A conversation with Victor Udoewa; Chief Experience Officer & Service Design Lead at NASA Small Business Innovation Research and Small Business Technology Transfer (SBIR/STTR) Program.
“ I did this project at one point when I was a teacher with my students where we built these dual compost in the trees. I came back a year later and one of the families that received a dual compost in the tree, and they helped work on it as well, they were using it as a closet. Another family that had received one and worked on it as well were using it as a bathroom only for very, very important persons. So I was like, “Wow, we built this thing. It was technically correct. It worked. It function. But the people didn’t care for it, didn’t necessarily want it, didn’t show ownership of it, didn’t know how to maintain it, couldn’t repair it if it’s broken, et cetera.” And that’s when I started this journey of like, “Oh, how do I bring in the human element into all of this?” Because I wasn’t taught any of that. None of the social science stuff about human needs or human factors, et cetera.” –Victor Udoewa
In this episode of Control the Room, I had the pleasure of speaking with Victor Udoewa about his varied work experience that brought him to his current position as a Service Design Lead at NASA. He explains how his experience as an engineer, educator, International Development Specialist, and health and trauma counselor helped him land a job designing educational software for Google. Later, Victor shares his thoughts on Integrated Design, Asset based problem solving, Defuturing, Reworlding, Ontological Design, and Hyperlocality. We then discuss the importance of including community members in the design process. Listen in for reasons why facilitators should give up power to better attend to the needs of the people they’re serving.
[2:20] How Victor Got His Start In Radical Participatory Design.
[9:05] Why Integrated Design Bases Insight On Various Research Signals.
[16:45] How To Stay Attuned To The Needs Of The People.
[22:50] Why Adopting Hyperlocality Solves Problems Better.
[31:11] Why To Give Up Power And Design As A Community Member.
Links | Resources
Victor on Linkedin
About the Guest
Victor Udoewa is the Chief Experience Officer and Service Design Lead in the NASA Small Business Innovation Research and Small Business Technology Transfer (SBIR/STTR) Program. Prior to NASA, he was the Director of Strategy at 18F, a civic consultancy for the federal government inside the federal government. He helped to start the education business unit, develop a line of educational products and services, direct strategy, manage the group of digital strategists and the digital strategy practice, and serve as a designer and strategist on partner projects. Previously, as a Global Education Instructional Designer and Training Development Specialist at Google, he designed learning experiences and learning software for people in low-to-middle-income countries around the world.
About Voltage Control
Voltage Control is a change agency that helps enterprises sustain innovation and teams work better together with custom-designed meetings and workshops, both in-person and virtual. Our master facilitators offer trusted guidance and custom coaching to companies who want to transform ineffective meetings, reignite stalled projects, and cut through assumptions. Based in Austin, Voltage Control designs and leads public and private workshops that range from small meetings to large conference-style gatherings.
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Douglas: Welcome to the Control The Room podcast, a series devoted to the exploration of meeting culture and uncovering cures to the common meeting. Some meetings have tight control and others are loose. To control the room means achieving outcomes while striking a balance between imposing and removing structure, asserting and distributing power, leaning in and leaning out, all in the service of having a truly magical meeting. Thanks for listening. If you’d like to join us live for a session sometime, you can join our weekly Control The Room facilitation lab. It’s a free event to meet fellow facilitators and explore new techniques so you can apply the things you learn in the podcast in real time with other facilitators. Sign up today at voltagecontrol.com/facilitation-lab.
If you’d like to learn more about my book Magical Meetings, you can download the Magical Meetings Quick Start Guide, a free PDF reference with some of the most important pieces of advice from the book. Download a copy today at magicalmeetings.com. Today, I’m with Victor colinearities at NASA, where he serves as the CXO and service design lead for the small business innovation research and small business technology transfer research programs. Welcome to the show, Victor.
Victor: Thank you. It’s really, really good to be here. Good to see you Douglas.
Douglas: Oh, so great to have you. And it’s been such a long time since we caught up in D.C., And you were at the conference before that. And so I just really been looking forward to having this conversation.
