Social Design Sydney talk

I was invited by Jax Wechsler to talk about my PhD at the Social Design Sydney event she runs and curates. This is the transcript and video of my talk. At the end of the post are some of the comments and questions from the people who attended. Thank you so much for sharing your knowledge and ideas with me. I will try to answer some of the questions there, but also welcome your feedback on this page to keep the conversation going.

Thanks Jax and hi everyone. Thanks for taking time out of your day to be here. Today I’m going to talk to you about my PhD journey so far. I’m examining how to increase community participation in planning and decision-making around sustainable transitions, as well as the roles for designers in these processes.

I am taking this PhD through the design faculty at UTS, on the unceded lands of the Gadigal people of the Eora nation. My supervisors are Cameron Tonkinwise and Abby Mellick Lopes, but this study is built upon the shoulders of many, many more and today I invite you to add to this collective knowledge. I look forward to your questions.

This presentation has four parts.

  • The background drivers of the research
  • A brief look at the theoretical foundations
  • The fieldwork thus far
  • And my early thoughts on the place for designers in helping communities transition to more sustainable futures.


This is a painting of my grandfather’s grandfather Thomas Silvester Best. He is here dressed in formal clothes, no doubt chosen carefully for the sitting of the portrait.

Old painting of a man with a beard but no moustache. He is wearing an evening suit, with a white shirt and white bow tie. The background is yellow.
Thomas Silvester Best (image via Kembla Jottings)

He was born in Upper Merroo near Lithgow in 1853. His father had been sentenced to death in Nottingham in England in 1820 for highway robbery, but was transported to Australia and assigned to the son of William Lawson, one of the trio Blaxland, Wentworth, and Lawson who “discovered” the path over the Blue Mountains.

This simple cottage is where Thomas lived at Wallerawang where the coal-fired power station was built at Lithgow. The smallest child there is the mother of my grandfather, Stella.

Black and white photo of a simple mud hut with two adults and two children standing in front of it.
Thomas Best’s family in front of their home at Wallerawang near Lithgow.

As a convict employee to a wealthy landowner, it is no doubt my great grandfather grandfather played some role in the violence inflicted upon Aboriginal people in the fight for land. I want to acknowledge this.

Once Thomas was freed, he went with his family to Wollongong. One of these five wooden houses here on the deforested side of a hill at Mount Kembla is theirs, perhaps it’s the one with the smoke coming from the chimney. My aunt who is doing our family history is not sure which one was theirs.

Settlement at Mount Kembla where Thomas Best lived with his family. Source unknown.

In 1902, Thomas went from his house to work nearby at the Mount Kembla coal mine but did not return. He along with 95 other men were killed in an explosion at the mine. This is still counted as Australia’s worst mining disaster.

This photo shows the coffins being carried out of the mine.

Bodies carried out in coffins from the Mount Kembla mine disaster in 1902. Photo via Kembla Jottings.

Coal mining is a dangerous pursuit and the burning of it causes more harm after it is dug up. The thing is, Aboriginal people told white settlers this but they didn’t listen. In Newcastle where coal was first “discovered” in Australia, the Awakabal people have a story about nikin, which is their word for coal. They say nikin is a dark energy that should be kept buried underground because otherwise it will spread its darkness all over the world.

I tell you this because I want to acknowledge both the damage that coal has had, and the damage that settler violence has had on Aboriginal people and land. I want to acknowledge that my family no doubt played a role in this dispossession and violence and that as their descendent I continue to benefit from this dispossession. But this is not a history lesson — violence against the earth and its people continues. We are still destroying country and still digging up the coal.

This is a photo of Rix’s Creek Coal mine near Singleton. That’s the town in the background, dwarfed by the large, open cut coal mine in the foreground.

Rix’s Creek coal mine (Hunter Renewal)

This coal mine is one of around 40 in the Hunter Valley. Whilst just 311 people work here, the entire Hunter coal industry employs around 14,000 people, contributing directly and indirectly to the livelihoods of around 40 per cent of the Hunter’s total population

With global demand for coal already declining, such a heavy reliance on a single industry poses huge risks in an area where there are few other employment opportunities. There is a pressing need to diversify industry beyond coal, particularly in the Upper Hunter where there is even greater dependence on the industry

Yet despite the clear signs that the Hunter economy needs to diversify, the Australian federal government is steadfastly refusing to take meaningful action to phase out coal, including ignoring calls for a nationwide transition authority to coordinate structural changes to the economy. Their glacial approach to transition means regions such as the Hunter Valley have been unable to comprehensively plan for a post-coal future

The problem is, that when change comes, it will happen fast, and with this rapid change there is a risk that the status quo is maintained. Incumbent actors might position themselves as the only ones with capacity to act urgently. This situation will be exploited by fossil fuel companies and supporting governments as a barrier to the development of alternative, sustainable economies.

