Developing not for but with: Co-designing Armenia

Feb 13, 2015

People with disabilities in Armenia come together to design their future

A common trap in development work is thinking that the service you’re providing will address all the needs of those who will use it.

But what would you learn that you otherwise might not if you involved everyday citizens in the design of public sector services?

With this question in mind, the team at UNDP in Armenia recently held a workshop using co-design methodology – designing, not for, but with people who will use the service.

In doing so, not only did we gather great content; the process itself provided an invaluable experience.

Our workshop reaffirmed, if there were any doubt, how important co-design methodology has become for development.

Here’s some background

Despite the government of Armenia signing up to a new and comprehensive bill of rights of people with disabilities, this community still encounters plenty of issues and obstacles.

Much of this stems from problems symptomatic of the wider development sector: poorly designed services and programmes.

This is why we brought together citizen-experts from around the country for a comprehensive problem-identification session.

Dividing our experts into groups, we opted to use Nesta’s DIY toolkit (Stage 1: Problem Definition) to break down the issues each group was working on.

The key problems generated by the group include:

  • Lack of access to higher and vocational education;
  • Lack of public awareness on the problems faced by people with disabilities
  • Lack of community based social rehabilitation services for people with disabilities
  • Isolation of people with disabilities due to fear of judgment from the broader society

Beyond these points, we also gathered several extremely useful insights:

1)     Lack of follow-up runs the risk of alienation.

As co-design has become a more commonplace methodology, a sentiment of exasperation is beginning to take hold.

Getting out of the office and talking to people is great but it doesn’t amount to much if the people you talk to don’t see an end result.

People have to stay involved throughout the process of overall design and implementation, otherwise the project runs the risk of alienating the very people they are targeting.

2)     Micro-narratives can carry significant consequences.

Many wheelchair-users shared stories of how ramps, designed to help facilitate their transportation, are often built too high to get on in the first place.

One participant expressed the common sentiment in the room, saying: “We should participate in the design/construction of the ramps as user experts so that we can make sure they will benefit us.”

3)     Positive discrimination can create hierarchies amongst people with disabilities.

New legislation dictates that as of January 1st this year, all public sector employers having 100+ employees must ensure that three percent of their workforce are people with disabilities.

Yet as our citizen-experts highlighted, there was a fear that those three percent would be selected from those deemed ‘less disabled’, creating a hierarchy where there was not before.

These insights among a heap of others heard at the workshop are great, and it is likely that without co-design we wouldn’t have heard them.

The very process of co-design involves a personal interaction that gives opportunity to develop greater empathy; we learned and we connected much more than we would have just sitting in our office or in a meeting.

Our ideas became more grounded in a reality that is unfortunately all too often overlooked.

On top of this, simply by bringing everyone together, you help tackle perceptions. And that is half the job.

In the end, co-design is a no-brainer (though as we discovered, not without tangible follow-up!)

Our next stage will bring back our experts as well as policy makers to the project design table.

Watch this space.


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