How might we design a participatory system?

May 2, 2009 — 21 Comments


This is the fifth, and last, of a series of pieces originally posted at Fast Company.

Those who have stuck with me all week, know that I believe that participation is key to the next big wave of innovation in business and society. Whether it is in the fundamentals of how we think about wealth or the economy, how we parse the minutiae of individual transactions, or how we evolve our most important social systems such as health care, I believe that the interconnectedness of our information society makes this shift inevitable and highly desirable.

The question that I inevitably ask as a designer is how we design these kinds of participatory systems?

The first and most obvious response to this question is that it really is all about we, not I. In other words, corporations and their designers cannot presume to conceive of, design and engineer complete systems and role them out to the enthusiastic applause of the masses. The best examples of current participatory systems included a significant amount of “user” participation in the design process itself. Whether it is Facebook or Apple, the richness and variety of their offerings are created by untold developers, not employed by the host brand, who have created solutions never imagined by the original architects of the platform.

But there are other design principles that must be considered here. First, and foremost, these systems need to be human-centered. Nobody will participate in a system that does not serve his or her needs, and hence those involved in design, whether inside or outside conventional organizations, must master the skills of human centered design thinking.

Additionally, these systems should be fractal. By this I mean they must work at both the small and large scale. Industrial production and consumerism relied on mass scale to operate. Millions of products were made at a low cost and distributed to millions of consumers; in those systems, individuals and small organizations typically could not compete with large-scale industrial corporations. Participative systems must be as relevant to a market of one as to a market of millions. Digital technology offers the flexibility to operate at very different scales. Any participatory offering must make effective use of the Internet.

As I discussed earlier in my post, :”Why We Need Economic Dashboards, we have to design interactions that are profitable for all participants. And that profit must be measurable on one or more of the dimensions of the participation economy, even if they have associated costs on other dimensions. This way every interaction becomes a productive investment, not an act of consumption. This means we must design in the information feedback loops that make measurement of the various forms of participatory value easy. Robert Wright proposed a related idea in his book Non-Zero. My interpretation of his thesis is that good participatory systems will not rely on zero-sum trading of finite resources but will instead allow everyone to make a profit.

Earlier, I also mentioned information transparency. Figuring out how to make information transparent, and understandable, will unlock unanticipated forms of value and help create the “multiplier effects” recently explained by President Obama in his defense of the bank bailout.

It’s likely that the best ideas that emerge from our networks will not be those decreed from on high by senior executives or government officials. Hence we also need to design processes that allow us to spot new patterns, encourage the evolution of new ideas, and help new ideas scale to the point where they have impact. This is a different approach to innovation and management than the one we have been reliant upon for the last hundred years. It will take some getting used to. Gary Hamel has lots to say about this in his book The Future of Management.

Rapid prototyping and “learning by making” is already an accepted strategy for effective innovation. For participatory systems, this is even more important because the complexity of the interactions cannot possibly be anticipated by even the smartest of plans. The reality is that these prototypes cannot live in the lab; they have to be let out into the wild. So, we need to start getting comfortable with letting others participate in our innovation activities. Of course this means that many of our accepted notions of IP and trade secrets go out of the window. This is very scary for the lawyers.

Over the coming months I am hoping to build a clearer and more precise set of design principles for participatory systems and I would welcome your ideas for new principles. I’d also appreciate your thoughts on whether this thesis makes any sense at all!

Tim Brown


21 responses to How might we design a participatory system?

  1. hi tim,
    on my blog (sidebar)you can find a project that is a finalist in the 2009 buckminster fuller prize, called YOD ( the premise is to create total transparency into voter sentiment in real-time, borrowing heavily from the capital markets paradigm. first, transparency into problem sets and data, THEN participation. that is what i think, anyway. the model i use is very simple – collaborative interactive systems need to be designed with INSIGHT>DECISION>ACTION loops all around. posit, feedback, evolve, posit, feedback, etc. you are right about networks, but in massive factionalized environments (like politics) you must also model networks of networks, as well as levels of participation, etc. my model also includes an algorithm that stores quantified “civic participation” points (reputation points) based on types of actions in the system, so the system remembers and displays your “portfolio” of participation. you can then “cash in” those points for support on various initiatives. more on this not on blog yet. am still refining based on feedback from the blogosphere, and look forward to any comments you may have.

    so, in other words, what you say in your post is right.


