Have just presented my PhD work at a ‘research jam’ set up by the New Economy Network Australia. Much of it was similar to the presentation I did for the Escobar seminar, but with a little extra detail around what I mean when I say design (this was a non-design audience) and what my research will entail (at a high-level).

Will post up the link to the recording here when it is published. Meanwhile, here are my slides and notes are below. The presentation was seven minutes long. In case you are wondering where all the detail is.

Creating a positive platform for sustainable change through community-based participatory design

SLIDE 1 – Introduction

I start by acknowledging that I live and work on unceded Gadigal land. I have worked in the design field for 25 years first as a graphic designer and lately as a service designer. I am not an academic but am using the opportunity afforded to me through a PhD to explore ways to increase community participation in the planning of sustainable transitions and the role for design in enabling this.

Before I begin, I want to clarify the type of design I am talking about. Design has broadened its areas of concern from the object-based focus of the early twentieth century to a mode of inquiry which also includes matters of social, political, and environmental concern. Design is a world-shaping practice. The things we design — including objects, services, and infrastructure — shape how life is lived.

I am just one year into the PhD, but the journey began at the end of the 2019 federal election where, despite extremely high levels of support for action on climate change at a national level, people in many regional areas voted in favour of continuing coal mining. Anti-coal activists (myself included) had wrongly assumed that simply telling people that fossil fuels were bad for the environment would be enough to change their votes.

There is, of course, more to it than this.

Through my early research I discovered that support for climate action does not guarantee pro-climate voting, especially if an individual’s interests and identities are at risk. Further research has shown that action toward energy transition will be best achieved through place-based, grassroots initiatives, using participatory methods that embrace local knowledge, allow for meaningful and inclusive collaboration between all stakeholders, and which pay careful attention to the needs of communities.

SLIDE 2 — Research questions

The problem is we need to rapidly transition away from fossil fuels, and acting quickly can mean the status quo is maintained through restricting debate to expert views without the inclusion of local knowledge.

With this in mind, my first research question is ‘How can the local community be involved in planning for transition in a coal mining region of Australia?’.

My profession led me naturally to think about the role of design. My second question has emerged as: ‘What roles could a designer fulfil in participatory transition planning?’.

SLIDE 3 — Theoretical foundations

The research is framed through four themes, each supported by the theoretical foundations shown here.

Centering the community’s knowledge and concerns draws upon community based participatory design. This type of design is a redirected practice which joins in with humility, meeting the community where they are.

Being able to envision positive futures starts with revealing the best of what exists and has a foundation in appreciative inquiry and asset-based community development

Considering how to move toward the future draws upon the theories surrounding the culture of care and repair, where we develop connective and relational practices that repair and renew community bonds

And finally, thinking about building a positive platform for change reveals design’s potential for making visible what has been concealed. This is about revealing community knowledge so it may be seen as a valid contribution alongside that of scientific and technical expertise in the planning of sustainable transitions.

SLIDE 4 — Research design

The purpose of this research is to examine the role and impact of community participation in planning the phase-out of coal mining and power generation in regional areas of Australia, as well as to understand potential roles for designers in community-based transition planning.

I am only in the first year of my research, but am about to embark on my field work. At present I will be working with an established community group to run workshops and conduct semi-structured interviews with community members and other community organisations. I’ve written up some draft guiding questions for interviews which are shown here in summarised form.

It is a strange position to be in that I am experienced in research but not academically-minded research. This process is helping me see so many mistakes from my past, professional life, which is part embarrassing, part enlightening. Any other suggestions for research approach are therefore most welcomed.

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