There are a number of ways this power will be maintained:

  • The restriction of debate to subjects that benefit those in power. For example the jobs vs environment narrative that dominates Australian discourse on transitions.
  • Having a preference for expert views from scientific and technical fields may reduce the inclusion of local knowledge that could add contextual richness to the debate. This means that local people may be excluded from decisions that affect them.
  • Another problem is that authorities may default to engagement methods they are used to, and these methods may no longer be suitable for the complex and adaptive problems related to climate change.

These are the key drivers of my research.

With these drivers in mind, my first research question is why is public participation necessary for sustainable transitions? What I found in the literature is that wide participation 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. 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.

Further research has shown that action toward sustainable transitions will be best achieved through place-based initiatives, using participatory methods that embrace local knowledge, pay careful attention to the needs of communities, and allow for meaningful and inclusive collaboration between all stakeholders.

As my research has become more concrete, it has become more important to understand what factors assist in increasing participation in sustainable transitions? This has led to my third research question that addresses how design (and designers) might play a role in enabling greater participation in transition planning and governance.


I want to tell a story that might help put some of the theory into context. The story comes from planning and social justice scholar Jason Corburn.

This photo is of people fishing at sunset on the docks at Brooklyn and is used to illustrate the research Corburn conducted in the early 1990s alongside the Environmental Protection Authority (the EPA).

Photo: Linh Nguyen (creative commons)

The project sought to identify links between pollution and the health of Brooklyn residents. Under Corburn’s guidance they employed a community-based approach to research, something the EPA was not used to. It worked though, because by talking to local people, EPA scientists learned of place-specific, social practices that were linked to exposure to pollution.

They learned, for example, that people supplemented their meals with fish they caught in the river, the scientists found that these fish were poisoned, yet until there was more affordable food in Brooklyn, people would continue fishing. The project team then worked with the community to build community gardens and rezone land to help smaller food providers start businesses and give the people access to more healthy food at reasonable prices

Though not from the transition arena, this 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 — which is how a lot of public participation is approached — but rather about promoting a discipline of making decisions based on holistic understanding of people and place and considering how these decisions will impact lived experience.

This case study helps describe a key part of my PhD which is about revealing and championing 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. This is a term from Maria Puig de la Bellacasa building on the work of Donna Harraway and Clifford Geetz amongst others.

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. 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.

Concentric circles showing how an idea is thickened by different knowledges

For example, one of the ideas presented to the public at the workshops I’ve done recently in the Hunter is that retrenched workers from mines and power stations should get free TAFE courses so that they can transition to a new role after the coal mines and power stations shut down. Community experts have added to this idea. They’ve said that the courses should be for everyone so not just the miners benefit. They also pointed out that if you don’t have a car then you can’t get to a TAFE. This is an equity issue. One person later pointed out that for people with a disability this can be even more difficult. The participants also pointed out that it wasn’t just workers that needed training. That employers in existing Hunter businesses need training on how to attract new workers and retain their existing ones. All of these contributions from workshop and survey participants helped to add weight to the original idea.

Concentric circles showing how an idea is built upon by different knowledges


I’ll now talk briefly about these workshops.

For my PhD I am working alongside two community organisations, Hunter Renewal and Hunter Jobs Alliance, as they go about pushing for sustainable change with the community at the centre. Late last year they invited me to help them with some community workshops and a survey

The workshops came about following an announcement from the NSW government about a program to put mining royalties toward funding economic diversification in coal mining communities, as well as the creation of expert panels to advise on the spending of these funds

The workshops and survey were conceived by HR and HJA to give Hunter people a chance to have input into these programs. I lent my designerly skills to the community groups to help them design and deliver these workshops, create the survey, synthesise the results, and create the report

I’ve subsequently interviewed organisers from both organisations as well as facilitators and participants of the workshops and will continue to do more interviews as the research themes become more focused. I’m guided by a participatory action research methodology where I am working with these organisations to collaborative and iteratively produce knowledge that will assist in taking transformative action toward sustainable transitions.