  2. Philip Vroom May 3, 2009 at 6:57 am

    Hi Tim,

    I am a graduate student at the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, studying Strategic Product Design. Right now I am in my final year, and at this moment I am in search of and formulating a thesis assignment for myself.

    Studying ID for 7 years has made me aware that design thinking is indeed considered as this way of thinking only suitable for the “creative people or industry”, so to say. The last few years I have had the opportunity through the University and my own enthusiasm to participate in assignments and weekend with people and industry that were not directly related to ID. However they were always related to problem solving and generating ideas and building ideas on one another. The fun thing was that I have always found myself as the ID guy structering this problem solving, making people at ease of participating in solving these problems were they would normally hide in the corner not telling what they think. For us ID people familiar stuff. Open up and let everybody in, without having to judge. Yes it is scary to participate in these ‘open’ sessions. But always I have had the feedback that it was wonderfull, and that people could be on something during that day or assignment.

    The reason I am responding to this is that your blog and some other discussions on the internet have made me aware of what I want to do with my thesis. The government and design thinking. And yes, what about participation, every politician or party is talking about participation, but how? And on what scale? When? etc… I believe that design thinking is a process that very much related in processing a lot of information into solutions that fit and have a reason of existence.

    Right now I am in de process of what I want to do and if, and if, my professor believes the same. Let’s see what happens. Hopefully you have some ideas?



  3. Tim,
    My profession is in Automotive Design and I agree with you in that for the future of successful design, it must be designed with Human Centered Design Thinking. I believe by creating closely knit and high functioning synergistic teams, energy is created. This team energy is naturally transferred into product. Products begin to emit a life energy and the customer feels it. No one ever questions great design. Great design is about tapping into the collective and to me that is what transparency is. Our customers should always have an esthetic emotion, whether conscience or subconscious, that is the magic of design. I believe if we truly listen to our customers and create products that engage, evolve and improve one’s quality of life. Who will say no?

  4. Tim,
    I completely agree with you on your idea of participatory design thinking. I have been observing industrial system design and machine design for the past 30 years. And I always find them to be flawed. I have now come to the definite conclusion that however smart the designer is or the design group is they simply can’t anticipate the complex web of interactions that goes on in a live system (all designs ultimately become systems and processes rather than a static thing). And therefore most designs are basically imperfect or grossly wrong. But designers make the mistake of thinking things in a static manner.

    Participatory design thinking should be the movement of the future. How do we get to do it for say big designs like industrial designs or town planning or architecture is the question for which I would like to have your valued opinion.


  5. Hi Tim,

    Nice thoughts on the importance of human-centered, fractal and participatory.

    Robert Wright’s ideas, which you referenced, in combination with the possibility of increased focus on measuring the happiness of individuals (or subjective well-being as Ed Diener of U Illinois prefers) will allow us to design better systems of education, government and social participation across the spectrum of SES.

    I am particularly intrigued with how the kingdom of Bhutan’s economists track the Global Happiness Index of their citizens as an important input into public policy and budgetary decision making.

    Best wishes,

  6. It seems that to really think in this new participatory economy you either design to participate on a platform, or you design a platform on which others can participate. The iphone, for example, is a platform on which people participate.

    Another thing to consider when devising principles for this trend in co-innovation is that while many people will have access to the design process there will need to be a new role of a crowdsource manager who in essence curates, and through their own experience culls the best input.

    It’s funny what you say about IP. I’m working on a startup idea, and IP is the last thing I’m thinking about, in fact, I figure if IP is an issue then I really haven’t created a strong enough or disruptive enough brand/product/platform.

    Maybe I’ll include some of this thinking in my application to Grad school for product design.


  7. Tim,
    Absolutely. The best way to ensure potential users are fulfilled by a solution/product/offering, is to involve them up front in the design process.
    For example, in my field of IT/Telecom, automation solutions are usually simply an improvement of a transaction that had little logical basis to begin with, and we eventually use Lean Six Sigma (or some other Business Process Improvement tool) to finally explore the “Voice Of the Customer/user” (VOC), and repair the process (DMAIC model).
    In my particular industry, LSS DMAIC is the political wave of the moment (“we’re doing it!”)… but using such tools as a process-builder up front always made more sense to me… using the same principles to obtain VOC up front. In the case of LSS, it does exist out there (DfLSS/DMEDI models), but does not usually receive the focus it needs to bring design benefits when solutions are built.
    It’s more attractive to most to fix a broken problem and show cost savings, than to build a solution correctly in the first place.

