held online with participants joining from Cessnock, Singleton, Muswellbrook, Maitland and Lake Macquarie. Including the survey, around 314 people from across the region provided input.

As is said in the report we are creating:

Participants included people involved in local organisations like Rotary and PCYC, church and charity groups and P&Cs. There were business owners and business and investment advocates. There were people who work in social services, providing housing, drug rehabilitation or caring support and workers from power stations and mines, manufacturing and other coal-related industries. There were people who worked in health and education, young people, retirees, professionals, government representatives and landholders.

Ahead of the workshops I looked at around 30 reports from 20 organisations (government and non-government) for ideas specifically relating to transitions in the Hunter. I categorised the ideas based on a report from HJA which saw that interventions needed to happen across three broad areas: planning and coordination, diversifying the economy, and supporting communities to adjust to change. This table shows that there are far more ideas for planning a transition and growing industry than there are for supporting the community which is a problem.

Table showing numbers of ideas about transition from government and non-government sources.

The ideas from this work have been used in the community workshops. In the workshops we added a fourth category to target workers.

The ideas were presented in the workshops and in the survey for the participants to rate and discuss. We used Google Jamboard as the key facilitators of the workshops were Hunter residents, not professional designers.

Idea cards used in the workshops. There are four rows of ideas across the different categories.

Yes the colours are ugly, but using anything more complex than Jamboard would mean too steep a learning curve for facilitators. I think designers are too addicted to Miro. I recommend we use Google Jamboard over other online tools like Miro because it is easy to use. The key facilitators of the workshops were Hunter residents, not professional designers. Having anything more complex than Jamboard would mean too steep a learning curve.

Is the desire for using programs such as Miro a form of epistemic oppression because it hinders the ability for some people to take part in knowledge production?

In the workshops, the ideas were discussed in small groups, each tackling one of the four categories. For example, this Jamboard canvas is for SUPPORTING WORKERS

One of the Jamboards for the workshop. There is one row of bright green idea cards in the category of “supporting workers”

People took turns reading out the ideas and then they discussed them before negotiating their top priorities in a two stage process. First they decided whether some or all agreed that the idea was important to deliver within the next two years. Then they chose their highest priority. Each group was also given the opportunity to add new ideas.

We had to divide categories because of time. If we’d done this in person we would have had double the time and people could have looked across more categories.

Whilst the reduction of ideas to a manageable set, able to be processed in an hour by a group of strangers online, was clearly necessary for this process, it did make me recall what I had read during my Stage 1 on opening up debate (Stirling, 2008). Were we closing down ideas too early? Or, is this what was needed at this stage? Our thinking was that there were many ideas out in the world already on what the Hunter could transition to post-coal, yet many of these ideas were vague at best and hadn’t had any debate (from what I could tell) within public circles. Presenting ideas that existed, in this format, was a way to shape debate on current ideas. Ideally the debate will be opened up more broadly at another time.

A finished jamboard showing how one group had prioritised ideas and added new ones.

This is one of the finished boards. This group nominated #22 as their highest priority (FREE TAFE) but have added another card (against the rules) to add nuance to their decision. This is because they felt that without knowing what the industries of the future would be, it would be impossible to create relevant training.

They have used size to indicate importance. One idea is clearly more important for them than the other. This was not part of the training. The facilitator worked this out themselves. They have also created two new ideas

The sessions were recorded with participant consent. I am able to use these videos for my analysis. Participants were given my ethics details ahead of their attendance.

I have also been capturing outcomes of the workshops in sketchnotes. I did these after the workshops. These have been shared with participants as evidence that their contributions have been heard. We are also creating a report to go to government which has just been sent to the printer.

A sketchnote with quotes from the Cessnock workshop

As the workshops proceeded, all of the data was entered to a spreadsheet to combine it with results from the survey. There were over 1000 separate comments that I assigned core themes and sub-themes to. I did an initial analysis of meaning which was augmented by one of the volunteers who is a retired researcher.

A spreadsheet showing comments from workshop and survey participants along with themes and some raw synthesis.

We also did initial counts of frequency of theme as well as general demographics And identified a top ten list of ideas. Alongside this I created a summary of the findings.

A Google Sheets page showing totals for different categories like concerns, age range, and favourite ideas. There is a pie chart showing the key concerns.

The report that contains all of this data is currently at the printer and will be launched in Singleton on November 24. The report will go to the NSW Government to advise on the creation of the expert panel to guide transition. This helps to address at least one of my research questions about what mode of participation is suitable for greater community participation in sustainable transition decision making. We will see what reaction this gets from the government and if it has any impact.

As I said, this process is also revealing a lot about roles for designers in transitions. A paper from sustainable design scholars Idil Gaziulusoy and Chris Ryan (2017) has been helpful in developing this thinking. In their paper, they used the transition theory of the Multi-Level Perspective (or MLP) to create a conceptual framework to guide the use of design in sustainable transitions.

Gaziulusoy and Ryan charted the different roles, mindsets and skill sets that design and designers could bring to the three activity areas contained within the MLP. These are shown here in the small text. This diagram has been redrawn from that in their paper.

A Venn diagram with three circles representing the three activity areas of the MLP: strategic, operational, and tactical. There is small text over each circle showing the different designerly skills suitable for each activity area.

I can already see that I am covering many of these areas, aligning to what Carl DiSalvo has said about models for designers in transitions. He sees the model as more akin to an in-house designer: someone who has a long tenure and can put in the time to create the change that is needed

Through this research I hope to reveal and champion local knowledges so they may be seen as valid contributions alongside that of scientific and technical expertise in planning and decision-making within sustainable transitions. This is about thickening the evidence base, or the staging for these decisions.

As an idea is proposed, it is thickened by knowledge from technical and scientific experts, as well as knowledge of how the idea will work in existing governance frameworks. When local expertise is added to the mix, a greater breadth of contextual knowledge is drawn upon to make the idea robust in place.

Four concentric circles showing how an initial problem is “thickened” by adding knowledge from technoscientific, government, and local experts.

As I said before, no single entity can hold all this knowledge, which demonstrates the value of greater public participation in sustainable transitions. It’s about making sure that the evidence base on which decisions are made is as rich, and diverse, and as contextually appropriate as possible.

The workshops are an example of this thickening. Through them, the community has been able to add deep knowledge about place, culture, and social dynamics that may affect the success of technical ideas that have been proposed for the Hunter by others. Without this local knowledge, this community expertise, the ideas will not be as robust in place.

*A term from Maria Puig de la Bellacasa (2017).

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Chilvers, J., & Longhurst, N. (2016). Participation in Transition(s): Reconceiving Public Engagements in Energy Transitions as Co-Produced, Emergent and Diverse. Journal of Environmental Policy & Planning, 18(5), 585–607. https://doi.org/10.1080/1523908X.2015.1110483

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Kimberley Crofts

Strategic designer and researcher on a quest for sustainable futures through a PhD in participatory methods.