There were five workshops in total, held online, but targeting the local government areas most affected by coal mining and power generation: they are Cessnock, Singleton, Muswellbrook, Maitland, and Lake Macquarie. Each workshop had around 20–30 people attend from all walks of life

This is one of the sketchnotes I did after the workshops displaying key quotes from participants. These sketchnotes were shared with participants as evidence that their contributions were heard.

Sketchnote from the Cessnock workshop

Ahead of the workshops we narrowed down hundreds of ideas from various reports, removing duplicates and ideas not relevant to the Hunter. There ended up being 22 ideas, categorised into four areas relevant to transitions

  • Planning and coordination
  • Diversifying business and industry
  • Supporting communities to adjust to change
  • Supporting workers.

In the workshops, the ideas were discussed and rated in small groups, each group tackling one of the four categories. In the survey participants were able to rate all ideas (there’s a longer post on the process here). We used Google Jamboard as the key facilitators of the workshops were Hunter residents, not professional designers. Using anything more complex than such as Miro would mean too steep a learning curve for facilitators. I did not facilitate because as an outsider it would have been inappropriate.

All ideas from the Jamboard. You can view these ideas in the report.

The workshops are an example of a “thickening” of evidence for complex decisions. They weren’t the perfect solution but the format worked for what was needed at the time. That is, to give decision-makers in government a clear list of preferred ideas and community knowledge about the social and place dynamics that may affect the success of these ideas if implemented. Without this local knowledge, the ideas will not be as robust in place.

After the workshops, we transcribed and synthesised comments for a report. This video shows me flicking through some of the pages. The report was recently given to ministers, shadow cabinet, & other members of both houses at NSW Parliament ahead of the debate on the bill related to the Royalties Fund and Expert Panels.

I dragged my graphic design skills out of retirement to help grant some legitimacy to the work that had been done. Participants from the workshops have commented on this, saying that the report helps them feel as though their work is legit and that the effort was worth it. There will be more engagements with the community as the legislation and regulations around the Fund and panel are developed.


In this last section I’d like to share some of the ways that I am seeing design play a role in transitions.

I’ve been a designer for a long time across many different fields. Following design scholar Richard Buchanan’s model I have traversed multiple orders of design. From the design of visual artefacts as a visual communication and information designer. To the design of organisations, services, and experiences as a service and strategic designer.

Different fields of design and how they relate to Buchanan’s (1992) four orders of design.

Whilst all orders have a role to play in sustainable transitions, the order of design that is particularly relevant to transitions is that of complex systems. This is moving into transition design, a type of activist design aimed at shifting to more sustainable futures through design-led approaches to complex problems at multiple scales and across long time horizons. I feel like my understanding across these different fields of design offers me a good perspective on a multitude of practical ways that designers can play a role in sustainable transitions.

Thus far I have settled on four main areas, these are:

  • Stewarding collective inquiry
  • Amplifying the legitimacy of community knowledge
  • Sustaining participation, and
  • Shaping the future with other disciplines
Four overlapping circles showing the four main roles for design and summaries of different activities.
Roles for design in transitions

Within each of these areas, there are particular design skills I hold and many I do not, that can help with transitions. As a steward of collective inquiry a designer might help to craft participatory activities that support the co production of knowledge. This would involve creating welcoming and safe spaces in which this collective exchange of knowledge can occur, as well as creating artefacts that can provoke collective thinking.

In working to amplify the legitimacy of community knowledge, there are roles for designers especially in the disciplines of information and graphic design. This is about using design to help materialise the legitimacy of community knowledge so that it is seen as valid as that of scientific, technical, and other experts.

In thinking about sustaining participation, I am working out how designers like me can help enable future participation in a region undergoing transition, but also how designers might help grow connections and share knowledge across regions.

And finally, when a designer joins in with what other disciplines are doing, they might help to design how we can all work together on visioning a sustainable future.

Please excuse the brevity and shallowness of my thinking. I hope to develop this much more than it is as the PhD proceeds and I welcome your feedback.

Now I want to get a little academic so I can explain one of the big insights I have had during this PhD. Before starting this study I was aware of the words ‘ontology’ and ‘epistemology’ but I could barely pronounce them let alone know what they meant. Now I wish I had known about them earlier. Because they make a whole lot of things make sense.

