What does Co-Design, Complex Systems Theory and Storytelling have in common? Can co-design methods be used to gather stories as a qualitative data set in processes of innovation, change or disruption? To use stories as a qualitative data set, it is necessary to see storytelling as a system of feedback loops that deliver new learnings from our audience, stakeholders, customers and community.

First let us define co-design. Co-design is human centred design processes used to create new products, services or solutions to large societal problems. It involves all stakeholders (e.g. employees, partners, customers, citizens, end users) in the design process to ensure the result meets their needs and is useful to them. It brings people in as collaborators, giving a voice to those who are often not part of a design process.

We often don’t associate the word design with storytelling. However, a story told from lived experience of people can shed new light on the problems that human centered designers are working to solve.

Stories are a gateway to empathy, to see from another person’s point of view, understand their needs and feelings. And stories provide context to the emotions that humans experience. If you are embarking on a large scale change or innovation project understanding the emotional impact of the process is key to achieving a successful outcome.

How To Co-Design A Story

To co-design well it is important to keep these things in mind:

  • Codesign Is A Feedback Loop
    • The process of gathering stories from your stakeholders should feel circular in nature. Look for feedback on the new process or product in story form. The stories they share in return should provide new insights and understandings that can then be used in the future design process
  • Truth Is Stranger Than Fiction
    • The lived experiences and stories of the people you want to design or create change with are powerful. True stories have moments of serendipity and knowledge that cannot be manufactured. The information gathered from a true story always trumps insights based on assumptions
  • There Is No End
    • The goal with storytelling should not be to find the perfect ending. The aim should be to tell an open-ended story. If your story has an end it won’t continue to evolve. Leave it open ended so your stakeholders can continue to build on your knowledge base with new feedback and insights from their ongoing stories

Complexity Is Powerful, Why Co-Design Works

“I think the next (21st) century will be the century of complexity.” – Stephan Hawkings

We are living in complex times. Changes such as environmental instability, technological shifts and a changing economic landscape can make us feel uncertain about our future. And is ushering a new appreciation of the importance of complexity.

One field of study that is gaining traction in the world of social, biological and business thinking is Complex Systems Theory. And within this stream of study is Self-Organising Systems Theory.

Self-organising systems theory is a process where order arises from local interactions between parts of a disordered system. The process can be spontaneous and is not controlled by any centralised power structure.

An example a of self-organising systems is a town market. A market in a town square dates back to the dawn of commerce itself. In our modern technological age, self-organising systems go beyond commerce exchange to produce complex, robust, highly competitive products such as: computer operating systems (Linux), scientific blueprints (the human genome), and vast multimedia social entertainments (online games).

The way these systems evolve, and grow is through positive feedback loops. People eventually discovered the positive effects feedback of the relationship between buyer and seller doing business in a town square on a designated day. This system evolved over time to the modern mall or department store of today. This system has evolved because it created positive outcomes for the customers, the sellers and the property owners. And now this system is changing with the advent of e-commerce.

The evolution of systems through the process of self-organisation can also be seen as acts of co-design. People from various disciplines must come together to produce the desired outcome. In the market place example, the various components of merchants, buyers and property holders all work together to create a system that provides benefit to each other.

Self Organising Systems And Qualitative Data

Human beings are a complex animal that in turn creates complex systems. Within the complex systems humans create, much of it came about organically through systems of positive feedback, agility and evolution. And stories of how these complex systems come into being and evolve are a qualitative data set that can be used to understand these systems.

In our search for qualitative meaning it is important to think of stories as something with no end. They act like connected dot points to plot the adaptations of our complex human systems. The stories in a complex system are not static, they are a feedback loop. Co-design is a feedback loop of information and creation between the stakeholders in the system.

If we can map out the various cause-effect loops it opens up a whole new realm of understanding of the evolution of these systems. We need to think beyond a story as a linear event with a beginning, middle and end. Rather we should see them as cycles of feedback and evolution. And each story should overlap with the next, much like an ongoing chain of Venn diagrams, as an interconnected progression of feedback loops.

The qualitative value is greater than just the one individual feedback loop. There are also overarching connections between the individual stories. The relationships between individual stories provides ways to look a the themes that emerge from a system as a whole.

This brings us back to the concept of co-design. We must ask the storytellers to provide their insights, thoughts and feelings. If they are creating the system, we cannot exclude their own stories from our qualitative evaluations of these systems.

Non-Linear Storytelling

When we are making meaning of change, innovation and disruption, creating a link between self-organising systems and a non-linear story structure can facilitate meaningful results. Qualitative data is imperative to creating meaning, understanding culture, society or business. If you are struggling to tell your story of innovation, change or disruption, let’s chat about how you can use stories in your work!

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