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Can We Co-Design In A Crisis?

April 27, 2016

By Matt McCallum and Lauren Weinstein

At 12:51 p.m. on February 21, 2011 in Christchurch, New Zealand, the ground began to roll. Putting one foot in front of the other on the concrete roads and sidewalks felt more like trying to walk on a waterbed. Parked cars drifted this way and that as people clung to their sides, trying to prevent their vehicles from colliding. For the most part, though, everyone was calm — earthquakes are frequent in Christchurch, and tremors were nothing too alarming. Then the aftershock hit. Tall buildings swayed and buckled. A cacophony of sirens and smoke erupted from all directions. This wasn’t just another earthquake — the speed at which the ground moved was the fastest ever recorded up to that time, only to be topped by the quake that triggered the massive tsunami that devastated Japan a few weeks later; the earth shook so hard it was visible from space.

In these kinds of situations, governments, local authorities, and large aid organisations are typically the key stakeholders in the transition from crisis to recovery. Decisions tend to be made at a high level, affecting the lives of many thousands or even millions of people while seldom including the voices or efforts of local innovators and community leaders. Too often, problems are solved for people, not by and with those affected. In the social impact sphere more broadly, the concept of ‘designing with’ — sometimes known as inclusive design, participatory design, or most simply co-design — has become increasingly popular; a consensus is emerging that we should design in partnership with communities, beneficiaries, and users. But the use of co-design in post-catastrophe scenarios is less common.

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Abdulrahman Zeitoun — a longtime business owner and resident of New Orleans — canoed the flooded streets to rescue people from homes left neglected by national response teams. His intricate local knowledge could have been an asset to the authorities. Instead, Zeitoun was arrested and thrown in jail by the National Guard on unfounded suspicions of terrorist activity. Though extreme, his case is indicative of many others where the talents and initiatives of those most affected by disaster have gone unrealized or ignored.

But this time in Christchurch, it was different. There, in the face of massive destruction, an improvised coalition of government officials, community advocates, architects, artists, and even a student “army” came together to create a new, community-driven recovery and redesign process for the fractured city. From high-level, strategic planning to grassroots and locally-led action, the recovery efforts solved a range of problems with stakeholders. They put into practice the idea that strong communities make resourceful problem solvers, acknowledging that communities themselves are often the very best sources of innovation, creativity, and ingenuity.

Their success offers clues as to how we can empower vulnerable communities even during disaster situations where needs are so urgent and the challenges so complex. Christchurch illustrates the potential for post disaster efforts to foster self-sufficiency and sustainability when the people who have the most at stake are invited to help shape solutions, rather than being treated as part of the problem.


Aftermath and Action

Co-Design in a crisis devastated building Christchurch earthquake

The earthquake decimated the city centre. Eighty percent of its buildings were destroyed, including more than 200 heritage buildings. The city was placed under military cordon because of the many hazards, and the looting and vandalism that forced businesses to open up shop on any vacant property within city limits in order to maintain their business. Nonetheless, the authorities quickly, efficiently, and effectively ensured basic and critical humanitarian needs like water, shelter, food, and safety. And they did so in concert with citizen initiatives.

A network of students calling themselves the Student Volunteer Army came together to coordinate relief efforts and clear debris. Armed with shovels, wheelbarrows, and whatever other tools and resources they could muster, they set out to provide more efficient and supportive assistance to residents outside the cordon. Adapting existing technologies such as Facebook and to help improve the way their assistance was both requested and delivered, they developed an informal platform for prioritizing and coordinating the efforts of a largely unskilled workforce — they leveraged their local knowledge to react quickly and appropriately. Each day they scoured the city to deliver supplies and clear rubble. Other residents even started up makeshift soup kitchens in the suburbs for people who didn’t have access to meals and water. Their actions reassured residents and empowered the community, and the army acted as a crucial intermediary between the residents and the city government, who welcomed and accepted their help.

Co-Design in a crisis bridge destroyed by earthquake Christchurch

Creating a Vision for a New City

With the immediate needs of residents being met, focus switched to the unique challenge of creating and rebuilding a new city centre. The Christchurch City Council engaged a variety of organizations to engage residents and learn what they wanted for their new city. Gehl Architects, who focus on infusing social science insights into the design process, were invited by the city council to help create an urban planning framework. Having already conducted a public space survey of Christchurch in 2009 Gehl felt that they “knew people in the city and they knew us.”