The best way that I explain it to myself is sort of like these drawings. On the left is a person looking through a telescope out into the world, and on the right is a person hugging a tree.

The person with the telescope thinks of the world as being external to them. They consider that there is only one reality to be understood and that it can be broken down into smaller parts to be studied.

The person hugging the tree thinks of themselves as part of the world, but also knows that their reality is only one of many. They believe that everything is connected and it’s hard to study things separate from their context. They understand these interconnected worlds through immersion. Or hugging. There are of course many ways of thinking in between these two extremes, it is a spectrum.

But it shows that how we think about the nature of reality (which is ontology) has implications for the way we think it is possible to gain knowledge about that reality (that’s epistemology). I’ll say that again. How we think about the nature of reality has implications for the way we think it is possible to gain knowledge about that reality. If you think that reality is singular and fixed then you will go about gaining knowledge in a different way than if you think multiple realities exist.

Thinking back to the Brooklyn example I spoke about at the start of the talk, the scientists are more to the left and the researcher who shaped the project more to the right. The scientists knew that the fish were poisoned because they could study them scientifically. The local people thought that they could tell which fish were poisoned by looking at them. They were most often wrong about this, but if it wasn’t for the researcher championing their local knowledge, the scientists wouldn’t have even known that they were fishing.

It takes all types of knowledges to help us understand the world. But…

Going back to the beginning again, I said that those in power will try to maintain the status quo. This may entail using participatory formats that they are used to, and these methods may no longer be suitable for the complex and adaptive problems related to climate change.

If we think about existing engagement processes employed by governments and others in power, they could be conceived as being suitable for simple problems and so align to a best-practice approach. Kind of what the scientist might choose. However, climate change and transitions are complex, and require more emergent and fluid approaches to deal with the adaptive nature of the problem space. This approach is what the researcher in Brooklyn was using when he brought the community into the process.

The problem is, we often use the wrong methods to gain knowledge. We use the wrong epistemic approach to generate knowledge about the reality we are faced with. My thinking here is building on scholarship from Jason Chilvers and Matthew Kearnes (check out their book Remaking Participation).

They have said that despite many professionals (including engagement professionals) saying they support emergent and co produced forms of knowledge making, their participatory methods and thinking is still framed around more fixed epistemologies.

For example, their idea of “the public” or “the community” is fixed, but the “community” isn’t sitting out there, perfectly formed, waiting to be engaged on problems that the professionals deem important. A more fluid view sees the public as integral rather than external to the shaping of problems to be solved. Publics form around the issues they are concerned with as they emerge.

Cartoon showing fixed people on the left, like the paper cut outs you make, and on the right are sets of different groups of people forming around labels that say ‘issue’

A fixed mindset on participation also means that the methods chosen are often rigid and highly specified. This results in highly orchestrated forms of engagement where there is no room for emergent possibilities or new knowledge to form, nor any chance for the public to shape the form of engagement to suit their preferences. The results of rigid forms of participation are very different to more fluid forms of engagement that are codesigned and allowed to be as diverse as the problem space requires of it.

One of the things I’ve heard in research is that the public is highly sceptical of rigid forms of engagement because it indicates to them that the government is looking for very specific outcomes. The engagement is tokenistic at best.

Additionally, but not finally, a narrow framing of public participation sees that participation can be isolated to discrete, one-off events. This is the box ticking of governments around participation. For sustainable transitions there are multiple actions that need to be taken across place and time. Participatory events should therefore be designed more in the form of an ecology. This means that all forms of participation are valid and can work together to achieve a collectively defined vision.

Cartoon showing a calendar on the left with a star marking a single date, and on the right are two grey circles with green starts and dots connecting them

Remember. There is no right or wrong, only relevant. Relevant to the type of knowledge that is required at that time and in that place. Some people like public workshops where lots of people get together to co produce knowledge. Others might prefer something more informal and set around a kitchen table. And yet others might prefer to participate asynchronously through surveys. It all works together. The skill is in the orchestration and the synthesis of multiple knowledges to form the diverse evidence base for decisions. That’s something that designers are typically very good at.

