Finding Space for Shared Futures
Exploring methods for co–evaluation in urban co–design projects
Reflecting on the challenges and experiences of delivering a public co-design project during the Covid-19 pandemic, we use this paper to make an argument for greater experimentation with and attention to the evaluation methods used to assess and justify co-design projects. Evaluation is often treated as a final, retrospective, and—too often—last-minute step in delivering a design project. In reality, practices of evaluation characterise every step of participatory design. Formal evaluation processes often dismiss the practical techniques and criteria that participants use to decide whether a design is good for them or their community, however, relying instead on narrowly-defined methods and criteria established a priori by professional ‘experts’. The tensions that arise between participants’ lived practices of evaluation and formal accounts of evaluation can lead to differences of opinion and diverging decisions—and concerns about ‘inauthentic’ or ‘shallow’ co-design. Finding techniques to carry forward participants’ everyday evaluations into the formal methods and evaluations of project reports should therefore be treated as a crucial concern for participatory design. In this vein, we reflect on both the methodological experiments and challenges involved in our effort to find better possible, agreeable and shareable futures in our co-design project “Future of the High Street” by examining the spaces of evaluation created within co-design projects in order to spark further debate about the possibilities of co-evaluating the projects and spaces we share with others. Drawing on ethnomethodology, a sociological school of thought focused on the study of the everyday and mundane methods used by people to organise, make sense of and act in their social world, we argue that such spaces of evaluation are sites where designers and participants create and negotiate shared grammars of accountability and justification of their work together. Recording and sharing these exchanges is one way to better align the formal evaluation of co-design with the situated and shared evaluations through which participants decide whether and how participation in a project is worthwhile or empowering. This, however, requires a shift from treating ‘methods’ as means-to-an-end and toward an understanding of methods as experimental practices that designers and participants alike might use to occasion reflection on how to think, act and design together.