Victor: Yeah, yeah. I wanted to be at the conference this year. I wasn’t sure if there were options to do it hybrid or remote, or if you had to be there in person. But I wanted to share a little bit about how we do some of the participatory facilitation in my work. So it’s good to see you now. It’s good to talk and I hope to come back again in the future.
Douglas: Yeah, absolutely. Well, let’s dig in a little bit with how you got your start in this work. And I’m just a fan of the things you’re doing and the pre-show chat got me even more excited when you’re telling me about this radical participatory design stuff that you’re looking at, and you’ve codified as well as just the design justice work you’re doing. It’s such good stuff. So how did you even get interested in this? How did you get started?
Victor: Yeah, I started in engineering design, right? Design’s a huge field. Like when people say design, I have no idea what they mean, because there’s all so many different types and kinds. But I was an engineer and was a mechanical engineering and did aerospace engineering, which is mechanical and electrical, cloud, air and space. And I did this project at one point when I was a teacher with my students where we built these dual compost in the trees. I came back a year later and one of the families that received a dual compost in the tree, and they helped work on it as well, they were using it as a closet.
Another family that had received one and worked on it as well were using it as a bathroom only for very, very important persons. So I was like, “Wow, we built this thing. It was technically correct. It worked. It function. But the people didn’t care for it, didn’t necessarily want it, didn’t show ownership of it, didn’t know how to maintain it, couldn’t repair it if it’s broken, et cetera.” And that’s when I started this journey of like, “Oh, how do I bring in the human element into all of this?” Because I wasn’t taught any of that. None of the social science stuff about human needs or human factors, et cetera.
So from there, anyway, I went back, I had taken a “few years off” from engineering to do some teaching in the community in which I grew up, for kids from low income community. So you can always see that type of justice or underutilized community component to the work that I do, being a Nigerian, being from an immigrant family, being a dual citizen. And I then went to South Africa where I was doing a mix of teaching, engineering, computer science, research. And that’s where I picked up for the first time my background in health and trauma crisis counseling. Because I was like, “I don’t only want to do engineering work.” I was doing some work on health engineering, bioengineering related to HIV aids. I want to be rooted in this personal, social experience of people.
So I got that background. I took classes. Got certified and licensed. I didn’t do a degree. I just got certified to be able to do that type of counseling. And then from there, had an opportunity to come into the US government for the first time. So went back to D.C., and I was a science and technology policy advisor, ended up working for the US Agency for International Development. Got a really cool opportunity to move out to the UK and work with Google. They needed someone who had an engineering background, education expertise, international development experience, and someone who had lived abroad outside of north America.
And it was so funny because a lot of people would say, “Oh, you do too many things. You’re too varied. That’s a negative thing.” And at least in this instance, with this company, with this team, they found that as an asset. And I got the job, moved to London, working for Google UK and worked in countries, I would say low to middle income countries, helping to design educational products and services. So it really brought all the different pieces that I had been doing together. And then when I was still in London, not in my job, but on volunteering at nights, I was doing some more of the health trauma and crisis counseling.
I moved back to the States and I was able to work for this Obama created agency called 18F, a civic digital consultancy in the government. We worked with any federal government agency that had an issue, had a problem, and they called us in and we would help them design a solution. And it was at that point that I got really bit by the civic tech, civic innovation bug. And I decided, after my time at 18F, I want to find a permanent job in government as a direct hire. And so I was able to get this job at NASA and now be part of the decision making infrastructure, not just from outside as consultant, but part of the group that’s helping to move change forward.
And we’re really working on transformation, not just digital transformation, but although that’s a means to an end, the transformation of the government in general, to really improve the government’s products and services for the public, that citizens, refugees, and immigrants. So that’s a little bit of the journey highlights. Didn’t give you everything, but hopefully that makes sense.