I’d like to finish by emphasising the small window in which this PhD can contribute to the larger project of transition in the Hunter Valley. Designers such as myself are used to short-term projects, as is the nature of commercial practice where client budgets determine effort. These short project times means it is almost impossible for a designer employed in a commercial practice (nor a PhD) to take part in long-term transition endeavours. That is not to say that there are no spaces for a design consultant, especially if one thinks of this as an ‘ecology of participation’ with multiple interactions, durations, and efforts required. But my research has begun to suggest that the primary mode of designer in transitions is embedded not separated.

Timeline showing the PhD period of three years (2020–2023) and the longer transition of 50 years after it

Whilst this PhD is short in comparison to a sustainable transition, it is much longer than any design project I have ever worked on, and I don’t plan on wasting this opportunity. I hope that this research will make an impact in the transition, and help to guide me and other designers in understanding how to steward design into more sustainable territories. I hope it will also foster in designers a posture of patience, to be in for the long haul in transition work

In closing I’d like to thank my supervisors Abby and Cameron for their support, and Hunter Renewal and Hunter Jobs Alliance for so generously inviting me into their work. Thank you Jax for inviting me to speak today and thank you all for listening


The following comments and questions were saved from the chat in Zoom. Thank you for your help with my work and your very generous feedback. Makes my nerves seem worth it!

If you would prefer me to leave your name off the comment please let me know.

Thanks to Sasha Abram for kicking off the questions with one about the roles for designers. You are right, the way I’ve articulated the roles is that they are passive, and that’s good to hear as I’ve been struggling between the whole idea of designer as expert, facilitator, and all the stuff that comes from Manzini and others about diffuse design. Obviously I have more to think about here and hope we can chat about this soon!

Ontology and epistemology

I want to start with a comment from Andrew Hawkins who spotted my epistemic biases and was so generous in pointing them out the way that he did. Thank you Andrew, honestly! This is something I am obviously struggling with, that is being balanced in my views of different epistemologies. Your advice is very helpful.

Andrew said: “Fantastic presentation and great description of complex philosophical concepts. You talk about validate alternative ontologies as creating room for epistemologies that are more embedded in addition to ‘objective’ epistemologies (i.e., the hugging the three rather than viewing the tree). This will be convincing to those that already agree with you. Here is another way to get to the same conclusion: suggest that we are not doing science or research but problem solving. Problem solving uses science and research much like engineers uses science and research but is about ‘things that work’ not understanding ‘how things are’ — which may be far more important than science in the complex adaptive problems are we trying to address. On this view it is obvious that solving a problem needs the input of those that are going to do it and benefit from it. Seeing it as a type of research invites objective and expert analogies that may not be that helpful and create obstacles to the valuable way of working you outline.

I’m going to chew on this for a bit. I’ve been reading some good work on the difference between problem solving and problem posing where you are inviting people into setting the problem space. This is a crucial aspect to allowing people to shape their own futures. I think your comments above, Andrew, and this concept of local expertise and problem posing might be interesting to look at together. Paolo Friere had some interesting things to say about problem-posing method of teaching, students become “critical co-investigators”. Teachers are no longer the single holder of knowledge and themselves learn through dialogue with the students as they create new knowledge together. Frank Fischer whose work has been instrumental in my thinking about ‘local experts’’ draws on Friere’s work. But I guess a lot of people do in this area.

Also on the ontology/epistemology thread was Kate McEntee who said “Great presentation, kimberley! The break down of epistemology and ontology and why it matters was excellent, and the follow up of how that affects the way we think about and scaffold participation. Can’t wait to read more of your work!!”

I will definitely be sharing more, Kate. Thanks for your comments. I was blown away when I read the work of Chilvers and Kearnes and it just made everything fall into place. In this paper (written after the book I mentioned in the talk) they call the confusion a ‘residual realist’ approach, contrasting it to more constructivist epistemologies. They are in the Science and Technology Studies (STS) field that has been super helpful in framing my thinking about bringing local experts into the mix when technoscientific decisions are being made. I like your phrasing ‘scaffolding participation’. Might use that!

Yvonne Pinniger also commented positively on my framing of ontology and epistemology. I am so glad it resonated. Yvonne summarised the theory nicely, she said it’s about “how worldviews inform what information we receive and prioritise”. Good summary of my ramblings. Thank you

Working with a community in humble ways with reciprocity

There were questions from Yvonne Pinniger and Jenny Pesina about how to approach a community to work with them on transition. I started developing relationships with the Hunter community about two or more years ago and before I applied for the PhD. At the time of my application I was hopeful but not sure I would get to work with the groups I am working with now, but after volunteering for some other groups involved in Hunter work, and keeping up the communication, I was approached to work with Hunter Renewal and Hunter Jobs Alliance on a specific project.

