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Designing with the excluded

What does it look like to create a design environment where the excluded, non-minority can participate?

Over the last 9 years, we have co-designed with young children, youth, communities within the global majority, and the neurodiverse community. These groups are often excluded and marginalised. At Dream Networks C.I.C we increasingly adopt fundamental inclusivity principles to understand how to approach this systemic problem.

Start with the belief that by designing for the excluded, you can make room to start to design for everyone [1].

Today, as designers and engineers, it's increasingly important for us to grasp that having a disability, experiencing poverty, or identifying as non-white, means you are no longer a minority. In America, 1 in 4 people identify as having a disability  [2], 28% of people living in urban regions of Latin America experience poverty [3], and over 50% of people living in west London are BME (Black, Minority Ethnic)  [4]. When you don't account for the views of these often excluded groups, you are propagating inequity, promoting marginalised, and quite simply working against cultivating a sustainable future for all.

Inclusivity principles have been incrementally adopted in interaction design by the likes of Microsoft, in engineering and technology careers, and increasingly in game design but not substantially in play or the built environment. This has resulted in ableist and Eurocentric designs frequently landing in playgrounds across the world.

But what would it look like if those non-minority voices, actively participated in the design of services and products that affected them? Over the last 3 months, we have been tackling these questions with a new lens, as we have asked children and young adults from mixed cultural backgrounds, with visual impairments, and autism, how they would design the spaces around them more sustainably and of course playfully. 

It has been an insightful and engaging experience so far, one where we keep learning. Below I have shared one of the golden nuggets (areas of insight) we have gathered so far from this project and past programmes, that have helped us to position these excluded groups as design partners. I will be sharing the remaining four ( Language, Exchange, Cultural humility, and Reflection) in a blog at the end of this month.

  1. Time

  • Provide time to engage with the issues being presented from both their perspective and yourself as someone facilitating their participation. Too often we have a list of questions to enquire about and too many activities. Slow down, and provide time to actively listen and understand what they are sharing.

  • Take time to research and speak to others who have similar experiences. These are some ways to start grasping their ways of doing and their culture before you meet with them. This does not mean you can have it all figured out in advance or test your assumptions, that's not the aim. Doing some background research, and finding out about communication and design methods that could work, will help you to approach your first conversation or exchange in a more empathetic manner. It might also save the participants and you/your team time in the long run, as your design exchanges become more effective.

  • Take the time to understand if what you are doing is working and if it is engaging. Are they sharing their perspectives, are they truly designing with you? If not, take a step back and take time to understand what you can shift in your language, environment, or tool set to truly invite them to the table or better yet, alter your ways of doing so you can be invited to theirs :)

  • Practically incorporate time in your planning and implementation to do the above. As a leader of a non-profit and impact-led co-designer, I appreciate how precious and limited time can be. However, in all our programmes and my services, I budget it in time to gather feedback and reflect on practises. This enables us to make the often small changes that make a big impact on how empowering these non-minority groups and start to reduce the marginalisation they too often experience in the participatory design.

  • Take time to find out if they want to participate, and if not, take time to understand why and whether their why is something you or someone in your network can respond to. It could require you to provide remuneration, move to an unfamiliar space, change your language of communication, switch to WhatsApp or simply change the time.

Check out the link below for a webinar I gave as part of the inclusive spaces series at The Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL where I share the value of taking time to understand the culture when designing spaces within a refugee and urban poor community. It's a little snippet into how time, cultural humility and knowledge exchange can help you to design more inclusively.

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