    Great Blog, and company, btw!
    ciao, Eric

  8. Hello there Tim!! My name is Janayna Velozo de Souza. In March of 2008 I obtained the bachelor degree in Design, with emphasis in Graphic Design, from Universidade Federal de Pernambuco (UFPE), in Recife, Brazil.

    I saw your talk on TED`s site about design thinking and innovation. I`m actually thinking about my master degree and really wanna do something that could mix design process and emergent thinking, but don`t know exactly where to go.. I`m a little bit lost in the subject.

    Currently, emergence has drawn the attention of the design community, due to its important contributions in various design fields of study, such as Design Process, Creative Design, Co-Evolutionary Design, Participatory Design and Interaction Design. The understanding of design as a process that leads to solutions – through idea generating, experimenting, assessing, selecting and prototyping (parts interacting) – makes it an emergent process itself. Beside it’s an essential part of higher level activity when dealing with emergence and search for solutions of complex problems.

    I would like to understand the nature of emergence in design process based on collective thinking and collaborative intelligence, to reach alternative solutions on complex problem solving. Maybe this task leads to questions like: How design solutions emerge in complex problem solving? What are the components involved? Do they have an emergent pattern? How can the best design solutions be reached, when optimizing energy flow? What is collective thinking and how can it help to improve the design process?

    I`m a little bit lost in the subject. Could you help me somehow?? Give me a north about how can I focus my studies to answer those questions?

    Thank you very much,

    The eyes only see what the mind is ready to understand.

  9. Tim I am all for open innovation and having major stakeholders involved in co designing briefs and participating in “design thinking”, in order to get the breif fit for purpose, or to rethink systems so they are fit for purpose. But I think that there are some fantasies at work in ideas about co design and participatory design that need to be unpicked. My opinion, having worked int his way for over ten years, is that the visualisation skills of designers are crucial to the process and that design without designers, ts not possible. Of course open innovation of information/ideas – transparency is important but the labour and talent in visualising positins , in helping to make multidisciplinary activity, truly interdisciplinary – should not be underestimate – both in scale and also in terms of the financial investment need to make it happen. Lorraine


  10. In going through a participatory process, the ‘designer’ and the ‘participant’ are both shaped by oneanother. That is where you see transformation in the sense of culture change. Culture change is what is required to move forward design thinking away from ‘I’ and towards ‘we’, and away from designer as expert, towards designer as navigator, guiding a collective expertise.

    I work with , a not for profit specialising in public involvement in decision making and many of the tensions and questions you raise have parallels. I’m interested in how design thinking can influence public engagement, and particularly how this can be facilitated by the vast array of digital tools that enable transparency, bottom up processes and scalablity.

    I like to take a practical look at how design can play a role in social change as feel there’s a good deal of theory but practical examples are harder to pin down.

  11. Tim,
    Design in whatever form is part of the commercial aspects of a business. You mention the “lawyers” being concerned about the results and practice of participatory approach to design. Lawyers represent within our legal and corporate systems what business needs to remain viable. IP and its protection is the fundamental factor in attaining and retaining a revenue stream, thus the viability of the enterprise. The enterprise affords the design. I believe as much energy and thought has to go into the IP and enterprise aspects as into the leading design. I am not suggesting that what we have in IP is good or all worthy but how enterprises will succeed in the changing world markets and with such “disturbances” as participatory design must be the foundation.


  12. Hi Tim,
    very interesting thoughts, thank you!

    In our Institute for Participatory Design we work with participatory design for over 10 years now (mainly in the field of landscape architecture). We notice with great interest how the subject is taken up more and more by the broader design community.

    We found out that since participatory design processes are centered around humans and their attitudes, there are some guidelines for successful participation in this respect:

    1. the willingness to thoroughly engage with the topics at hand so that personal processes become intertwined with the design process,
    2. the willingness of those involved in the design to engage with the process rather than trying to control or manage it,
    3. the consideration of the needs of all which is participating: humans and non-humans alike,
    4. the willingness to give room to existing potential
    5. the willingness to see crises and challenges as opportunities to transcend old thinking and behavioural patterns,
    6. trust in the validity of the results of living processes even if these are not congruent with the original intentions.

    Designing in a participatory way always puts the designers themselves at a point where they are subject to change.