Douglas: Yeah. Wow. What a broad and diverse journey you’ve been on. And I can’t help just being amazed at the start from mechanical engineering to bioengineering. I’ll just say this. The thing that seems interesting is the people centeredness of it, right? You went from starting off into the mechanical and then went into bioengineering, which was starting to get more focused on the human aspects of how can I engineer things to make human lives better. And then the counseling lets get into the brains of the people, the psychology of the people. So [inaudible 00:06:35] more deeply rooted in the center there. So I’m curious if that resonates with you, just this journey that’s became more and more human focused.
Victor: Yeah. I always saw it as a journey for myself, but it’s interesting to see the parallels of the journey for the field of design, right? So now you have people that are talking about equity center design, you have people doing trauma responsive or trauma informed design. So we’re learning more as a field, which I think again, mimics what’s going on in the world in general, more and more people, at least in the US, with all of the growing awareness of racial tensions that have always been there are talking about trauma and people are recognizing that they’ve experienced trauma.
Whereas when I was a kid, I felt like trauma was only something that we used to describe something that a few people were going through. And now, we’re recognizing that, “Oh, even if you’re not working on a project that’s specifically dealing with people who’ve experienced trauma, you may end up interviewing or doing research with people who’ve experienced trauma in many ways. So you need to be prepared. And also recognizing your own trigger points as a designer, as a researcher, as a facilitator so that you can be properly prepared and know when you need to set boundaries.
So I would say, for sure, learning how to do that. I wish I had that human element from the beginning in my education, but thankfully I’ve been able to pick it up along the way, grab toolkits, try things out and learn.
Douglas: That’s a really astute point that the world around us is growing and evolving and creating more opportunities for us to realize that there’s new ways of doing things. And so as the, I would say, maybe the zeitgeist or the public consciousness is starting to say, “hey, there’s better ways to do this.” Creates more opportunities for us to bring new tools, new thinking, and the way we do things. And I love that. Victor, I’ll say that there’s a lot of humility in that response. Right? Because you could have said that, “Hey, I saw this need and I was pulling on this passion.” But it’s really honoring the fact that, “Hey, we’re all on this journey together.”
Victor: Yeah. Yeah. And I’m enjoying. It’s been a good journey. I feel like I’m still growing. And I am thankful to be able to say that I don’t feel stagnant yet. So still learning, still growing each day.
Douglas: So you mentioned in the pre-show chat about integrated design, and I was really fascinated by all the layers of inputs that you’re collecting. I think the listeners would love to hear about this, and maybe also elaborate on how you even integrate all those layers, because there’s so much that you’re looking at, and what’s the process for folding all that together in the way that you can make sense of it?
Victor: Yeah. So the research that we do that informs the design that we do comes from many different areas. And what it does? It allows us to do what we call triangulation. Some of you might know this. There’s different types of triangulation, there’s data triangulation, there’s investigator triangulation, et cetera. And the idea is that if I do research from different angles on the same issue or topic or data set, et cetera, across different time periods and they still reach the same conclusion, I have greater confidence in that.
So to give an example, I might be doing some interviews and I have research based on that. But for instance, we at NASA, in my program, we do experiential research. So at NASA, when we do service design, we are trying to improve both the customer and the employee experience. So I’m going to use an example from both sides. We don’t just interview help desk employees, for instance, to help improve their experience. We also, the research and design team, we work on the help desk. We get trained up and we get the experience of working the help desk. And then we look at that. We triangulate the information that we get through the interviews and the ones that we get experientially.
We don’t just interview our small business customers who use our service. We also pretend to be a small business. We call this mystery shopping. And we go through the process of using our service and submitting a proposal for funding and going through all of that so that we can triangulate and see does our experience also match what we’re hearing through interviews. And so we have a range of different areas. We do the normal interview stuff. We do observational research. We do experiential, which I just mentioned. We have quantitative desk research that we do. We do market based research. We do futures research. And we also do what I call asset based type of research, specifically, right now, we’re doing core competency research to say, what are the core competencies of our organization? What are our strengths? So that if we took away the main thing we do today, could we still apply our core skills in a different area?
And that can also open up a new avenue for innovation. If we say, “Wait a minute, look at this strength over here and look at this pain point of this customer over here. Let’s bring them together and I have an idea of something that we can do.” So we have various different streams.
