For four months, a mix of individuals with distinct and overlapping interests and expertise encompassing service design, data, and social innovation became a team, ‘Colour-in City’. We came together to experiment, to make, to learn. So, how did we do it? And would we do it again?
‘Building technologies can feel sterile. In this project, within a few days of building something people were using it, speaking to it, confiding in it and finding it valuable.’
Denise, Colour-in City
Colour-in City was formed by our project co-leads Eunji Kang and Rebecca Birch to answer OrganiCity’s open call to explore ‘what is a good future city, and how can we create it?’.
Our angle has been to focus on wellbeing. Specifically on whether a combination of human-centred design, digital technology and data tracking can help us measure, understand and ultimately improve wellbeing. To arrive at this outcome by catalysing co-creative relationships between citizens, public services and communities and enabling action at each of these levels.
Now we’ll be reflecting on the experience of co-creating and experimenting as a newly formed team. We’ll share what we’ve learned, the high points and the challenges.
Who are we?
As the core team who led facilitation, translated wants and needs into actual things to test, use, and provoke deeper learning, we are Eunji, Rebecca, Denise, Marcin and Emma.
We took on certain job titles and responsibilities for this four month project, but what was most important was we built a space for collaboration.
Embracing the ethos of co-creation, we drew on our interdisciplinary team make up and crossed over and beyond allocated job roles, sharing ideas, approaches, experience, research, knowledge. Asking questions, giving feedback, offering support.
Planning for co-creation
It was important to do this as a core team, because we needed to facilitate the same collaborative space for our wider team: partners in local government, the community sector, and local parents living in overcrowded social housing.
One way we did this was through a clear, very simple communications and engagement strategy and brand.
We needed all our partners to be on board with us not having the answers, not at the start and not even at the end of the experiment. We wanted people to be excited about the process and about discovering together. To know this was about ongoing learning through doing and making.
So we communicated this message in our writing, our presentations, our tools, our group facilitation, even through our team name:
- Our name ‘Colour-in City’ invited everyone to colour-in with us — there was no bar to entry
- We explained how the service design structure could contain the ‘messiness’, uncertainty and uncomfortable feeling of not knowing, and guide us to more accurate focusing in
- We encouraged parents to see our chatbot as a ‘baby’, ‘a young bot’, still learning, growing, needing our support, patience and input
- We took note of all parent feedback and quickly incorporated it into further iterations of the chatbot so they could see their role as co-designers.
It’s ok to not know. It’s ok to be messy. It’s ok to feel uncomfortable
In service design we’re used to supporting clients through the uncomfortable phase of gaining new perspectives on a challenging area: gathering research, co-designing possible solutions. Everything is open and unknown, nothing fixed or set down.
For members of our core team new to this approach, the slower pace demanded by co-designing with the people who would use our product and service was initially concerning. We had limited time for product development already and this reduced it even further.
But despite this being the case, it quickly became clear that it was the parents’ engagement with the project, their insights, objectives, feedback, which developed our question into a fully formed idea and interesting prototype. Without investing this time, we wouldn’t have gained their interest and trust or have learnt as much as we did.
‘What I’ll take away from this project is to not come with a ready idea and present it, but to plan for a second and third iteration.’
Marcin, Colour-in City
For those of us familiar with service design, what we weren’t familiar with was the data and digital technology process. Despite knowing that uncertainty is ok, that feeling uncomfortable is normal, actually feeling that ourselves was a great leveller. And a reminder: it’s always good to be a learner when you’re coaching others in something new.
‘It’s counter intuitive for us to expose a lack of knowledge as professionals but creating a space of ‘safe uncertainty’ for the whole team was important. Being confident enough to remain curious and remove the assumption that you know best or most. Next time I’ll create badges that say ‘I’m a Don’t know it all.’
Rebecca, Colour-in City
As for messy, we agreed early on that with limited time and no pressure to find the perfect solution, we would aim for quick, fail fast prototypes across all our work. We would start small and keep it simple, we could play, try something, get it wrong, learn, try again.
