Participatory Trends: We Communicate, Connect and Share

"We connect, communicate and share like our lives depend on it. As, increasingly, they in fact do"

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Collaborative Consumption (Image Source: govlabcollateral on Flickr)

“We connect, communicate and share like our lives depend on it. As, increasingly, they in fact do”

- Dick Rijken in Design Literacy: Organizing Self-Organization

It’s likely that most of you who come to read this have been fully immersed by this “new” wave of connecting, communicating and sharing for quite some time, perhaps without much conscious realization. With the Web 2.0 grounding itself in user-generated content, the need for impeccable communication and networking skills have grown exponentially over the past years, in order to allow us to master the act of “sharing”. As different kinds of platforms continually offer various communication services for sharing both tangible and intangible things, a range of participatory trends have taken over many aspects of our society.

Collaborative consumption

Judging by my own personal experience, the trend toward collaborative consumption is one that started gaining popularity quite some years ago. I remember trying to explain to my parents that the only way I could keep using my car through college was to register (or “share”) every trip I made in a carpooling community online, to find people that needed to go the same way and share the cost of gas.

When I started to travel overseas, in fact, I sold the car to pay for flights and joined Couchsurfing and Hospitalityclub for free accommodation. I found it impossible to explain to my parents the reasoning behind this very popular concept of sharing accommodation and tourist advise in exchange for a story or good company. Although I’m well aware such concepts could always have its negative effects, an open-minded and careful individual can make them work for themselves and others around them.

Collaborative Consumption infographic from Fast Company (Image Source: Mickipedia on Flickr)

“Here’s another example: the common household drill. Do you own a drill? If so, can you even remember the last time you used it? Did you know that on average, a household drill is used a total of just 5-10 min its entire lifetime? That gives you what, like 20 holes max? Is that really an efficient object to purchase, maintain, and care for? What if instead of all that time it spent idling on the shelf, it could be generating value, either by renting it out for cash or just helping out a neighbour?” - Excerpt from ‘Designing for Collaborative Consumption‘ by Michelle Thorne

An economic system based on a collaborative consumption theory can include the redistribution of goods, but also the distribution services and platforms for sharing “less tangible assets such as  time, space, skills and money”, as is cunningly explained in the book What’s Mine is Yours. Everyday new platforms emerge that base themselves on such an approach and grow increasingly popular; you can share your space via AirBnB, your travel experiences via Vayable, your skills via Skillshare and even your set of wheels via ZipCar and Greenwheels.

The first three especially channel another trend within this general trend– their models of offering a “product” pays, opening up many opportunities for so-called micro-entrepreneurs. Aside from this direct monetary gains though, the advantages than can come with such a social use of things, spaces or ideas for both sides are obvious: Its trendy, it’s sustainable, it’s low in cost or often even free, and just makes sense for the world we live in.

Participatory Design

Just as the internet has empowered collaborative consumption, open communication within a conveniently networked society and the need “share” have also enabled the trend of participatory design to spread like wildfire. This trend is one that feeds off the idea of a ”collective intelligence”, which the Institute of Participatory Design describes as “the joint intelligence that emerges from a group.”

The first to effectively use collective intelligence for production were software developers. “Open source” became one of the terms used for a new methodology. The idea is to give an end product–which in the case of software is the code– away openly and for free, in order to encourage adaptation, personalization and hence facilitate improved iterations.

Ziv Bar Ilan of Zoybar, a company that uses the open-source methodology to let anyone build customized musical instruments, prefers to call this phenomenon “decentralized innovation”. In an article published by Fastcompany, he explains that “Decentralized innovation combines a collective vision with independent initiative. Anyone can join and contribute.”

Screenshot from OpenIDEO’s promotional video (source: http://vimeo.com/13707896#at=0)

It’s not only a concept used in the digital realm though, as this methodology is used extensively in in realms such as urban planning and landscape architecture. Participatory design is a concept predestinated to integrate all kinds of stakeholders throughout the design process; it is an opportunity for users, clients, urbanists and designers alike to share their thoughts and worries. As this concept spreads into other areas of creative production, what role the designer plays come more and more into question. Deanna Herst, a researcher from TU Delft discusses this in an article published in OpenDesign Now:

“Participatory design has changed the role of the designer: from an author of finished products, like books or furniture, into a developer of frameworks or structures of ‘open works’, like Wikipedia. [...] Within the context of participatory design, the concept of ‘user follows form’ appears to have been supplanted by the opposite approach: ‘form follows user’.”

Interestingly, Deanna Herst mentions Umberto Eco’s ‘The Open Work’ from the 60s, where he describes a very similar concept found in artists leaving their pieces of art open to the interpretation of the viewer or public.

“The author offers […] the addressee a work to be completed. He does not know the exact fashion in which his work will be concluded, but he is aware that once completed the work in question will still be his own. At the end of the interpretative dialogue, a form which is his form will have been organized. […] The author is the one who proposed a number of possibilities which had already been rationally organized, oriented, and endowed with specifications for proper development.”

This change that Herst describes is expected to happen especially in the self-perception of the designer, but basically needs to be initiated in design education.

Design schools have yet to shift their focus from focussing on the creative individual to acknowledging the power of collective intelligence. As Mushon Zer-Aviv, an Israeli designer and educator, states in his article Learning by Doing ”art and design schools still nurture the image of the genius as an individual artist. Originality is rewarded as a higher standard than communication, and copying is considered a sin.” 

Yet another platform that focuses on this concept of participatory design is OpenIDEO, an “Open Innovation Platform”. Everyone can join this global community “to solve big challenges for social good” by following a simple system: users start by sharing their rough ideas, or “inspirations”,  of how to solve a set challenge. Then they individually generate “concepts” from the inspirations floating around the community. After a round of “applause” that sets forth the community’s favourite projects, suggestions can be submitted during a “refinement” phase. Finally it is time for collective “evaluation”. The simplicity of such a concept is truly brilliant, especially in terms of seeing how well some of the winning concepts solve complex social challenges.