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Sowing the Seeds for Co-Creation

in the Multidimensional Space of Metadesign

~~#0099CC:Elisa Giaccardi
University of Colorado,
Boulder, USAprotectEmail('elisa.giaccardi', '', '@');

~~#0099CC; background:">I. A theoretical overview of metadesign

Metadesign is higher order design. As such, it can be intended as both:
(a) “design of the design process” (or “design for designers”); and
(b) a transdisciplinary way of design that combines and integrates different design fields and practices in a flexible and reflective manner.

These two understandings are not mutually exclusive. Rather, they are complementary. Both are amplified by the malleability of software systems and the networked condition of our present environment.

Metadesign entails a shift from normative planning (“how things ought to be”) to the humanistic enterprise of seeding (“how things might be”). It focuses therefore on the design of initial conditions (or seeds) with the aim of provoking and supporting more sustainable forms of production and sociability. As such, metadesign is a higher order design in which participation and emergence are a critical component to nourish and evolve the initial conditions set by the metadesigner(s).

The process of constructing personally and socially meaningful artifacts and activities out of the participative system seeded by metadesign is called co-creation. From a synchronic perspective, co-creation is a form of engagement between participants (either human or non-human). From a diachronic perspective, co-creation is responsible for the co-evolution of the whole participative system.

As a higher order design in support of co-creation, metadesign is ultimately a matter of “poietics”: a creative, political, and ethical way (or mode) of design for the 21st Century.

II. A concise operational agenda for metadesigners

Metadesigners must focus on creating both usable, useful, and engaging media and technologies and a meaningful participative framework in which technical and social infrastructures can be integrated and exploited in order to sustain active participation over long periods of time. This means that, in contrast to design approaches based on distinct and sequential phases of design and use, metadesigners must be able to bridge “design time” and “use time” by redistributing design activities and engagement among participants inside a more complex and fluid design space.

Figure 1: Multidimensional Design Space (MDS)

III. The methodological framework

Multidimensional design space (MDS)

The redistribution of design activities and engagement at design time and use time encompasses three different design planes in the space of which several dimensions are composed (from the technical to the social) and different methods and techniques are integrated (Fig.1). Such multidimensional design space can be summarized as follows:

1) Design by Anticipation

This plane of design entails a new generation of anticipatory methods and techniques. By anticipating needs and potential changes, metadesigners play an important role in setting the enabling conditions that will allow participants to engage in the design activity. The enabling conditions set at this level by the metadesigner(s) will allow participants to respond to the mismatch between what can be foreseen at design time and what emerges at use time. An instance of design by anticipation (in the sense intended here) is, for example, the design of end-user modifiability components (i.e. software components that can be easily modified and adapted) and in general the design of malleable and modifiable structures.

2) Design by/for Participation

This plane of design entails not only participatory methods and techniques for engaging at design time the user community in the initial setting of the participative system, but also participative support mechanisms for encouraging participants’ engagement and design activities at use time. At this level, metadesigners and participants play a more fluid role in the design activity. An instance of design for participation is, for example, the design of mechanisms in support of reflective activities. These mechanisms can be either computational (i.e. embedded in a software system) or social (i.e. embedded in media for social interaction).

3) Design for Emergence

This plane of design is concerned with supporting participants in constructing personally and socially meaningful artifacts and activities and opening up the system to creative and improvisational uses. It entails affective methods and techniques in support of the sensorial and emotional activities that are responsible for an active and effective relationship among participants and can eventually sustain co-creation. An instance of design for emergence (in the sense intended here) is, for example, regulating the interplay between the opportunities for action provided by the system and the activities produced by participants in order to allow the emergence of collective structures of interpretation (i.e. visual structures or oral narratives).

An experimental application of the proposed MDS framework has been undertaken in the development of a web-based knowledge portal in Douglas Shire, Australia. The adoption of the MDS framework by the researchers of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation was based on the initial assumption that a knowledge-sharing tool developed through community participation (“co-creation”) would enhance sustainable development in Douglas Shire, a predominantly sugar cane growing area of far north Queensland.


The product of the activities entailed by the MDS framework is called “seeding”. But what principles can guide metadesigners in balancing anticipation, participation and emergence in specific contexts, and thus creating and nurturing “good seeds”?

In collaboration with Prof. Daniela Fogli (University of Brescia, Italy), we have conducted an empirical evaluation on the success and failure stories of the systems developed at Center for LifeLong? Learning & Design (L3D), University of Colorado at Boulder in the last 10 years. The goal was to identify criteria for the creation of “good seeds”.

First, we have defined the seed as the set of the initial conditions arranged by the metadesigners and responsible for the birth of a participative system. Second, we have clarified the design activity of the participative system in terms of engagement in both the co-determination of individual and collective goals and the construction of new artifacts. Third, we have named seed value the complex and dynamic value that encourages or discourages participants from engaging in the design activity and that results from variables metadesigners must learn to manage. We have defined these three variables in terms of:

(a) usability
(b) usefulness
(c) meaningfulness.

Finally, by interpreting the qualitative data collected through direct observation and interviews, we have identified criteria for how seeding may be achieved by balancing anticipation, participation and emergence in a way that is different according to the level of task uncertainty and self-organization of the specific domain.

We have come to the (initial) conclusions that for “clearly coupled domains” (i.e. domains in which practices show a high degree of task certainty and controllability—such as safety-critical domains) the seeding process must begin with the anticipation of current and future needs (“design by anticipation” has here more weight). For “loosely coupled domains” (i.e. domains characterized by a high degree of task uncertainty, freedom and diversity of cognitive control—such as the creative practices) the seeding process must begin with the activation of interaction and communication channels, social paths and the introduction of affective mechanisms (“design by emergence” has here more weight). In between there are those domains requiring that the seeding process begins with the involvement of participants in the externalization of current and future needs (“design by participation” has here more weight). Note that for clearly coupled domains the creation of a usable and malleable artifact comes first and then communication and interaction processes are necessary to encourage and support participants’ engagement over long periods of time, whereas for loosely coupled domains communication and interaction among participants come before participants’ engagement in the construction of new artifacts.

IV. Examples of “good seeds”

In my presentation I will provide two examples of “good seeds”. The first is called MAPS, a participative system created to engage the caregiver community in the design of scripts and services supporting people with cognitive disabilities. The second is called MUVI, a participative system created to engage the local community of Lombardia in the collection, preservation and collective interpretation of the region’s historical records (from family albums to oral histories).


I want to thank Gerhard Fischer, Daniela Fogli, Paul Pangaro, Yunwen Ye, Jonathan Ostwald, Stefan Carmien and all my colleagues at the Center for LifeLong? Learning & Design for the valuable contributions given to the development of some of the ideas illustrated here.

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