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With community co-design, Indigenous communities and women of colour shape local developments

Community co-design is a way to ensure local developments do not leave behind the populations they touch.

Community co-design is a way to ensure local developments do not leave behind the populations they touch. Image: Destination Medical Center

Kevin Bright
Former Director of Housing and Sustainability, Destination Medical Center Economic Development Agency
Wafa Elkhalifa
Equitable Development Coordinator, Destination Medical Center Economic Development Agency
Patrick Seeb
Executive Director, Destination Medical Center Economic Development Agency
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This article is part of: Centre for Urban Transformation

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  • Community engagement in urban redevelopment initiatives often fails to achieve intended goals.
  • Community co-design shifts the focus away from designing for stakeholders to designing with stakeholders by bringing diverse groups of engaged citizens into the design process.
  • Developed through a public-private collaboration led by an anchor institution, the award-winning co-design process has resulted in tangible outcomes for historically marginalized communities.

Large-scale redevelopment projects typically have a community engagement component that, however well-intentioned, can leave the public feeling left out or frustrated.

Community co-design can remedy that issue. Community co-design is a sub-discipline of human-centered design that prioritizes the involvement of populations most impacted by development projects, programmes or policies. This approach emphasizes collaboration with historically excluded populations, brings diverse perspectives to design discussions, builds trust in the involved government and private sector entities and ultimately results in more inclusive and culturally relevant outcomes.

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Identifying and engaging community co-designers

A critical first step in the community co-design process is identifying who will be affected by a project, programme or policy. For example, the design of a new public space involves identifying who will likely use it, what would make it more inviting to more of the community and what barriers need to be overcome to make its use as inclusive as possible.

Community co-design facilitators find individuals who can represent these perspectives, ideally individuals who are collaborative, curious and connected in myriad ways to the communities with which they identify. Doing so can require overcoming barriers to participation that can include inability to take time off work, find childcare or join in conversations in languages in which one is not fully fluent.

The community co-design process overcomes these barriers by reaching out to neighborhood and community organizations to find potential participants, clarifying the time commitment required of them, covering their expenses and compensating them for their time.

A co-design process typically establishes “design studios” where teams of co-designers regularly meet. At these studios, project teams present questions to the co-designers who, in turn, are dispatched to solicit input from their respective communities. Over the course of two-week “sprints,” co-designers are asked to speak with three to five other people and bring their collective perspective to share, surfacing key matters of interest to their respective communities. Ultimately, prototype projects, programmes or policies are shared with co-designers who then bring this proposed solution to their communities for comment. Final adjustments are made until a solution that works for the co-designers and their communities is agreed.

Tangible community co-design outcomes

In the past three years, the largest public-private collaboration in the state of Minnesota has been developing and testing the co-design process. Destination Medical Center (DMC), an economic development initiative anchored by Mayo Clinic’s presence in Rochester, Minnesota, is a $5.6 billion initiative that aims to establish Rochester as a destination for health and wellness. DMC Economic Development Agency and the City of Rochester have applied the community co-design process to more than a dozen projects.

These projects range from the design of a park and a bus rapid transit station to a grants programme targeting small businesses and an initiative to increase the participation of Black, Indigenous and women of colour in construction-related careers and business opportunities related to DMC. The latter was recognized by the 2021 Bloomberg Philanthropies Global Mayors Challenge and awarded a million dollar grant to further advance its work.

For example, to provide input for the design of Discovery Walk, a four-block linear park in downtown Rochester, the development process enlisted co-designers from communities of colour, the elderly, young people, mobility impaired individuals and other targeted populations. The co-designers significantly influenced spatial and programmatic elements of the park’s design as well as park policies. For instance, to optimize accessibility for mobility-impaired persons, park designers acted on a recommendation to install a snow melting system for the length of the park. A co-designer representing the mobility impaired noted that even plowed sidewalks can be treacherous for people in wheelchairs or with walkers, crutches or canes.

How co-design fuels food access and business growth

Community co-design was also used to develop the application process for a programme under which small businesses could apply for grants to fund business growth while helping downtown Rochester recover from the COVID-19 pandemic’s impacts. Co-designer input helped increase programme participation among women and minority-owned businesses and identified the need to support these businesses by assisting with connections to resources for lending, business planning and other services. Thanks to these co-designer contributions, more than half of the initial grants from the programme went to women and minority-owned businesses, exceeding programme goals.

The community co-design process also informed improvements to food bank services in southeastern Minnesota. Working with co-design teams across six Minnesota counties, Channel One Food Bank identified and funded region-specific solutions that better serve those least likely to use the current system. Co-designer input led to establishing culturally specific food shelves, simplifying sign up and pick up processes and new protections for food bank clients. The outcomes of this work were shared at a regional and national level and have spurred additional food access co-design efforts across Minnesota with Second Harvest Heartland.

Enduring community relationships

In Minnesota and beyond, the co-design process is having lasting impact. Many of the co-designers recruited from the Rochester community have stayed connected to the initiatives and organizations that initially engaged them. New trust-based relationships involving government, business and communities of colour that did not exist previously are being built and nurtured. These relationships represent a newly woven and enriched social fabric that can become the foundation for unity and common purpose as a community works together to forge its collective future.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

Related topics:
Forum InstitutionalEquity, Diversity and InclusionUrban Transformation
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World Economic Forum

May 21, 2024

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