Douglas: I like that. I really resonate with this idea of the confidence building. Because we’re getting multiple signals from different sources that can really allow us to be a lot more, well, just confident that we’re proceeding in the right direction.
Victor: Yeah. And in addition to the confidence, we have to recognize that a lot of the design field uses what I would call problem based or deficit based approaches. When we do human centered design, we’re looking at a problem and we’re trying to solve the problem. And nothing necessarily wrong with that. It’s a very Western approach. But there are a whole bunch of what I would say asset based approaches where a problem actually gets solved by not focusing on the problem, but focusing on our strengths and assets and what we have. Kind of how on a similar basis, you might do the strengths finders assessment, where you focus on your strengths. And then you might hire people who help fill in the gaps or weaknesses that you have.
But as a leader, you focus on your strengths or as an individual, you focus on that. So there are many different types of asset based approaches. Approaches like positive deviance, systems based approaches, core competencies, skills, asset based approaches like that, futures approach. I would consider an asset based approach where the asset is a shared vision of the future. So we try to mix those and not only do problem based as well,
Douglas: That really makes me think about how so many startups and companies fail because they’re chasing competitors. They’re trying to fill that deficit gap versus thinking about, “How do I differentiate and what are my strengths? What do I have to offer to the world versus how can I fill this gap between me and something else?” So I really love this idea of… There’s a really amazing quote. I can’t remember who said this, but it was like, “It’s better to be a 100% of who you are versus 80% of what someone else is.”
Victor: Yeah. Yeah. It’s so good. I mean, you are not the only one who likes that. Communities love that. So when I do projects on the side in my communities, communities hate being defined by what they lack. They hate it. They love being defined by who they are and what they have to offer. It resonates much more easily and just much better with communities.
Douglas: I wanted to talk about the community work that you’re doing, because that’s a really interesting concept that came up out of that pre-show chat we had around your community work. And that was like, your community work is more equity centered in its purpose and the reason that you show up and what you’re trying to even bring about. But equity centeredness often comes up even when you’re not doing some equity project. I’d love to hear you talk a little bit more about that because it’s super fascinating.
Victor: Yeah. Yeah. So I mean, the community projects that I do change from time to time, of course, I really try, I really, really try to make sure that I do as many projects or as higher percentage of my projects in communities where I am already a member. Right? The idea here is that the skills that I bring as a designer, as a facilitator, as a researcher, they are not above anyone else’s skills, they’re just equal and alongside all the other skills of all the other community members, right? Because I am a community member first and foremost, and I bring that and the community can use that just like we might use someone else’s skills as a oral historian or someone else’s skills as a data analyst, et cetera. So when we do this work, equity comes up in two ways, or you could even say justice.
So when you’re doing design justice or equity center justice, equity center design, design justice, research justice, it could come up in terms of the focus of the project. The project itself can be equity. You can be trying to increase affordable housing, for instance. You could be trying to increase breastfeeding rates in D.C.. African women are nine times less likely to breastfeed than white women. Why is that? What are the factors that are going into that? And can we improve the health of that system? But you could also just be building a website. So there’s a maternal health organization that I know that wants to create some courses, right?
Now, we can create courses in an equitable way and we can create courses in a way that decreases equity or increases inequity. Right? So the question is, how are you designing? How are you innovating? How are you going through that process? Are you doing it in an equitable way? Are you including voices that need to be included in the process? Or are you not including them? Which ends up producing outcomes that are inequitable, produces a product that can disenfranchise, disorient, disenchant, or even discriminate. Right? So we all know those examples, for instance, with like Google search engine, when you type a certain thing like black women, and then you see a certain image. Right?
And there were no black women on the team that was doing that product. So how do we do this work? Because we find out that anything, doesn’t have to be a specific justice project or an equity project, anything can have inequitable outcomes. So equity really is cross-cutting. It’s cross sectoral, it’s cross-functional, ties into everything. So the question is how. And usually if you figure out how to be equitable in the process, the outcome ends up being equitable or has an increased likelihood of being equitable.
