Design research at The Open University is empowering civil society groups and organisations across the UK to take a leading role in developing social innovations to transform neglected buildings and places into loved, sustainable, community-focused assets.
Academics at the OU’s Design Group, Dr Theodore Zamenopoulos and Dr Katerina Alexiou, have led over 12 design research projects conducted in partnership with third sector, public and private sector organisations, as well as local civil society groups. The overall aim of these projects, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, was to understand what enables or inhibits civic groups to lead design projects in their place and to develop practical resources and tools to engender community leadership in design.
For instance, through the Empowering Design Practices project, and in collaboration with OU academics from architectural history and heritage, the researchers explored how community-led design empowers people and organisations to create more open, vibrant, sustainable and fit-for-purpose places of worship that respect and enhance local religious and cultural heritage.
Over 55 communities across England have been supported through this project, and over 460 people benefited directly from training and specialist support delivered. A participant in one of the project’s design training courses wrote: “We all gained a great deal, with our newly formed ‘design’ team coming away with a greater understanding of not only what we are hoping to achieve but of the design process and how to engage our community more fully as we move forward in this process”
Activities delivered by the research team provided the knowledge and skills which allowed participants to think differently, coming to see their challenges as opportunities. Through the research-led collaboration, partners acquired renewed (and increased) confidence in their project and were able to secure practical and financial support to transform their buildings.
A church in Stoke-on-Trent for instance, won a National Lottery Heritage Fund grant (£205K) and converted part of the interior into a heated space that serves as a community heritage centre. A community member commented: “[the building] was always a narrative of neglect. There were the broken windows, the guttering, the place was falling apart, it was cold, it was unattractive… So beforehand, I had adopted the clothes of my previous bishops – “this is an impossible place!” But at the [project] meeting I started hearing, “what you’re asking for is not that much.” (…) So I fell more in love with the building and its possibilities, and that encouraged me”.
Through another project, Creative Citizens, Dr Alexiou and Dr Zamenopoulos worked for three years with a North London activist group who are campaigning to save an indoor market from demolition. The market next to Seven Sisters Underground is the UK’s only Latin Village with a large concentration of Latin Businesses. The OU researchers helped the group co-design a 3D virtual tour showcasing their community plans for their local market. This 3D tour formed part of a consultation with the wider public and provided the crucial vehicle to “engage people in very complex, technical and lengthy planning proposals and processes”. The group subsequently submitted the planning application which was approved by the Local Council in 2014.
In Scaling Up Co-design, a third project led by the OU academics, had a positive impact on the capacity of six civil society organisations to embed co-design in their practice, secure new projects and reach more communities. One project partner, Blackwood Foundation, provides high quality housing, care and support for disabled people in Scotland. It reported that the project was catalytic in changing their practice and becoming more inclusive in their approach: “We now listen, we now involve, we work with people to make sure homes are inclusive, and a lot of that work comes from the Scaling up Co-Design project.” Another partner, Silent Cities, was able to leverage almost £6m from The Big Lottery Fund to tackle isolation among the elderly, reaching 12,000 people in Sheffield.
The research of the OU’s design group on the themes of community empowerment, civic leadership, social innovation and sustainability continues to grow, through collaborative working across disciplines and across sectors.