Which is all well and good to say (or write in a strategy) but in practice… It was more difficult to let go of perfectionist tendencies. And there was a very real need to create something good enough for partners to see the value in, usable enough for parents to stay motivated.
Having this ‘messy’ principle written down was a useful reminder when we needed to get prototypes out the door. But it definitely wasn’t easy and that gap between our ambitions and what we could realistically achieve remained a tension throughout.
‘Communicating what is possible to parents and service providers and keeping realistic expectations with them is challenging. Everything is possible so a design team needs to understand boundaries and limitations.’
Eunji, Colour-in City
It’s good to meet up
This was a part-time project for all of us. We were allocated a number of days which we fitted around other commitments. By and large we worked from our own offices and homes, catching up with a weekly video call and using Slack to collaborate in between.
We also scheduled regular team workshops, half or full days, where we met in person to move our ideas and work to the next stage. Where possible, we all facilitated at the co-design workshops with parents and service provider partners.
These in-person meetings were really important to get to know each other, to figure out our ways of working and communicating, to share what we were excited about and our concerns, to laugh and commiserate together about work and non-work things. To feel connected to each other and our vision for the experiment.
We saw this in co-design workshops for parents too. These were planned to make sure parents were central to and engaged in the product and service development. What we hadn’t anticipated was how important they were for parents to get to know each other, to share, laugh and commiserate together, to build relationships.
It was the same for all of us and that feels important to remember: active community building will need to be a central part of this, or other similar projects, going forward. After all, people need people.
Celebrating together at our final co-design event
Getting outside the designer bubble
The highlight for our whole team was working alongside local parents. We hugely benefited from their insight, energy and ambition for what we might produce together. From their generosity in sharing their experiences and community spaces with us. From the practical value of having regular access to feedback, helping us to keep improving the product and service.
‘It was really motivating to hear and see parents’ ideas and ambitions for what they wanted the digital tool to achieve, especially how focused this was on social connection and empowering parents.’
Emma, Colour-in City
This video gives an insight into the amazing parents we worked with. The love they have for their children, the commitment they put into developing the chatbot with us, and the impact it’s already starting to have. While this blog post is focused on team reflection and process, none of this would be happening or need to happen if it weren’t for the parents we see here.
‘What you see your children achieve as they grow up, watching them love each other and play with each other… to know that you carried that child for nine months and then they start talking to you, it’s just amazing.’ Simona, Colour-in City
‘I am a 24 year old mother of two. My daughters are 9 and 2 years old, they’re my life basically, and yeah, I wish I had more time with them. That’s the hardest thing about being a parent.’ Stephanie, Colour-in City
‘I wasn’t expecting to be a mum, came like a surprise, changed my life. I pray for him now, everything is him.’ Loyola, Colour-in City
One of the biggest frustrations for all of us, including parent and service provider co-designers, was having to pause the chatbot and service development as the OrganiCity project came to an end. So would we do it again? A pretty resounding yes.
‘Accepting the lack of time was hard. Seeing that our experiment was working, and having many ideas about how to make everything better (from data collection and analysis to parent engagement), how to achieve more but not having the time or capacity to do so.’
Denise, Colour-in City
Our final co-design session was a celebration event marking what we had achieved together so far and getting parents’ feedback on the latest data visualisation iteration. We’re now in the process of exploring with our partners and through other opportunities how to continue development. We have a wealth of parent comments and ideas ready to start testing if we get the go ahead.
To all the parents who took part in this experiment and co-designed the chatbot with us. To our partners at LEAP, especially David and Sam, and to Simon and Noel at Lambeth Council.
To OrganiCity for inviting us to be part of their exploration into how to create good future cities. Visit organicity.eu/events to find out how you could get involved in the next round.
Blog post authors: Emma Field and Eunji Kang, Colour-in City
Film by Fan Sissoko, Colour-in City