Douglas: I think a lot of it has to do with the lens, right? Just being focused on making sure that we’re attuned to those needs and we care about it.
Victor: Yeah, definitely. And there’s been a wealth of people and resources now that provide activities and methods to begin to, just in essence, reflect what is our positionality, who’s missing, what maybe the first order, second order, third order consequences of these ideas that we are coming up with? Maybe we should ask some other people who aren’t in the room, et cetera. So there’s lots of really cool work that’s happening right now in card decks and positionality wheels and various things like that that people can bring into their process to bring a little bit of the reflection or what we might say reflexivity into the process, so that we can become reflexive practitioners.
Douglas: Yeah. I love that. And when you talk about second and third order effects, it makes me think about futures and foresight and stuff. And that’s one lens that, I see a lot of times folks will use different categories or a system when they’re thinking about futures, to think about, [inaudible 00:17:54] pretty popular. Equity is such an important lens to make sure we’re thinking about what are those second, third order effects of what we’re considering within that equity lens.
Victor: Yeah. And it’s so interesting because I am not going to be able to see things that you can see Douglas, and you’re not going to be able to see some things that I might be able to see. Which means that if you don’t have a diverse team doing the futures process, you are going to have some blind spots. So that’s why it’s really important, I believe, to practice participatory futures or participatory foresight. And unfortunately, there are a lot of people who do it as an individual or they do it as a pretty homogenous group. So I’m really big into making sure that that is done in a participatory way, a way that’s really reflective qualitatively of the population whose future is at hand.
Douglas: That gets into the radical participatory design stuff, which I’m really excited to talk about. But there’s something else you mentioned in this equity piece that I want to hit on before we move on to that. And these two words you used, which were disorienting and disenchanting. Because a lot of times, we hear about discriminating, like not having discriminatory practices. And if we think about through the lens of is it discriminatory or is it not, that’s like a binary conversation or a binary thought pattern, right? Are we that? Or are we not that?
Douglas: My gears started turning as I heard you say these two other words, because it leads to something a little more a gradient, a bit more of a spectrum, right? Because even someone being disorienting because of their background and their lived experience, could send them down a path that’s inequitable. Right? They don’t understand because of the way something’s positioned or presented and they miss out.
Victor: Yeah. Yeah. And there’s a lot of other words as well. One of the ones I like a lot that I heard from Fry, Tony Fry, who’s a design guru out of Australia, I believe. He uses the word defuturing, right? Which brings to mind, not just people that are alive today, but even the unborn or those that are yet to come. Are we making choices, are we creating designs that limit the world of possible futures that they have before them? Or are we leaving them, conserving them with all the range of futures that they could have where they can make both good and bad choices? So we’re doing a lot in this world today that is defuturing. And so a lot of my work is trying to do what we might call futuring or reworlding, opening up the possibilities, not constraining people to a realm of very negative consequences because of our choices.
And so design has a lot of work to do. And in fact, that’s one of the reasons why I think this new field of design is called ontological design, it has been growing, in which people are saying, “Yes, we design a lot of things. But we forget that this entire world around us, that is full of design things and objects and environments, that then affects us. It affects our patterns and how we live and our rituals and our practices. So we design the world and then the world designs us.” And other word, design designs. And it’s really interesting when you look across the range of designers, there are some designers that are very in tune to that, specifically and especially architects. They’re very in tune to what their building does and how it makes people move throughout the building and the conversation spaces that it creates and things like that. They’re very in tune to that. And they talk about it to the forefront of their mind.
I think, for those of us in product design, service design, especially in the digital space, we just don’t think about it as much. And it’s starting to grow. So there’s a really good book I’m just going to throw out for listeners called Designs for the Pluriverse. This book speaks about ontological design, but it also speaks about pluriversal design, where we’re learning to design in ways that opens up many different futures or a world of many worlds, instead of the overriding type of world that we live in now. A one world, world. It’s kind of the experience, I think, you can see very clearly in international development.
