Co-design works but only if you do

By Melanie Ryan, Senior Programme Manager, Luc Hoffmann Institute

One of my best jobs was as a gymnastics coach – funding myself through four years of university by teaching tiny children and teenagers the art and discipline of gymnastics. It was both fun and demanding. My job, primarily, was to keep them safe and provide the structure and encouragement to build skills and physical strength. The results were a year on year progression towards new skills, gravity-defying flexibility, power and strength. Progress for individual children varied, depending on natural talent, physical strengths and weaknesses, and dedication to the task at hand. 

My role began when pupils walked into the gym and ended when they went home for the evening. However, they would also take ‘homework’ with them – a daily or weekly strength and conditioning programme. I had no say in whether they actually followed it – I could only offer encouragement and examples of others students’ progress to illustrate the promise of their athletic dreams. Only they would know, in theory, whether work was being done between our sessions.

But the second these kids walked back into the gym there was no hiding whether they had been putting in the work. For a while, those who resisted the additional homework could keep up with the others. Over time, the difference in achievements and progress became exponential. Some children blamed a lack of talent; some blamed other priorities in life; others only partially followed the process. I had no soothing words and could only return them to the basics. 

I was reminded of this phase of my life by a recent report evaluating social change initiatives. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is a juggernaut in terms of investment in social issues in the United States and globally. They recently commissioned an evaluation into their Intensive Partnerships for Effective Teaching programme, an initiative to improve college attendance and educational outcomes among low-income minority students. The main findings were that the programme did not achieve any significantly better results than the alternative (but with some positive outcomes in evidence nonetheless). The evaluation is thorough and, by my reading, as even-handed as possible. It highlights the reasons for shortcomings and successes that they are more or less sure of.

One of the key findings highlighted was ‘incomplete implementation and lack of successful models’. What else can be said? Once time has passed and the programme has run its course, there is no way of delving deeper into what did or did not work, and why. If a project clearly wasn’t implemented properly, then what are you actually evaluating?

Tackling complex problems and trying new models of operating takes learning, time, resources and the willingness to move out of our comfort zones. Over the last few years I have worked with hundreds of professionals, most of whom I would characterise as open, dedicated, talented and thoughtful. Among them are also the reluctant. Both kinds can be drawn together under the idea of collaboration and finding new solutions to deeply intractable conservation problems. We spend months designing plans, processes, evaluation strategies, theories of change and research agendas. Words such as co-design, co-production, co-creation, systems thinking and impact are turned over and over until meaning is found and I think that we are going to walk to the talk. 

We also have a wealth of knowledge to draw on that shows how we should monitor and evaluate what works and the kinds of indicators that matter in the process, as well as practical matters of design and the types of capacity we need to make it all real. See for example this introduction to co-production and this thought piece, as well as Luc Hoffmann Institute co-authored articles published recently here and here.

However, in the margins of events and meetings, there is always the whisper of ‘we’re not really going to do it that way, are we?’ or ‘this is interesting but I’ve got my plan and I just want to follow it, it’ll be easier’ or ‘that’s expensive, let’s not invest in that’. 

I mean, pardon? Co-design only works if you do. 

Gymnasts dream of impossible control, strength and flexibility. Those looking to cultivate a new generation of empowered students hope to transform a dysfunctional system. People in conservation spend their lives learning and adapting to do things better. If you only pay lip-service to the effort, choice and ways of working that are emerging for doing conservation differently, by the time your project or research or collaboration ends, you won’t really know why it worked or failed. You’ll be left with an evaluation that reads ‘incomplete implementation’. Or worse – if you’re actively pulling in the opposite direction to those with the spirit of trying something new, then the energy of those around you is wasted. The evaluation will reflect ‘co-design’ only in word, not in deed – and it will generate misleading ‘evidence’. 

Now, of course, it’s far more complicated than that. At the Luc Hoffmann Institute we work in partnership to design structures, methods, tools, networks and knowledge production, and we provide advice on where to begin to tackle the toughest issues. Conservation is our specialty. We work through constraints, politics, competing objectives and reality. We know that it takes compromise, consideration, concession and creativity. We offer the space and expertise to incubate interesting and fragile ideas in order to see if something new will fly. And it’s not magic. We put in the work.


Image by Jessica Sysengrath on Unsplash

Luc Hoffmann InstituteCo-design works but only if you do