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How co-design makes scientific and technically complex projects easier to deliver

Often big projects can hit a snag due to the scientific or technical complexity involved in some of the content. The project might be a large infrastructure development, or an environmental public health engagement, or a climate change adaptation pathway process, or even a planning decision involving complex works. These large complex projects deliver many diverse outcomes, but they all share scientific or technical complexity, and the players involved need to reach (at least) a shared understanding of what it all means. Such snags can result in delays to delivering projects, community opposition, cost blow-outs, regulatory barriers or even disagreements amongst critical stakeholders or partners about the next steps.   

I’ve talked often in my articles about how we scientists, engineers and technical types need to work harder to talk in plain language. I’ve previously given tips on simpler science communication: 5 simple ways to improve your science communication and science for supporting decision-making.

Just telling people stuff does not work There is a lot of strong evidence that the “bucket model” of knowledge transfer simply does not work for many people.

The bucket model works (or rather doesn’t work) this way: 1/ I’ve some knowledge that I know you don’t have but I (or others) have decided it is important that you understand before the project can take the next step. 2/ If only you knew what I know. 3/ You are an empty bucket into which I can pour this new knowledge. 4/ I can fill you up your bucket with knowledge and 5/ now we can talk sensibly about the next steps. There is plenty of science to show that does not work (for example see Sander van der Linden’s 2015 work in Perspectives on Psychological Science: DOI:10.1177/1745691615598516).

Project delivery can be faster Based on this kind of evidence, and my own (sometimes painful) experience wrought from failure (!), processes that enable communities, stakeholders, and partners to deeply understand scientific and/or technical complexity are important for delivering big complex projects. And hard to find.

Co-design can help Co-design is a process where you jointly solve a problem, build a thing, or even deliver an outcome. It is an approach that can enable very complex scientific or technical issues to be discussed and dealt with, while including a range of parties with different back-grounds. For example in this article, I discuss a complex piece of science co-designed with a community. Co-design works because it allows all participants to go on a journey to build a shared understanding of the complexity, steps forward and solutions. Authentic Co-design is a practice where you jointly create a solution or solve a problem to deliver a complex project with all the critical stakeholders. By using the Authentic Co-design principle to “Foster mutual learning” you can bring groups with very different knowledge bases and experience to a joint and shared understanding about the problem, and the solutions.

With my colleagues @Max Hardy and @Susan Carter we have distilled over >60 years of experience with co-design and complex projects into a simple guide and course.

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