Jenny asked if there are some specific patterns that might apply, with respect to fostering relationships, and I said during the talk that this was first about reciprocity: what could I give to the community before expecting I could receive?

This resonated a lot with others.

Jade Tang-Taylor said “Kia ora Kimberley — Super interesting, and prioritising relationships are *everything*”. Vivien Sung said that reciprocity is all about “what you can give first”. Yvonne Pinniger also highlighted the importance of building relationships, and that “reciprocity being core to that”.

David Jones responded to Jenny’s question above about joining in with a community, being outside or inside that community. He said “There is a paradox of course — being part of a community carries the “Prophet without honour” stigma. Design itself as a conversation system can make a huge difference to your rate of acceptance — as Kimberley noted, it is soooo different to what communities are used to, and the suspicion that greets closed system approaches and government agendas.”

Thanks for this comment David. It was lovely to see you on the call. I guess I am a Prophet without Honour, but that’s ok with me! You say “design as a conversation system” and I think that is related to the work of Bela Banathy and others regarding design conversations. Is that right? I’ve found Banathy’s work really inspiring and have been trying to work out how to incorporate it. One of the things that most resonates is the difference between strategic and generative dialogue and how you can’t hope to achieve success in strategic dialogue without generative first. I am seeing evidence of this in certain areas and I need to think more about it. I’d love to chat to you if you have the time/inclination.

Humility in the service of others resonated with Eric Beggs, Susanne Pratt, and Jo who said “I think there is great opportunity to extend this humility knowledge deeper into the design community — I believe many would be interested in this but it’s not a day to day consideration”. Very true Jo. Andrew Hawkins added that humility is also about considering “what can be known by experts”. The limits of knowledge. Oh yes, I haz them!


There were some great comments about power, and the influence that the community can have in an environment so dominated by fossil fuel lobbyists and the manner in which “the system” has been designed to further the power of those who already have it.

Matt Norman asked “have you been thinking about power dynamics in transitions — even with improved collective knowledge production, does the power still ultimately sit with governments to enact transition?” Yes, absolutely it does. I’m coming up against the reality that community engagement on the outside of government is totally fine, it really needs little help, but it is when this engagement hits government that the problems start. How to improve this is a massive challenge and one I don’t think I can tackle for this PhD at least. I highly recommend the work from Flor Avelino into power in transitions.

James Kilby commented that “Public and Private haven’t been mentioned, dominant paradigm in the background is the market economy and private ownership of outcomes, or privatisation of same — and this has also led to the privatisation of consultation.” He then asked “Is Public investment, and public and community ownership, and control of outcomes, especially for utilities and other facilitating frameworks, a vital part of the process and needs to be strongly advocated as THE alternative paradigm, while having space for enterprise?”.

This is a very big question James! The diversity in ownership and responsibility here is something I don’t think I’ve considered enough and is certainly not part of many narratives I have seen about transitions, at least in Australia. There is some good scholarship from Germany in the Ruhr Valley that Stephanie Campbell and Lars Coenen have written about. They call it: “the renewal from within approach” that yielded 123 cooperative projects over 10 years. The state government became a broker of local and inclusive participation whilst also providing quality control. They held forums and created platforms for dialogue and collaboration that helped to establish regional development coalitions that were fundamental in creating diversification of industries in the region. I wonder if something like this could work for the Hunter Valley, about making space for everyone, as you said. I think it was this case study as well where the government increased funding for coalitions of organisations across industries over that which an individual company would get. This encouraged people to work more together.

Mel Rumble wondered “what is your take is on the role of lobbyists or certain vested interests (e.g. business/industry and government) and the role that they can play in skewing the narrative, pushing back on / squashing new ways that this community can be? … how best to grapple with their influences?”

I said to Meld that I had observed recently that there are no spaces in NSW Parliament for the community to meet with MPs. This is a problem of spatial access that I don’t think is well enough known. The community is physically blocked from meeting with their representatives. This insight resonated with Bec and Magali Goirand. I wonder what can be done about it.