The city council and Gehl had shared values for the project (aimed at community inclusion) which allowed them to work quickly to get as many people involved as possible. Their work coincided with the ‘Share an Idea’ campaign which generated over 106,000 responses, providing a rich source of insights into people’s shared ambitions for a resilient and sustainable city. The full process would include 70 projects executed within a six-week period (and whilst many residents were still without running water and sewerage).

Crucially though, this process tapped into an organic process of recovery and renewal rather than imposing or dictating one. Rogue creatives had sprung into action, seeing opportunities amidst the chaos for temporary experiences and makeshift facilities to bring joy and happiness to a city overwhelmed with loss and destruction. The once conservative city was becoming a hotbed of ingenuity and creativity, most notably through the work of Gap Filler, who used crowd funding and grants to create new amenities such as the Pallet Pavilion —- an open air venue for public and community events such as performances and concerts made from 3000 wooden pallets and a free-to-play citywide mini-golf course —- and The Commons — a public experimentation space that welcomed people to make ‘ideas come to life,’ ranging from maker labs and 3-D printing resources to food trucks and community gardens.

Co-design in a crisis Pallet Pavilion Christchurch

The Social, an arts collective, created small and simple interventions in the devastated cityscape. Their work aimed to inspire public dialogue and connections, a social space that was critical to restore considering the city had lost many of its hospitality venues due to the cordon or damage. After the quake, those searching for bars and restaurants had to venture out into suburbs — small local venues became overwhelmed with patrons. It wasn’t long until a few resourceful residents came together to create new nightlife areas such as pop up bar Smash Palace inside an old bus and SoMo (short for south of Moorhouse Avenue) the once industrial area became one of Christchurch’s most thriving social scenes.


Creativity from Crisis

It was this collection of ‘designing with’ initiatives — the sheer quantity and variety of projects driven by collaboration — that cultivated a culture of innovation, a philosophy of testing, and a creative response to disaster that was owned by the community. The local government made co-creation, participatory democracy, and idea-testing a funding priority. Through the Transitional City Projects Fund and Creative Industries Support Fund the government financially encouraged, cultivated, and facilitated community level voices to speak out and take action. The council also collaborated with Gap Filler to create Life In Vacant Spaces Trust whose mission was to “cut through red tape and unlock permissions,” acting as an intermediary between the government, landowners, and the creative movement. This was important because outcomes and responses are shaped by what commissioning bodies ask for and who they ask to participate: reaching out to the public to respond to their own city’s needs quite directly created space for community-driven design.

Co-design in crisis The Commons Christchurch

Because the city responded with an approach that fostered the emergence of creativity and a problem-solving process centered around community-driven testing, iteration, and adaptability, people who were not previously involved in their community became part of catalyzing creative solutions. More people became more involved in their city and the population grew to be less siloed and segregated than before. Christchurch is seeing a huge emergence of creativity and an entirely new city culture that exists outside of the center: “One of the positives from the quake is that it’s really shaken things up and made people pay attention to the possibility in art and how important that role is,” one artist told the New York Times. “There’s so much more opportunity now for creatives than there was before.”

Co-design in crisis Smash Palace Christchurch

Design and Democracy — Bridging the Divide

This case study in ‘designing with’ and grassroots leadership during and post-crisis illustrates the ability of local communities to play a key role in the response and recovery phases. However, it also highlights a constraint on the type of problem solving these initiatives are able to provide. In the case of Christchurch there was an overwhelming amount of co-created and participatory projects aimed at solving more simple problems such as places to grieve, socialize, have fun, and escape reality. But when it came to complex problems, this depth of ‘designing with’ was rare — mostly limited to a one-off consultation, which unfortunately created a false sense of hope and expectation among residents. Mistrust and criticism emerged among the public once the communication transitioned from collaborative to centralized, and decision-making moved from local to central government.

In recognizing that designing solutions to complex problems in an inclusive way is not business-as-usual, there are few examples to look to. We therefore have to ask: How can we build the capability of both parties in order to better bridge the divide between large-scale aid and recovery planning and community-based renewal and resilience? Or is Christchurch simply a unique situation where immediate needs were met, which created an environment that exposed residents to an alternative way of problem solving?

While it can be harder to be inclusive, it is possible. We need to find ways to identify leaders who can lead their communities out of crisis and into recovery. We need to scale co-design in crisis situations; we need to foster the ingenuity that grew pop-up cathedrals, Gap Fillers, and so many other social design initiatives; most of all we need enabling environments to welcome, foster, and accelerate innovative thinking and opportunities, and keep convincing the powers that be to always ‘design with’ during and after times of crisis and recovery.

Images by Flickr users Jocelyn Kinghorn and Lee Hanner and Wikimedia Commons user Schwede66  reproduced under a creative commons license.

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