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How can we make design decisions meaningful?

Design is large about process. However, for a long time, the process for community-based design has played out in a one-dimensional way that workshops a concept to form an idea, but then drops off. This process may have started with good intentions but is too often viewed by all participants (including, sometimes, the designers) as a tick-box exercise, with minimal inputs, agency or accountability to carry the voices of community members through to a project’s completion . An effective design process is layered, sustained and multifaceted, with meaningful involvement by the people who will inhabit the spaces. Looped or circular, it goes through constant iterations to gain feedback on how the design is evolving and the relationship is developing.

The community-led, long-term partnership called Yuwaya Ngarra-li (“vision”) between the Dharriwaa Elders Group (DEG) and UNSW is an example of this way of working. The aim of our partnership is to improve the well-being, built and physical environments, and life pathways of the Aboriginal community of Walgett, a remote town in north-west New South Wales. Our long-term goals include greater Aboriginal community control and capabilities, reducing the contact of young people with the justice system, increasing food and water security, caring for Country, and improving the quantity and quality of housing.

As a partnership, we believe in moving beyond co-design and towards a community-led approach, grounded in protocols set by the DEG. A community-led approach centers the agency of the people with whom Yuwaya Ngarra-li works, ensuring that community impact and benefit are the primary focus. It involves putting power and choice into the hands of the people who will ultimately own and live in that building or space.

What is social impact and how can we embed it in projects?

The New South Wales government’s Social Impact Assessment Guideline1 divides social elements of value into eight categories: way of life, community, accessibility, culture, health and well-being, surroundings, livelihoods and decision-making systems. This offers a basic understanding of social impact. However, to embed design processes that result in real change, we need to understand social impact from a community perspective because these categories mean different things to different communities, cultures and individuals.

The focus of the Yuwaya Ngarra-li partnership is prioritizing community needs, identifying areas for social impact and measuring outcomes. Through the work of the partnership, we have identified five elements that will help us, as architects, to develop design processes centered on social impact.

1. Let the community lead

We need to listen to what is needed and respond directly. Often, as designers, we come with a predetermined idea of ​​what we want to deliver or what the need is. Our partnership starts with the DEG – they discuss what they want to work on in the community or come to us with a problem they would like to solve. The DEG also sets the outcomes they would like to see from the process, and how impact and success can be understood and measured from a community perspective.

2. Develop partnerships based on trust

In our partnership, we talk about “moving at the speed of trust.” This allows us to build relationships that are genuine, equitable and reciprocal. It gives the DEG time to provide feedback about the work we do with them, enabling them to openly convey when our work has missed the mark or won’t work for their community.

The DEG is on the frontline of the community, listening to what is needed and considering how these needs can best be met. They know their community intimately, and they undertake their roles in a trusting and respectful way. Our processes should be embedded in trust and respect to emulate these community representatives and ensure we are “doing no harm” in our work.

Vanessa Hickey, a Community Troubleshooter for DEG who works closely on housing needs, articulates the difference in the way we work compared to some other participatory methods:

“The way we work here in DEG, it’s better for our community – like, being local. Knowing all the families, I think we really go above and beyond to help our community. Whereas we work so differently to people working in (a non-government organization receiving government funding) and housing agencies – we’re really in touch with our community, you know? Some of the families, you know, we know what’s going on in their families.”

Foundational to creating trustful relationships is having care for the community and acting with respect towards those intended to benefit from/live in those spaces. Our community partners live, breathe and fight for that community.

3. Think holistically

Being led by community means working, designing, thinking and acting in relational ways. To have social impact, we need to consider how architecture can be a catalyst for changing the lives of community members.

The more we are led by community-controlled organizations to understand the broader community priorities, the better we can incorporate these priorities into design outcomes. By facilitating these changes, architecture can generate ripples that spread over time, creating greater impact.

Understanding the circular nature of working with communities is critical. Community members need to see that their voices are being heard, and that their time, knowledge and energy has been well-spent, regardless of what is shown in the brief or what is technically required. It is important to remember that community members may have little or no experience of planning protocols. Genuine collaboration establishes understandings so that designers and community members can share a common language and envisage design possibilities that may not have been seen before.

4. Make meaningful design decisions

In the process of developing a culturally appropriate housing model for Elders, we found that meaningful design decisions involve hearing the community and implementing what members require; returning to show, reflect and obtain more feedback and direction; showing and explaining how community needs have been heard and implemented; and communicating continuously.

Using these principles, the following design decisions were made in a series of workshops and one-on-one discussions. All developments were fed back to the community through presentations and informal discussions.

5. Work reciprocally

What does reciprocity look like in the community you are working with? It could look like several things.

It might involve embedding protocols into the process (ongoing clear communication, reporting back at different stages). It might be reflected in how the project is spoken about and how the community’s contribution is articulated, communicated and marketed. In the Yuwaya Ngarra-li partnership, we ensure that any communication about the project is signed off by our community partner; that there is direct impact and value in where we are speaking, presenting, or writing about our work together; and that the community’s voices are embedded in the communication – ideally, directly.

Reciprocity might also occur through the delivery of physical community assets – for example, through the design of a community space or homes that are directly accessible to community members and that support their current needs.

Aunty Kim, a member of the DEG staff, says: “I don’t want to sit and let those people sit up there and keep using them/us for words. Yeah, we need to get what we want. I don’t want that. Yeah, I want something done today or tomorrow. I can’t sit back and wait another 10 years for something to happen for my people.”

Another means of reciprocity might be capacity-building, such as developing skills, resilience and knowledge through the process of community involvement. This helps to strengthen the community’s capacity to advocate for their needs, trust that their voices have agency and value, and build skills that can benefit the lives of community members in the future.

Another DEG staff member, Aunty Ness, says: “When they have big (community) meetings in towns, you don’t see the grassroots people at these meetings, and yeah like, I’m empowering them (community people) to come along . Because at the end of the day, this is our community and like when people come into our town, they make changes, then they leave – but those changes don’t suit the community. Grassroots people should have a say in everything that goes on, especially, you know, the Traditional Custodians on this land. Yeah, that should be a bit more input.”

Good processes take time and, ideally, this is built into a project’s timeline. However, even if this isn’t the case, there is always an opportunity, in the beginning, to sit down and discuss how you’d like to work together and how the processes can have more impactful ripples out into the broader needs of that community.

— This article was co-authored by Yuwaya Ngarra-li partnership members including Samantha Rich, a graduate of architecture and a housing project manager for Yuwaya Ngarra-li.

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