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Reflection of talks on designing for/with communities

Below are my reflective summaries of talks given in the course called Designing with communities led by Roberto Cibin. The course focused on a participatory design approach that focuses more on the social part of designing socio-technical solutions with communities. During the course, I worked on my project brief which builds on these principles. The project brief is described in the essay: A Public Problem-based Community Platform in School Club Setting.

1. Techniques for communities involvement: Participatory design, Vincenzo D'Andrea

Vincenzo is an associate professor at the University of Trento where he teaches courses on Participatory Design and Information. He choose a very interesting approach for the talk, because he wanted to hear our questions first and then constructed the talk as a path between concepts and areas related to our questions. It was harder to find the structure in the points he made but he managed to stick to the key questions of Vincenzo's view of participatory design and its methods and methods which is Vincenzo personally keen on.

Given his background in computer science, it was interesting to see that he is a proponent of participatory design which is an extreme example of methods of humanities in design. The participation, thus the active involvement requires an extreme amount of human-level work effort over time, it requires listening, understanding and reflection. It is extremely costly especially when it comes to man/hours and it simply doesn’t scale as other, less qualitative methods. I felt he mean it when he emphasised the importance of special care and hearing or sensing when something in the process doesn’t work. As he said, silence is an expression that needs to be understood. Furthermore, he advocates the usage of metaphorical prototypes and the methods of embodiment and acting in design to promote more creative and stronger ways of involvement.

He mentioned a few examples of methods of using theatre and acting in such pursuits. The methods were all branches of a concept called the Theatre of the Oppressed according to its author Augusto Boal who was a 1970s Brazilian theatre practitioner (see wiki). Eg. Forum theatre is a play showing a catastrophic ending in a metaphorical situation. In such a play, the audience becomes actively involved as they can actively analyse the played situations and are given the voice to join the play and act differently. Another example was the Legislative theatre in which, the desired outcome is not involved in form of acting but in producing specific laws for the play environment. Vincenzo in the talk stressed the tradeoffs and costs of such methods for the ability to tackle extremely complex projects and situations, in which actors act on their own, he even said, that participatory design is kind of “avoiding shortcuts in analysing complexity”. This lets me think that participatory design is not as distant from computer science as I thought since it gives us a clue of complex systems and teaches complex systems thinking.

After-talk questions:

  • I now wonder about the connection of such participatory design methods with complex systems thinking. What are Vincenzo’s thoughts on this?
  • His methods seem to be close to the idea of embodiment and tackling the imaginaries of Grace Turtle. I would like to see their differences summed up.

2. Design for activist interventions: caring and commoning, Mariacristina Sciannamblo

Mariacristina is an assistant professor at Department of Communication and Social Research, Sapenza University. At the beginning of the talk she gave us summary of the origin of Participatory Design (PD) that began 1970s Scandinavia workplace democracy movement. Since 2014 PD is regaining its political aspects rooted in focus on worker participation and democracy in groups and communities. Mariacristina put strong emphasis on the political character of PD especially in contrast to the nature of technology that is not value-neutral according to philosophy of technology; and the rise of platform economy powered by tech companies. Then the discussion on the role of concepts and theories followed with similar arguments. She introduced what she calls the ‘performative character of theories’ claiming that theories (esp. the critical ones) and methods are productive, thus they do not only provide descriptions but play active role in the formation of the socio-technical world. I felt that the foundational reasoning Mariacristina showed was somehow one-sided when it comes to the critique of platform capitalism but I was also very keen to see what her thought process of the commonfare regard to PD.

The space for social innovation she build as part of her research work builds on these foundations and on the conpcets of caring and commoning with the goal of supporting bottom-up wellfare and good practices of people who devote to public benefits and services. Using the PD practice of learning from/with participants actually provided interesting outcomes and interventions such as addressing the relatively well defined concept of poverty with a different wording ‘commonfare’ because participants resist the former labeling of poor or socially isolated. Caring here stands basically to making the traditionally invisible visible while commoning stands for redistribution of value to the vulnerable ones or sharing and collaboration of individuals and communities. I find the concept of making invisible visible both questionable and very powerful in helping the people in the need or, put differently, in commonfare. Another interesting aspect of the platform is that they introduced internal currency. A ‘Commoncoin is a digital token non convertible to Euro to be used exclusively on the Commonfare platform’ to reward other users stories and comments, acquiring goods adn services and donations. I find this idea very promising as Im taking a look on social DAOs that do something very similar.


