REGIONAL AUSTRALIA IS EXPERIENCING A RANGE OF SOCIAL-ECONOMIC CHALLENGES DUE TO GLOBAL STRUCTURAL CHANGE, THE POST MINING BOOM AND GOVERNMENT’S LACK OF FORESIGHT AND PUBLIC INVESTMENT IN INNOVATIVE PROGRAMS TO EMPOWER COMMUNITIES.

Empowering regional communities to feel secure and equipped to address the challenges it faces is crucial and can be facilitated through developing new connections and methods of thinking.

Community-led innovation is an inclusive, flexible and collaborative way of enabling new partnerships to understand problems and design new (or reinvigorate existing) ideas addressing community needs and interests.

Design thinking provides a creative approach to problem solving that aligns well with the objectives and processes of community-led innovation. Knowing how the design thinking process works and how effective it is in different contexts makes it a worthwhile tool for community-led innovation.

In Townsville, my colleague Sabine Carter and I had the opportunity to work with the community and facilitated two very different design thinking workshops:

  • A Council initiated one hour workshop for an annual ‘Built to Last’ forum with a mix of 20 plus social-purpose community groups.
  • A three-hour workshop with seven staff members of Cootharinga in North Queensland to develop the first steps of creating an innovation hub for the organisation

Both workshops applied the Design Minds process of inquiry, ideate and implement stages; however, the approach was adapted to the different contexts. The overall approach involved:

  • Inquire (uncover problems)
  • Ideate (generate ideas to address problems)
  • Implement (co-create, co-develop solutions and ideas to address problems)

For the Council workshop, group members were mixed with members of different groups to form four groups; participants brainstormed common community issues that needed addressing and developed questions that started with: What’s not working…? And, how might we…? (Inquiry); brainstormed ideas to address the question that they inserted into a matrix of easy/possible, difficult/possible, easy/unrealistic, difficult/unrealistic (Ideate); and, creatively mapped how they might implement the idea using different colours and patterns.

The groups generated ideas such as oral history storytelling, mentoring programs and a volunteer hub to address issues such as social and economic injustice, youth crime, better connecting different groups (e.g. elderly and youth), enhancing opportunities, meaningful community participation and retaining and recruiting volunteers.

For the Cootharinga workshop, group members worked in two groups for brainstorm sessions and as a whole group to agree on the vision, principles and strategies for an innovation hub. The original plan was to have two sequential design thinking workshops: one to establish the foundations (vision and principles) of the hub (i.e. why do we want an innovation hub? Inquiry), and the second to design initiatives to get the hub started (i.e. what issues need addressing and how might we address these issues? Inquiry). As the session progressed it became apparent the group was not ready for the second workshop to design initiatives and the priority was, instead, to establish the foundations of the hub, one of which was to involve customers in the co-design or co-production of initiatives.

The final outcome (implement) of the workshop was a vision and list of principles for the innovation hub and a plan for the team to move forward developing the hub and ideas with customers.

On reflection, both workshops engaged participants effectively and facilitated inspiration and learning to develop creative ideas. Mixing people from different groups worked well to connect and inspire and encourage different thinking through working with new people from different backgrounds with different knowledge and skills.

Important lessons for the design of future workshops, especially if the facilitator and participants are meeting each other for the first time, is to allow time for a ‘getting-to-know-you’ session and, as a facilitator, being flexible to the agenda so that they can adapt and respond to a different process and outcome than expected.

Clearly explaining and working with participants to understand what design thinking is aiming to achieve is important. Understanding the context of the situation and setting, and continually checking in with participants for feedback, appears to be a key ingredient for optimising the process.

Design thinking has a lot of potential as a tool for community-led innovation in multiple contexts, especially with policy environments needing to have greater community relevance. It is a fresh approach for gathering people together to think creatively and differently and become inspired.

These have been once-off design thinking workshops in initial stages of investigation and collaboration, but the design thinking process is a tool for groups that could be adapted for different stages and elements of the innovation process. The design thinking may become a more meaningful process the deeper and more embedded the collaboration and relationships become.

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