Codesign and the carnivalesque

Codesign is popular thing right now. I’ve heard it from lots of different corners of programme, project and delivery management. Nevermind research and design worlds.

I like codesign. It’s about involving the people who are impacted by your design in the design process. Of opening up and evening out power to create. But it’s something that gets said a lot.

The promise of codesign is great. But the reality of how it’s done is often not so.

Much of codesign reminds me of the “carnivalesque”.

The carnivalesque

The carnivalesque is a literary and cultural concept. It refers to a temporary mode of subversion and rebellion against social norms and conventions. It originated from the medieval carnival.

Carnival and debauchery on show in a painting from Pieter Bruegel the Elder, painted during the 16th century.
Some sort of carnivalesque prototype of a knight going on in a Pieter Bruegel the Elder painting

The carnival was a time when people would gather and engage in fun. Including role reversals, plays, masks, and other forms of transgression. The carnivalesque was a moment in time where roles are reversed. Activities that allowed people to challenge and undermine established hierarchies and power structures. Often by inverting or parodying them. And I’m sure often with lots of food and drink.

In the carnivalesque, the boundaries between sacred and profane, and normal and abnormal are blurred or even reversed. This leads to a sense of liberation and freedom. People are encouraged to express themselves and act outside of their usual roles.

Jokes are had. Fun things take place. You get away from your normal roles and position in things.

What codesign and the carnivalesque share

The process of codesign and cocreation can be like the carnivalesque in several ways. Both involve a sense of playfulness and experimentation. People are encouraged to explore different ideas and possibilities in a non-conventional way. Like the carnivalesque, codesign and cocreation allow for the breaking down of barriers. And the crossing of boundaries between different disciplines, perspectives, and ways of thinking.

Both codesign and cocreation are collaborative processes. They involve a collective effort to create something new and innovative. This collaboration often leads to a disruption of traditional power structures. Participants are given an equal voice and agency in the design process. This is like carnivalesque’s inversion of power hierarchies and its emphasis on collective participation and democratic decision-making.

True carnivalesque is about unmanaged, unrefined sense of upheaval and fun bubbling under the surface that at any moment can strike hard at false certainties. Getting rid of “that’s how it works”. The carnivalesque is about upending roles. The lords become the peasants and those without power become the lords.

Lots of design tools and techniques attempt to use this. None more so than codesign.

And this is where codesign is the most powerful. Where it recreates this feeling. Where people who are typically excluded from decision making are in the room. The excluded are now making and producing with equal power.

The shared flaws and limits

However. As with anything where there’s a transfer of power from those that have it to those that don’t. It’s scary. People will ask for “unrealistic things”. A strength. But also a threat. And with any threatening things, a risk to minimise.

In organisations that are risk adverse. This happens all the time.

So, codesign doesn’t happen.

Or if it does. It doesn’t actually influence or change anything beyond the moment of fun. Relegated to an hour of hope, exchanged in the long term for pessimism and sense that was a bloody waste of time.

And if that feels dramatic. I’ve seen it plenty. With people faithfully wanting to create the conditions to use what comes out of the chaos of codesign. But those in power having no acceptance or readiness to share power. Or take the fruits of codesign forward.

Teams, communities and organisations then learn (rightfully) to distrust those with power. To roll their eyes. To say “we’ve heard this before”. And then they shun the next chance. Turning down any tickets to the show.

And who’d blame them?

This is also the main criticism of carnivaleseque. It isn’t something that creates lasting change. When the carnival closes everything goes back to the way it was. It’s not changing things in a lasting way.

Codesign offers so much. But be careful that you can live up to the offer you make people.

Next time you’re encouraging your users and communities to get involved. And take a codesign approach. Ask yourself: does your codesign project promise the carnival but leave your participants feeling like clowns?

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