Unfortunately, the meeting with my partners scheduled for last weekend had to be postponed. In the meantime, I thought I would reflect on the final prep meeting I had with Jo last Friday.
I mentioned that I wanted to spend time sharing what I had learned about wire-framing and paper prototyping with my partners, so they could take on the role I have taken on in the future – pretending to be a designer. Jo was immediately suspicious. Why would I want my users to become designers; by taking on the role of designers, they would lose value as representative users. I explained that part of my reason for choosing to try collaborative design in the first place was to test its “transformative” potential. While I hope the digital tools we design together will be useful and facilitate sustainability, I’m primarily interested in the process of collaborative design and how everyone participating is changed through the process – changed in ways that facilitate sustainability. Jo then pointed out that he is uncomfortable with the idea that sustainability comes from changing people, which sent me back to thinking about the incumbent and critical democracies I blogged about a few weeks ago. Am I back to the form of capacity building where I am teaching people to work in the ways I think they should work, rather than providing support; am I talking about my work in the form of “critical democracy” while practising a form of “incumbent democracy” where I’m co-opting local voluntary initiative to suit professional and academic priorities? Am I claiming to empower my partner groups, while actually just manipulating them to do professional work for free?
It is fair to say that I chose to use co-design before I discovered Blaug’s critical and incumbent democracies and took a further critical look at my project. While I re-evaluated my research aims and revisited what I’m using as my data, I didn’t really step fully back from my research and reconsider my overarching methodologies. Similarly, while I’m focusing on the process of struggling to enact my own critical and reflexive practice, I remain tasked with studying the sustainability of community groups involved in taking care of local heritage. I also remain committed to studying how sustainability can be facilitated, rather than simply assessing sustainability. So I am torn – I’m critical of projects that set out to meet their own needs by changing others – yet that is what my project is. Unless, sustainability and facilitating sustainability is a shared need. If my partner groups are interested in what makes groups like theirs more effective and sustainable, and want to work with me to facilitate sustainability in their groups and others – then maybe I am involved in engineering critical democracy after all? For me, power is the key – only by sharing power is empowerment possible. This is why I am not interested in forming networks through the Council for British Archaeology that they (or I) hold power over, but to use our resources to help set up networks that can empower.
Part of the reason why sharing power is difficult is that we may not see ourselves as having power, and others may not mind us having it or exercising it – it may even be welcomed and encouraged. Sharing power may sometimes involve refusing or declining power.
In my case, these reflections have reminded me that my research isn’t about digital tools or co-design. I must be willing to scrap the idea for the digital tool we are working on that I pitched at the start of the project. I must be willing to move away from the idea of using co-design and digital tools that I pitched at the start of the project. At the very least, I must be willing to give up on these ideas if I am going to claim to be promoting critical rather than incumbent democracy. My research isn’t about any individual digital tool. It’s not about digital tools. It’s not about co-design. It’s about facilitating sustainability in community groups and it’s about community groups facilitating their own sustainability. It’s about supporting something I can walk away from two years from now. Why am I so set on having myself and my ideas at the centre of it all?