You’re trying to help countries develop, but why is every country developing in a way that includes putting a McDonald’s in it? Can we have a pluralistic vision of what it means to live the good life? And design has a long way to go. I think historically, it’s been working in the service of industry and hyper capitalism, and there are a lot of conversations that are happening now to see the possibilities. Or people just doing the work of, maybe in my hyper local context, I can use design in a different way, open up reworlding and futuring possibilities.
Douglas: Wow. Lots to unpack there. I love this notion of hyper locality, can we lean into local solutions to complex problems or global problems?
Victor: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I’ve never worked on a project where you found a success, you achieved a success, you realized a success, and then you could just take it, without any contextualization, just throw it around the world. Just doesn’t work. At most, I can say that in this case with these parameters and these constraints in this situation, it works. I don’t know if it’ll work in other places. And we have to do the work of figuring out what might it look like somewhere else.
Douglas: I mean, we see that inside companies too, right?
Douglas: Someone says, “Oh, look, Google’s doing this. We need to do that too.” Or, “This worked over in the product group, let’s try this in legal.” And you can’t just forklift it in. It takes care and it takes understanding the local community.
Victor: Yeah, for sure. For sure. And we want to recognize them for who they are. And I don’t want to just say we want to include their voice, because I think that devalues, really their lived experience is knowledge. It’s a type of knowledge. It might be different from institutional mainstream knowledge, but it is a knowledge. And so we want to recognize them for their expertise. I really want to use that word to highlight that lived experiential knowledge is a type of knowledge that we actually need to do the work we’re doing. Some cases, I would say… Actually many cases, or maybe even most cases, even if we don’t realize it, it’s even more important than the textbook, third person knowing, institutional, mainstream knowledge.
A good example would be with your body. So it’s really, really difficult for a medical doctor to help you with some issue without any information of what hurts and how it hurts and when it hurts and where it hurts. Without any of your lived experiential knowledge, it’s really, really difficult. In fact, there was an entire show called House that I used to watch a lot, where this doctor and his medical team of fellows would actually break into the homes of the patients who had this unknown, undiagnosed infirmity in order to get lived experiential knowledge to help them in diagnosing it so that they could help.
And for whatever reason, the person wasn’t being vulnerable, open lots of different reasons so they wouldn’t actually tell the doctors everything the doctors needed to know. But there’s lots of cases that we know where you can listen to your body, and assuming it’s not something super complex, you know what to do. I’m dehydrate, I need to get water. I’m hungry, I need food. Even a woman, right? Giving labor. She has certain feelings within her body that encourage her to move into certain positions and certain positions during that labor are better and more conducive and help facilitate the birth and delivery rather than other ones. And she’s using lived experiential knowledge in order to do that.
So in many cases, it’s even more important than the institutional knowledge. But it’s not that way in our society. But there are a lot of radical communities that are working in this way to lift that up and using that for these hyper local contextualized solutions.
Douglas: It reminds me of the whole like gut instinct phenomenon or these ideas of not only living from the head, but the heart, and how do we bring those conversations into the workplace. Because sometimes, it just doesn’t feel right. And maybe we can consider that with as much weight as we do when someone can articulate why it’s not right.
Victor: Yeah. Yeah. Agree. Agree. So, yeah. There’s a lot of different types of knowing. There’s intuitive knowing, relational knowing, embodied knowing, aesthetic knowing, I can go on and on. So it’s not just the whole textbook. I published a paper that was academically peer reviewed. There are other ways of knowing. And we need to remember that and go back to some of that and lift some of those up.
Douglas: Absolutely. And I think this surfaces a lot in companies that become data obsessed, because there’s lots of different kinds of data. And also one thing about collecting data is we get into what scientists call the observer phenomenon, right?
Douglas: We can easily find the things we want to find. So it can be… I don’t know. There’s different kinds of listening, I guess, is another way to say your point around there’s different kinds of knowing.
