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Participatory Design at work - Lessons on Social and Environmental Sustainability

What is participatory design and what’s the connection to sustainability? How can social and environmental challenges such as integration, economic opportunities, health and material consumption be addressed? Anna Seravalli, an interaction design researcher provides insights into the workings of the Malmö Living labs and the story behind some of the initiatives that surfaced because of the Malmö Living Lab and her continued collaboration with the lab as a researcher at Malmö University.
Anna Seravalli.
Anna Seravalli, an interaction design researcher at Malmö University.

‘’Traditionally, design has always been associated with designing products and services catering to the end-user interaction. However, participatory design’s uniqueness lies in bringing the users into the design process, so that it is just not the designers doing the job but users also taking part in it.’’, explains Anna. Further, she adds, ‘’It is only recently that the concept of participatory design, which was born in Scandinavia in the seventies, has attracted major focus.’’.

återSKAPA. Foto: Firas Mukarker
Creativity at återSKAPA. Photo: Firas Mukarker

Malmö Living Labs

The Malmö Living Labs, an initiative driven by researchers at Malmö University have been driving activities and experiments in collaboration with NGOs, civil servants, small companies and citizens of Malmö to explore how participatory design approaches could address some of challenges that Malmo faces.

As Anna describes the situation, quoting the report by the Commission for a Socially Sustainable Malmo, ‘’After the population boom in 70s and the associated development of the million program, certain areas of Malmo have become socio-economically challenged. It has been found that there is a difference of 5 years in the life expectancy of the population between neighborhoods in the city while one third of the children population in Malmo is living under the poverty threshold.” Many of the activities and experiments have resulted in the formation of initiatives that aim to improve the social conditions (for instance social bonds, job opportunities, skill development and knowledge transfer) for development of such affected neighborhoods.

Within the Malmö Living Lab, Anna has been focusing on makers’ culture and its potential in addressing issues of social sustainability. Makers’ culture is about people engaging in building things, exploring technological possibilities, often in collaboration with each other.

Through Malmö Living Labs, Anna has been involved in the development of STPLN, the first Swedish makerspace. Fabriken, which is one of the projects under STPLN, is one such initiative where people can access tools and resources relating to prototyping, carpentry, digital production and electronics to build things themselves. Such ‘do-it-yourself’ practices provide opportunities for skill development (learning by doing), and for creating social bonds as well, where places like Fabriken also act as a meeting place for all, young or old.

STPLN - a meeting place for creativity

STPLN is a space where different initiatives are experimenting with technologies, reparation but also upcycling. For instance, Återskapa is an initiative, which uses upcylced (extra/leftover) materials from industries for art purposes with children.

STPLN has been and is working as a space that empowers citizens in engaging and experimenting with production activities, to learn from each other as well as acquire a social position. Återskapa is one example that being a citizen initiative has been able to develop with collaboration of STPLN.

The work with STPLN brought up the interest, to further explore how makers’ culture could spread in the city. Such opportunity came with the development of ReTuren, a pilot service that combines traditional waste handling with up cycling and makers’ activities to promote holistic sustainability.

ReTuren - cross-sector collaboration between research, the city and the citizens

Particularly in this initiative, Anna has been closely working with the project manager and the coordinator of ReTuren to experiment (but also learn about) how makers’ initiatives, citizens’ engagement and cross- sector collaboration could be at play in the development of ReTuren. Being a meeting place, ReTuren facilitates skill development and knowledge transfer and promotes behavior change in waste handling and upcycling. It empowers citizens by involving them in the design and learning processes. As Anna describes, “Many people especially socially disadvantaged lack the opportunities to influence and act on community decisions. A lot of social value is created in the process of activating someone who has been unemployed for 5-6 years, imparting skills and knowledge, providing opportunities to grow and a space for meeting likeminded people.”

There are often many ventures in technical and ecological innovation but not in social innovation. By bringing in the maker’s perspective, as well as citizens’ engagement, social aspects also open up.  This is further reinforced by the fact that ReTuren is working in close collaboration with different actors in the area. The role of research within ReTuren is not only about evaluating or following the project, but also engaging in its development by providing support for ongoing experimentation and learning about the social sustainability aspect of the service.

It is visible that social value is created through such initiatives but the next step would be to experiment to find how the natural growth of such initiatives can lead to improving social sustainability.

Text: Aakash Dhingra, a student journalist at Lund University Sustainability Forum, and a LUMES master's student at Lund University.

Circular economy in practice at ReTuren in Malmö

Could Southern Skane’s municipality owned waste management company, VA SYD be an inspiration for others on advancing towards circular economy? Grounded by research, focused on practical applications and strong sense of communication the ReTuren project incorporates social and environmental sustainability and aims to reduce waste and change behaviour with the help of a social innovation researcher at Malmö University.

Read the whole article here:

Academia meets business at ReTuren: Social Innovation and Sustainability

ReTuren in Malmö. Photo: Anna Strannegård
ReTuren in Malmö. Photo: Anna Strannegård


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