In regards to community engagement done by government, Amelia Loye said “Most P2 is commissioned by Gov on a project by project basis through RFQ which can be quite restrictive and mean that our engagement with the community ends once gov have what they need to inform *their decisions*.” She then asked “How can we help them understand the longitudinal value of ongoing engagement, participation beyond gov decisions, the moment in time and the relationships created?”.

Amelia, this is definitely something I hope to tackle in the PhD but it is a much bigger and longer problem than I really will have space to give justice to. I wonder if one of the problems is that public engagement is an external, tendered process? The community groups I am working with have wondered what would happen if community engagement was given more dedicated resources within government. Pipe dream? I don’t know. Designers have made there way into the public service and perhaps community engagement professionals need to find a home there too. If there are any out there, please get in touch. We need to talk!

And thinking about different governance frameworks, Susan asked “How is your approach different from the citizen climate assemblies (such as in Europe)?”. The work I have been doing so far is vastly different to the climate assemblies that have, as far as I know, been organised by governments. There have been some good (Irish) and not so good (France) outcomes from those, but they are definitely working in some good areas of bringing the public’s voice into government decision making. Citizen Assemblies definitely need to be part of the mix here in Australia but I am yet to see much work in this space promoted from government. Hopefully it will come.

Local knowledge

Pooja Mallya commented on the importance of using local knowledge to “thicken the staging” of decisions. Fiona McEwan added to this saying that the “richness of contextual local knowledge is more than just a voice”. This was in relating to Jason Corburn’s comments that local knowledge is more than just giving voice to the community.

Visual design

Fiona Miller, Crystal Taylor, and Priscilla were interested in the role of visual designers in amplifying the legitimacy of community knowledge. Crystal asked me to “elaborate on the decision to legitimise community voice and the look and approach to present that in a community-centric way that was also able to be a tool for decision makers and government etc”. I hope I answered well enough during the presentation. From memory I spoke about how it was important to design the information to be read by time-poor politicians and their advisors. The choices were framed through that lens, and is why we chose things like a TOP TEN to speak to the ideas. The use of bright colours I hope helped to bring it back a little into the community space.

Crystal asked if legitimising the community voice was “an intentional design approach? Or was this a happy accident / outcome of the design?”. It was definitely intentional. I absolutely started from this point, in thinking how do I make what was said look important. It needed to be more professional that, say, the sketchnotes that I did. It couldn’t look hacked together.

Design’s role

The thinking on the role of designers in helping communities transition to more sustainable futures resonated with a lot of people like Kiran Kashyap, Jenny Pesina, Yvonne, Bec, Bridget Malcolm, Jade Tang-Taylor, Mel Rumble, and Pooja Mallya. Pooja, thanks for reaching out before the presentation and help me shape some of what I delivered.

Bridget liked my very brief clarification of “this not being ‘co-design’ re not designing a thing”. An important distinction.

I really liked Jade’s way of saying “transitioning design”. It makes me realise I hadn’t thought about this being a project both about transition design and transitioning design. Should have really seen that before!

Measuring outcomes

Emma Duval asked the most tricky question about measuring progress. I think I butchered that response Emma, I am sorry. But I hope that the Trinity of Voice framework from Susan Senecah made sense, and that I am evaluating on multiple levels and not sure as yet what I am seeing. I will have more!

Fiona Miller suggested that for measuring tools I look at “Results Based Accountability, or Most significant change”. Thank you Fiona.

This is turning out to be a much longer response than I was thinking, but I want to respect the time that people took to listen in and respond to the work.

The final comments come from Magali Goirand and David Jones. Magali wanted to know if I had looked at the latest incarnation of Dave Snowden’s Cynefin framework. I haven’t looked at the latest, although Dave’s work has been influential in some of my thinking about shaping the right epistemic approach to the problem space. David replied to Magali saying “The Cynefin typology has been powerful and useful in opening up awareness of different systemic places. But it represents a foundational problem for design — it doesn’t have a space for design.”

Interesting David. When I did the Cynefin training, Snowden was writing a response to a design thinking issue that I think was in the Harvard Business Review. I don’t know if he ever published it.

Thanks again to everyone who came to listen and for giving such generous feedback. Someone said that I had helped define a part of their role and I feel like this makes the entire presentation worth it. I look forward to seeing you all sometime in the future to talk about it more.


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

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Kimberley Crofts

Kimberley Crofts

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

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