New organizations and leadership through Participatory Design


The idea that change is a transitional phase between two stable states is ridiculed by everyday experiences in our globalized world. Constant change is the actual state of our living world. We should seek to comprehend, incorporate and develop that which makes life worth living through change, not against it. One way of doing this is by participatory design. Participatory design will change the way we think about leadership and organizational structures and is based on certain attitudes and methodological approaches which in part we already know and in part we still have to develop. The results of participatory design are not set products or structures but living processes in themselves and therefore represent sustainable change.

In my work for various organizations, networks and businesses promoting social and ecological change, I see the main obstacle to our aspirations not in the fields of resources or information, though these too need careful consideration. I see the main obstacle in the design of our organizational structures and in the way we act individually and collectively within them. Our own consciousness lies at the core of developing new habits, attitudes, methods, processes, actions and organizational designs.

I define consciousness in a very profound way as our ability to exercise a reflective awareness for ourselves in our own contexts. Generally spoken, I see two major approaches to consciousness in organizations today: they are either based on roles, hierarchies, authoritative direction, and linear planning (e.g. many companies, public authorities and political institutions) or by values, equality, and joint decision making (e.g. many civil society institutions, social and ecological enterprises and small company networks). Both approaches meet certain economic, social and ecological requirements and both have their crucial drawbacks. I consider both of them insufficient to meet the challenges of the 21st century. This is why my work focuses on the development of a third approach which is based on participatory design and collaborative co-creation with the aim to foster individual and collective potential in order to create emergent solutions.

I have worked with participatory design processes over the last 9 years in landscape architecture, businesses, civil society and ecological organizations. At the core of participatory design lies the understanding that sustainable solutions have to be found on the basis of context, environment and process and not on the basis of predetermined goals. They are based in local practice and shaped by the interconnectedness with given social, ecological and economical frameworks rather than single ideas rolled out globally. It is also acknowledged that participatory design incorporates the designers in the design: while we change the world around us, we change ourselves as well. Personal, local and global change are interlinked. Participatory design thus becomes a co-creative and generative process which is alive in itself. It creates emergence, produces contextual awareness, new ideas, collective intelligence and often unexpected solutions.

So how do we turn into organizations which employ the third approach?

  1. We have to create diverse face-to-face opportunities to experience and reflect upon local participatory design processes so that individual and collective consciousness towards these processes can develop. This can be done through programs in education, business and civil society. For those programs to succeed it will be important that methodologies can be devised in accordance with the respective local context and that results are judged on the basis of the process rather than on initial goals or requirements.
  2. We have to encourage self-empowerment, exploration of individual and collective potential and truthful, conscious leadership, the willingness to thoroughly engage with the topics at hand so that personal processes become intertwined with the design process and the willingness to see crises and challenges as opportunities to transcend old agendas and behavioral patterns. This is fostered by participatory design process which are lead by professional and experienced facilitators.
  3. We have to exchange personal and local experiences at a global level, so as not to copy solutions into alien contexts but to understand the patterns of change, creation and the emergence of collective intelligence globally. This can be achieved with the aid of new collaboration technologies which are already under development and testing.

Through these measures we will dive into a global participatory design process which will lead to a succession towards new organizational structures and a new understanding of leadership as a service to our collective potential and consciousness.