Victor: Yeah. Which changes our process, our design process. It changes our facilitation processes when we understand that and how we can bring that out. So there’s a really cool group called the Presencing Institute. I’m bringing up more things for people to look up. The Presencing Institute, where they have really, really interesting methodologies to bring some of these solutions out, but using other ways of knowing. And one of them I love is called Social Presencing Theater. So they use a lot of embodied knowing techniques and aesthetic knowing to figure out where group should move to and how they should innovate based on problems that they’re all experiencing, but bringing that into a relational knowledge environment where that information can pass amongst each other.
Douglas: Wow. So good dropping in so many knowledge bombs. We’ll make sure those get into the show notes too, so people can just click through.
Douglas: So I want to shift back to the radical participatory design because I found that really fascinating when we were chatting in the pre-show. And just your need to have to even modify it with the word radical so that people knew you were talking about something a little bit different. And as you explained it to me, the thing that resonated so deeply was that we’re going beyond methods and tools and techniques and getting into just something deeper that’s more of a mindset, more foundational behavior. So I’d love to hear how it’s played out in your work.
Victor: Yeah. I would go to conferences. I would have conversations with people that are doing participatory design. I get really excited. And then we talk and I realize we mean something different. Which is fine. But there’s always that little bit of disappointment, like, “Oh, okay. So it’s not exactly what I meant.” And I might not call what they call participatory design, participatory design. Maybe they wouldn’t call what I do participatory design. So I’m always looking for ways to connect with people who are doing this type of work. And the different ways that I’ve found people to define it are these: number one, participatory design is inclusion. I’m just including people because I want to get their perspective. Right? So some people would say, “I’m doing participatory design when I do research, and I have research participants and I interview them.”
Number two, it’s a method like, are you going to do a usability study or are you going to do quantitative analysis or are you going to do participatory design? They just think of it as a method. Number three is a way of doing a method. So are we going to do a design studio with designers? Or maybe we’ll do a design studio and invite the community in and they’ll do it with us. So we’re going to do it in a participatory way. The fourth is a methodology, by which I mean a collection of methods, like a toolkit, or a set of guiding principles that help you to choose a particular method at a particular point in a process.
So there are participant design toolkits. And in those toolkits, they’ll say something like, “Okay, start setting up. Do these framing exercises. And then at this point, bring in the community. And then when you have the community, do these types of exercises or these types of methods or activities with them.” And I think the difference between all of those and what I’m doing, but especially with the last one, the difference between the last one, the methodology and the way that I do it as a meta methodology is that there are no times where we are doing something before we bring in the community, right? The community is always there.
The reason I say radical is because radical comes from the Latin word radix, which means to the root. So when I say radical, I don’t mean extreme. I mean fully, all the way through, from top to bottom, A to Z, right? The community members are full-fledged members of the research and design and innovation team. Because normally what would happen is that if we have a workshop on Monday with the community members, we have a second workshop on Wednesday with community members, you can bet that as facilitators, we are doing some work on Tuesday. We’re looking at what happened on Monday at the first workshop and trying to see, “Okay, is that still in line with the ultimate goals of these series of workshops?”
We’re trying to see what information from workshop one we’re going to carry over to workshop two. We’re trying to see did any new information in workshop one come up or emerge that introduces non-linearities in the process that send workshop two in a different direction. All of this decision making, interpretation, sense making, evaluation is happening without any of the community members present. In other words, facilitation is power. So if radical participatory design is about this democratization, you could say, right? Or equalization of power, or really letting people assume the power that they already have, you can already hear the patriarchal forms and that letting people assume the power they already have, those community members need to be there when those decisions, when those evaluations, when those interpretations and when that sense making is happening. They just need to be there.
So in radical participatory design, number one, the community members are always present and leading. They are full fledged members of the team from top to bottom. Number two, they outnumber the professional innovation specialists, designers, researchers. And number three, they own the outcomes of the work, as well as the narratives around the artifacts and outcomes of that work. So those are three meta methodological guidelines or paradigmatic guidelines that guide the work. But it just means that they’re members of the team. And instead of coming in and out and we call them in and we don’t call them in, they’re always there.
Douglas: Yeah. That’s amazing. I think it’s a much needed reframing on the approach because often, quite frankly, when that plays out, it’s almost like they’re research participants versus real contributors and real participants.