Resolving conflict thinking:

  • Making the care and commoning work visible may for some people overlap with virtue signaling. What is your opinion on such attitudes? How does it affect the very practice of care and commoning?
  • Isnt the essense and the rewarding part of care that it is invisible?

Basic income: Can you describe the reasoning that led to the creation of internal currency?

Reflexivity: What would you do differently if you faced the Commonfare project with your today's knowledge?

3. Communities for sustainable and digital transformation, Teli

Maurizio Teli is an associate professor at the Department of Planning at Aalborg University. He is also an associate at the Centre on Sustainable and Digital Transformation. I had a hard time trying to concentrate at the beginning of this talk so I hope I can highlight his main points. The centre brings together experts of environmental sustainability and digital transformation to build both sustainable and digital communities respectively to produce research and tech for them. Their perspective on communities focuses especially on forces of reproduction that encapsulates any work that helps communities sustain and grow. He explains it on the example of people at universities and their activities and connections to other members of the community because some of their activities may be classified as forces of reproduction.

Consideration of the concept of forces of reproduction is a base to guiding communities to be more aware of their sustainability on their own, which is the ultimate goal. But here Mairizio then basically asserts that there is a prerequisite to considering the concept of forces of reproduction. What is needed is the universal perspective. He made a few examples of such perspectives on the world to make his points such as anthropocentrism and ecocentrism. To understand what he is saying I like to think that holding one view leads only to local, short term solving, but a constant balance of worldviews must be pursued to sustain on the long term horizon. So, Maurizio is a proponent of non-dualistic thinking that tries to understand different trade-offs of our worldviews.


  • What is the biggest (most fruitful) problem in your research area that nobody works on?
  • Shared-interest driven communities were always the asset subjected to mining. The difference between institutions and communities blurs as institutions understand their relience on communities and invent new tactics to covertly own the communities. What does it signal to you?

4. making sense of design enabled urban innovations in an online collaborative community, Aldo de Moor

Aldo de Moor is the founder of the research consultancy company CommunitySense which focuses on socio-technical systems of communities aiming to improve collaboration across communities and organizations. He assumes that social context and social aspects of technology make 90 % part of the sociotechnical systems and the rest is pure tech problems. His long term focus is on “making sense of design enabled urban innovations in an online collaborative community”. In the talk, he summarised the main points of the research article Co-Discovering Common Ground in a Collaborative Community which he recommended for us to prepare. Apart from the summary, he showed his reasoning and opinions on the topic.

He grounded the pursuit of his research in tackling the complex societal problems that are often called wicked as he said “society is a web of wicked problems”. To uncover what's important in this complex web and mine the understanding of the web to fuel further social innovation, he proposed a method that he calls Collaborative Sensemaking. The method basically consists of mapping the thinking and decision making processes of distinct communities. In other words, mapping how each community deals with complex problems, what issues they identify using which methods, how they act on them and what knowledge they gained on the way doing so. Having multiple maps of such collaboration gives the opportunity to compare them and ultimately help the communities that participate in the activity to learn from each other.

We may take cities that deal with climate change problems, public space usage problems or problems with logistics as examples of such communities. Aldo actually worked with cities that face exactly the same problems. For example, he helped multiple diverse cities of Europe to create their knowledge bases using Collaborative Sensemaking methods. Finally, analysing multiple collaboration maps of different communities facing similar problems may produce one general knowledge map between the communities.

Among many pitfalls of the method, each community may have a different domain language so the comparison is not straightforward and requires a researcher to actually transform the community knowledge and form the maps to be usable. I was very interested in the problem of dealing with complexity, so naturally, a question popped into my mind of how to face the fact that complex systems such as social change very quickly and the knowledge gained may be no longer valuable at the time we manage to understand them. Aldo's response was close to what I expected as he said the mapping has to be done on a regular basis and has to focus on the important stuff and not an exact snapshot of the knowledge, or if you will, creating a very rigorous ontology of the collaboration.


  1. Complex problems and systems are wicked because at the time we understand them, the understanding is no longer valuable as they change too quickly. How does it affect the collaborative sense making and how did you cope with this if necessary?
  2. Did you asked each member of the community to create the map individually and then show and compare their results in the group in a poker-like fashion, or did they created the map together?
  3. Can you elaborate on the limitations of the mapping technologies? My stance is that the graph databases and mapping tools seem to be mature now, but we - human seem to be limited in understanding such complex structures or most of us do not have proper strategies to do so. Would you agree?

