How to collaborate on participatory design practices online and across countries

September 29, 2021

The public space design with participatory methods project (now called Open Space Gokceada) has been the longest-running learning experiment that we have carried out intending to create a sustainable participatory design in a public space. In August 2020, our lab became one of the five winning labs awarded with a grant by Japanese Cabinet Officers’ funding for participatory design of public spaces. Thanks to the SDGs Holistic Innovation Platform (SHIP) launched by the Japan Innovation Network (JIN), it was possible for us as a UNDP Accelerator Lab to be matched with a suitable Japanese partner. The proposals from Japanese private section were requested and issued for the selection through Japan SDGs Innovation Challenge (Funded by Japan Cabinet Office) that unites the UNDP Accelerator Labs with Japanese private companies. In the sequel we were matched with Japanese design firm Sotonoba to conduct the participatory design stages. During the design phase, we had an effective collaboration with our Japanese partners JIN and Sotonoba despite the physical distance. 

Open Space Gokceada, within Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 11 - Sustainable Cities and Communities and SDG 12 - Responsible Production and Consumption, aims to create an open community hub that caters multiple benefits, allowing flexible spaces and uses for changing needs and conditions, and considers zero-waste actions in which the design elements are made from different types of discarded or unused materials in Gokceada. The project has two phases, design and implementation. You can find the details about the conceptual framework and local partners of the experiment in my previous blog. Today, I would like to give details about the design phase that has recently been completed.

This experiment encouraged many different actors to enter the stage. We particularly focused on both participation and cultural interactions where residents can be included in the design process by sharing their visions, experiences, and skills with the municipality and other stakeholders who create public spaces. Transferring knowledge and experiences, overcoming the language barrier, and developing a common design language from Japan to an island of Turkey were the key challenges we foresaw. However, considering the restrictions brought by the Covid-19 pandemic in the participatory process where face-to-face communication became impossible, we simply had to become more creative. In this sense, our experience with Sotonoba, which is a creative and experienced team in place-making, was hugely positive. Despite these challenges, the results were actualized in a very inclusive, fun, and smart way.  Our local consultant Sonia Irani (Member of Urban Strategy Team) also greatly helped us to transform local insights into design inputs and to overcome one of the project's biggest challenges, the language barrier. Gokceada Municipality put lots of effort into leading internal communication and organization upon the island to create conditions that made all of the digital workshops possible.

The outputs of all workshops were shared at

The first visit to Gokceada was to conduct 'Site and community study,' as well as the very first pilot workshop, with participation from the municipality and Marmara Municipalities Union to identify the framework of the design process. Unfortunately, just before the first workshop, lockdowns were implemented in Turkey. As a result, we had to conduct several trials on managing the limitations of virtual space during the workshops. It was overall a great opportunity to experiment with online tools. According to the participants, feedback also happened to be very instructive and informative for everyone involved. The importance of face-to-face interaction on the site that helps bind the place of the project and residents of Gokceada is an indisputable fact. However, developing virtual tours, providing special manuals for children and establishing proper instruments for young adults to explore the location went beyond our expectations. As our local consultant Sonia Irani stated, “It is even possible to say that it had a positive impact on ideations and designs because the intuitively developed methods assisted us in reaching more children and in seeing unexpectedly creative ideas in exchange for the treasure maps.” 

Please click to see the children’s artworks from the treasure mapping workshop in our digital gallery.

Since March 2021, we have designed three publicly announced workshops with JIN, our design partner Sotonoba, and our local partners along with the workshops with children, adolescence and youth. The participants were chosen from volunteers among residents of the island from various backgrounds and age groups. A total number of 150 people participated in the workshops. All sessions were concerned with identifying the subjective qualities of the chosen site to their potential users, clarifying their daily needs from the space, and reaching a consensus on design principles and conceptual framework. All these works contributed to developing indicators for the concepts used in Sotonoba’s final design for the site, which is environmentally conscious, flexible and able to provide space for all. 

It was impressive to see that all participants have a strong sense of protecting nature and respecting the environment while prioritizing children and creating an inclusive place for everyone. Accordingly, most of the participants referred to these qualities as integral components that need to be preserved in the long run in a way that is compatible with the context, users, and spirit of the island. Thanks to financial support of the Japan Cabinet Office this project is becoming a reality.

The entire process involved lots of research, dedicated efforts, and teamwork among all stakeholders during the design phase. We have found out that digital tools and online participatory design practices are valid methodologies, civic engagement is doable and effective, and mostly depends on local government’s willingness to build capacity. The design process drove the implementation phase, which is going to be a unique experience for the participants, considering that it will involve them in the next steps.