    I sometimes wonder if “system” is the right term for understanding participatory design processes. Systems suggest networkes of nodes, connected be linear forces. We toy with the term “field” instead, understood as an abstract space for the interaction of nonlinear forces.

    Our english webside is in beta mode, but we will ad more information (especially concerning methods and processes) soon:

    Hope I could ad some interesting thoughts to the discussion,


  13. Tim, agree with your thoughts, but systems and processes have been developed for participatory innovation/design under the banner of crowdsourcing. We at blur Group have been developing such approaches for the last couple of years – now with considerable effect.

  14. First, we must realize that we are becoming a herd of leaders

    Second we must think local and act global.


  15. Love the guidelines shared by Jascha! Stated in such a way that ego is required to be left at the door without saying it.

    As I read, I am surprised by the lack of discussion around emotion. Actions are driven by emotion.

    The underlying emotional currents of users is the line to true engagement with their needs.

    In these times of huge emotional range, we as designers are obligated to expose, explore and respond to them.

    Right now we are in times of emotions swirling and many are afraid of being with them, yet it is exactly this time that we can begin to connect in deeper and more meaningful ways.

    For over 20 years I was a designer. What I began to see, running product development teams is that the emotion is present for the user as well as the team working on it.

    Keeping us in the emotion of the situation was my goal. Being able to deal with it all became the fuel of success and fulfillment.

    Daniel Goldman’s Emotional and Social Intelligence books should be de rigeur for all designers.

    It is this approach to human interaction that brings design to an intimacy that we are all craving.

    These days I work with business owners to explore their values as the doorway to business and product development. It is from the place of emotion that we are driven to take action and hence drive results.

    We need not be afraid of emotion, we need to embrace it and educate ourselves about them.

    In my new book, Who’s Helping Who?, I explore the interplay of emotion between people through the cycle of help. The cycle of help is the beginning of the creative process between people. It is the exchange of emotion, energy and hope that is the catalyst for solutions and deepening of relationships.

    Within a creative team we are asked to contribute our gifts. We are asked to receive the gifts of others. It is the exchange of energy that creates the magic.

  16. If there ever was a participatory system that resulted in key actions that have impacted the entire globe it is the technical community that developed the protocols for the Internet. See the following:

    And for all about rough consensus and running code (the IETF’s approach to protocol development embodies a number of design thinking approaches), see section 3 of the following:

  17. mikeriddell62 May 22, 2009 at 10:11 pm

    Nice one Tim. You’re cool man. My thoughts…

    In greater Manchester UK we are creating a network of smartcard vendors (Nhs/Bus Companies/football clubs etc) that currently all work in isolation but share common-ish technology platforms. Getting them to collaborate around the customer’s needs will make those that participate more effective and more efficient – rifle shots, not shotgun.

    BUT one big thing, these vendors can only use our customer-centric platform (which is a CIC) IF they can prove that in so doing they make the lives of individuals healthier, wealthier or happier.

    So these smartcards become loyalty cards giving rewards for good behaviour, like not eating crap or taking more exercise. or using the bus or shopping local, or even investing in time bank work. Vendors will find that working together to deliver mashed up rewards makes it much more compelling for customers to participate in the network esp if a #VRM platform underpins it.

    Taking control back from big corps and govt is important if the gulf between rich and poor is to be narrowed since the lobbyists exert too much influence on the politicians for them to have the bottle to stand up to their messaging. It takes someone with the strength of Obama to deal with industry – motor car industry for example – and i don’t see Brown, Cameron or Clegg being able to create a sledgehammer that smashes into smithereens the various vested interests that exist to keep pushing people things that aren’t good for them – like alcohol and junk food for example.

    Which is why this new participatory system must be owned and managed by us, and not business or govt as we don’t trust them anymore do we? No, trust yourself and others like you is what i say. It’s OUR time now, they’ve had their chance.

  18. Tim, I have a similar approach, engaging people, in mind and action when designing new work forms and business processes. This is mostly due to changed external forces in business and requests of customers.

    I have been thrilled to read about it in totally different context, as I am an economist on the edge of IT:-)

    Thanks a lot!

  19. What’s up mates, good article and nice urging commented at this place, I am truly enjoying by these.

  20. This is absolutely true I’m 32 years old now. From my experiences I can tell that you make plans for one new product or innovation and in the process you can end up with extremely different product or with more than two different products!

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