5. Designing with or for rural communities, Nicola J. Bidwell

Nikola J is an Associate Professor at the Technical Faculty of IT and Design and Techno-Anthropology and Participation at Aalborg University. She is highly rooted in HCI and Human-Centered Computing. She introduced us to two use-cases of designing with or for communities in rural areas in South Africa, that face challenges of lack of material resources, education or capital. In this case, the research was situated in the Eastern Cape province and the Republic of Namibia. In both cases, the goal was to foster community information sharing and peer to peer communication using tech.

Implementing tech in these communities is challenging not only because of long term lack of resources but also because of different lifestyles, threats and life priorities that make different cultural standards and philosophies. Note that communities in Africa are also well known for the ubuntu philosophy that promotes community before individual (Open Source philosophies draw on it). It is important to keep in mind that it's not only about philosophy in African rural areas but the living conditions of these communities that are perhaps harder to consider without very direct experience living there very authentically. This is perhaps the strongest point that should be stressed from the talk.

She also touched on the situation of women in these communities that are given less voice due to the community hierarchy, which leads to even bigger gaps with the technological advancements as they get lower access to it. Similar problems were mentioned such as the “tendency for man to get paid for technological work, but woman to support them for free”. Another interesting problem Nicola mentioned was the problem authority that she as a researcher from the university had, that might be potentially misused.


  • Was it necessary to somehow build or gain trust in the communities, if yes, how did you approached the problem?

6. Cultural heritage communites and design, Laura Maye

Laura is a postdoc researcher and lecturer at Human and People-Centred Computing, University College Cork, Ireland. She focuses on tangible computing and tech. to support do-it-yourself and civic community participation. Her talk was based on her PhD research project exploring practices of curators integrating tech in small museums as these museums don’t have resources and experience in integrating tech compared to big museums, however, they have similar challenges when it comes to engaging visitors meaningfully.

Designing interactive exhibitions does not only carry a bigger financial burden for buying the tech and providing the necessary support. But there is also a risk of distracting museum visitors with new tech and interactions they aren’t used to well. The museum team needs to acknowledge it when designing.

Laura’s part of helping the museums was about helping curators to become designers themselves by providing them with the relevant resources in the form of toolkits. Such toolkits were templates of content-tool-interactions to select from when preparing museum narratives. As an example, she showed us The Loupe which was a scanner-based digital magnifying glass enabling visitors to reveal stories surrounding museum objects. When The Loupe and its interactions are fixed, curators decide and customize the content to be scanned. In this way, each component of the toolkit provides a kind of „composability“ the curators may „think in“ when designing and building their exhibitions. I'm using the word composability because that's the most significant part of digital technologies and Laura figured out the way to introduce it to museum curators.

The 2-year long research was not observational but an attempt to change the curator's work. It followed the action research methodology of three cycles in The Hunt Museum in Ireland. The first cycle was set up to build an understanding of toolkit components by using video prototypes and understanding the content-interaction relationship. The second cycle was about exploration and building narratives composed with the tools and testing them on visitors. The last cycle was about redesigning the tour using cheap prototypes to reevaluate the interactions.


  1. What are the biggest issues CHP struggle with understanding the tech?
  2. Do you think HCP and the cultural communities are ready for what might be coming in the near future eg. bigger adoption of metaverse? What change needs to be done?

7. Intermediation as Design Practice, Jock McQueenie, Marcus Fort

Jock McQuennie is a digital artist, arts educator and founder of 3C Projects which is a consultancy organisation focusing on the design of trans-disciplinary creative partnerships. Marcus Fort is a Professor of Urban Informatics in the QUT Design Lab and a Chief Investigator in the QUT Digital Media Research Centre (DMRC), Queensland University of Technology, Australia.

I was eager to join this talk as this was the first talk relating communities to commerce and blockchain tech. It was also the hardest talk to keep focused on as I lacked energy.

Marcus started the talk by outlining their design process that follows the double diamond developed by British design councils, and the institutional constraints and pitfalls of some of the popular design practices, organisational procedures, and discourse around participation, design thinking sessions leading to engagement theatre that lacks the commitment to go and work on the identified opportunities of change.

To combat these problems he introduced the view of infrastructure, institution and commons as activities, thus infrastructuring (designing the ecosystem for innovation), institutioning (designing for overcoming regulatory obstacles) and commoning (thinking in the context of economic frameworks).