Victor: Yeah. Yeah. And it’s hard because we do a lot of work, at least people in my facilitator community, to neutralize the power in facilitation. But as much as we try to neutralize it, number one, the fact that we’re trying to neutralize, it means that we realize there’s power. And number two, we never really fully get rid of it because there’s interpretation, there’s decision making that you do as a facilitator. So what we try to do in radical participatory design is instead of trying to empower people, we just give up power. Because we know that when you empower, you’re actually reinforcing the hierarchy you seek to subvert. When I empower people, I am choosing who participates, when they participate, how they participate, if they participate, right? That’s power. So I’m actually still saying that, “Look, I have the power to empower. I have the power to choose and you don’t. So you have to wait until I do that.” So you just give up power.
When you give up power, people will assume it. They’re capable individuals with agency. So that’s what we do. We give up power in doing that. And so it means that the design process becomes now an educational process, and it’s not unidirectional. It’s not just, “Oh, the community members are learning how to do design and research.” No. You are learning about the lived experience. And that lived experience is now on the team. And it actually checks us when we start to go in the wrong direction, it checks us when we start to do something that’s not going to be beneficial for the people. It’s beautiful to have it on the team. And they are also learning yes, some new skills, but we’re learning another experience. And that experience, it stays on the team much better than any type of “empathy” we might try to engender through a design process.
We don’t even have to worry about empathy because it’s embedded in the team. It becomes a moot point because that experience is on the team. And so the facilitation now changes the model. So instead of designer as facilitator, for instance, we move to a model of designer as community member, which means the designer now… Even if the designer hasn’t been a community member, it means that the designer is equal and sits alongside all of the other community members, and that the skillset of the designer or researcher or facilitator is equal to all the other skillsets and assets that all the other community members bring. We all bring it to the table and it kind of guides the process.
We also move to a model, not just of designer as community member, but community member as designer, of course, because now they’re doing the design, they’re doing the research, and community member as facilitator. So it means that the role of a facilitator, if it is the professional facilitator, is to give up power or refuse to facilitate, right? Which is also my view of leadership. If leadership becomes a role, then the job of a leader is to resist leadership. In other words, to allow others or to be there alongside others as they assume leadership, because leadership really is in a role can be done in any position.
So what happens is that if you were to come into any of my radical participatory design processes, you wouldn’t know who was the professional designer because that person may not be upfront. You wouldn’t know who was a professional facilitator researcher because that person may not be facilitating the process. It’s equal and it’s spread out. Now, I will be honest. There are times when I do this and people are like, “I’m not ready. I don’t want to facilitate. I don’t know.” And that’s fine. So usually in those cases, it’s a gradual process where maybe the professional person is starting the facilitation. And then if you come in the middle of the process, more of the community members are doing it. And then by the end, the professionals aren’t doing it all. It’s just equally spread.
And then in some cases, because facilitation might be a skill that a community member has, you might see community members doing that from the very beginning. But usually if they’re not doing it from the very beginning, it slowly transitions to where they are doing it. So it changes the model. And it’s been a good learning process as I’ve done this in a lot of different spaces. I’ve been lucky enough to do it, both in the private sector and the public sector, non-profit and outside of organizations as well, just in communities.
Douglas: Wow. So cool. I love the work that you’re doing. And we could probably talk for hours and hours and hours on this, but we are coming to an end today. So I want to just invite you to leave our listeners with a final thought.
Victor: Yeah. The final thought you’ve heard me say it already is, I’m inviting you to give up power in some space and begin to practice design in at least one place where you’re already a community member.
Douglas: Wow. So cool. I love it. Victor, thanks so much for coming onto the show. Hopefully, we’ll get a chance to talk again soon.
Victor: Sure. I’ve loved it. Thank you for having me. Thank you for inviting me. And I look forward to seeing you next time.
Douglas: Thanks for joining me for another episode of Control The Room. Don’t forget to subscribe to receive updates when new episodes are released. If you want to know more, head over to our blog where I post weekly articles and resources about radical inclusion, team health and working better, voltagecontrol.com.