Conference abstract – participatory design thinking in HE


Facilitating the co-evolution of HE people, practice, tools and services through Participatory Design Thinking with staff, students, service providers and employers.

People at all levels and in all locations in UK higher education have a remarkable capability for innovation, for adapting to new circumstances, for adopting and adapting practice and tools, and for inventing new designs. How can we account for and guarantee this capability? Top-down strategic direction? Or its opposite, the wisdom of the crowds? Neither of these political extremes has the answer (as will be demonstrated).

In this presentation, created and delivered with students at the University of Warwick, I will report on my research into how innovation (personal and collective) happens on the ground. Using a selection of case studies from Warwick, other UK universities and international institutions, I will demonstrate the crucial role of designerly reflexivity – thinking reflexively like a designer. Using the extensive literature on how designers think and work (e.g. Cross 2005, Lawson 2005, Schon 1990), along with work by the sociologist Margaret Archer on the crucial role played by modes of reflexivity (Archer 2003, 2007, 2012), I will show how ordinary people (not trained designers) are increasingly perceiving, thinking and behaving like designers to change their social and technical environments and to amplify agency.

Higher education is leading this revolution, with initiatives like the National Teaching Fellowship feeding the flames. However, I will argue that as the rate and diverse base of innovation increases, we need to ensure that these capabilities are equitably distributed, that innovation is an inclusive activity, leading to inter-connected and transferable design change. Participatory Design Thinking, often misrepresented as a design project methodology, is in fact an approach to priming and facilitating innovative design change by making it easy for people to work together as co-designers. Networks, spaces (physical and digital), ideas and practices are provided that encourage the experts – staff, students, service providers and employers – to work together in a designerly way. Whereas naive crowdsourcing approaches assume that collective design agency somehow already resides in the crowd for free, Participatory Design Thinking is all about investing time and resource into developing communities of designers. The effectiveness of this approach will be demonstrated with examples of success in higher education and elsewhere, focussing on the question: how can we make this work with students as participants in service and teaching design?

Archer, M. Structure, Agency and the Internal Conversation, Cambridge University Press, 2003.
Archer, M. Making Our Way Through the World: Reflexivity and Social Mobility, Cambridge University Press, 2007.
Archer, M. The Reflexive Imperative in Late Modernity, Cambridge University Press, 2012.
Cross, N. Designerly Ways of Knowing, Springer, 2005.
Lawson, B. How Designers Think, Architectural Press, 2005.
Schon, D. Educating the Reflective Practitioner: Toward a New Design for Teaching and Learning in the Professions, John Wiley & Sons, 1990.

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