Jock introduced the 3C framework which joints the Culture, Communities, and Commerce seeking the answer of how to bring the intermediation between them to practice. This leads to cooperation with each sphere and asking them to express their own goals on their terms before joining them in a common project and making the necessary tradeoffs. This reminds me of the transition design process a lot because it shares the notion of collecting the requirements of different stakeholders.

The Beefledger project started from the purely commercial viewpoint mostly focused on technological advance and profit but they became intermediates that helped to incorporate the viewpoint of 3C, institutionalizing and commoning, so the project included interests of several parties like consumers, local producer communities and commerce. The intermediation was elaborated more as it requires a specific skillset of communicating with different parties and hearing for them and ensuring the cooperation works well.


  1. Is there a single there is a single comprehensive methodology to lead similar projects?
  2. The story of Beefledger seems pretty scalable so I am curious of the concept going global. Do you know about such pursuit?

8. When design for/with community fails, Sarah Robinson

Sarah is an early career researcher in applied psychology at University College Cork. She introduced us to a project helping to develop grassroots radio communities in rural, often isolated areas of the world. I was already acquainted with the topic in the transition design course, so it was nice to have some pre-understanding and see the project from a different point of view.

The most important point for me was really about understanding the situation of the communities in rural areas that are isolated and have a different value systems and deal with very specific problems. These areas have typically low population, they are quite distant from the rest of the world, they rely on each other more and so they naturally tend to collaborate more as there is a shared interest in the preservation of the community. They have also different experiences with tourists and researchers than we normally do. It is then harder for researchers to establish a connection and work with the communities while not having a whole team including the developers in the area and so on. In the case, Sara mentioned the communities found their way to solve their problems with different tech. The role of the research team then was more about providing guidance and running workshops for them.

I was very happy that Sara quickly reviewed the concept of institutioning associated just with the radio regulation. It helped me to get a better intuition of the concept.

I was thinking about the suitability of the radio technology in the first place given the problems rural communities stand up to such as local decision making, emergency, revitalising the community, supporting connections, and the technical requirements for running radio. I was thinking about the reasons for choosing radio as a communication channel for the communities.

I would say radio is great to foster connection between members and to inform in some way, but it simply isn't a channel one can rely on for decision making. Radio also seems to be limited to one-to-many broadcasts given the complexity of the medium and the limit on frequencies that are imposed by physics. So it somehow makes sense to me that we don't use the peer-to-peer model in radio more often. Though I have very little understanding of the rural area specifics, for example, if there is no cable network etc.

Another great point that resonated with me was 1) about understanding the value proposition we may be giving to communities and 2) knowing that scaling communities is hard simply because each community is different and has different needs and requirements. Perhaps this could be stressed out more with different examples and product thinking to see the potential minimal product that would suit various communities with the sacrifice of their uniqueness. Again, maybe I'm missing something.


  • Could you elaborate more on the cultural differences and subtleties between the research team and the rural island community and how did you cope with them?
  • Why did you choose the radio as a technology to support communities?

9. RtD for communities, Next Book

This time, Jan Martinek and Josef Kocurek gave us a talk about the next book and a specific case study of designing services for a specific community. As I am part of the team on the software development side, I have a very close insight into both topics I will use this space more for reflection than for the summary of the talk.

Jan opened the space to discuss and argue about what is a book and what is a web-based book. As we have seen, defining a book is not a simple manner. But what's essential for the book is that it has certain affordances - ways of using we are used to enough to pick an unknown book and start reading it. During the defining phase, I was thinking a lot about the way of defining the book, not in the term of “what it is” but in the term of “what it does to us”. I borrowed this perspective from the philosophy of technology. In the case of the book, we can simply conclude that “book books” meant as an activity a book does. Or in other words, a book has a kind of “book-ishness”. I believe that the way book “books” is through having the affordances and so both perspectives are very close. Books design us and the world around them by their “book-ishness” or “book-ing”. This is the perspective of ontological design that is well described.

Josef’s part was mainly about the process of designing the community service that followed the double diamond methodology which was mentioned in this course a few times before. The problem-solution space for the service was restricted by the stakeholders, financing and project schedule. So the service narrowed down to a highly doable and straightforward short reading application for enthusiastic readers who like to read in all circumstances.

If I wanted to question the project, I would ask:

  • Do you plan to iterate on the project as you get more feedback from its users?
  • What is the the added value of the service besides curating books without adding more context to them?
  • How does the community participate in the project besides user testing?
  • How will the project sustain? Who will update its content etc?
  • Did you thought about the ways for finding new audiences beyond those who are already enthusiasts?