Participate in Design

How can we make our streets safe, livable and respectful? Should we look to the government? the architects? the neighborhood association? the users? How can we make creative and community-minded use of objects that we are ready to discard? Such as bottle crates and holey blankets? How can we cultivate a living relationship with our highly-built environment? And not merely a proprietary attitude? These questions may appear very different from one another, but they can be individually and collectively addressed in the framework of Participatory Design. Championing this approach to urban design in Singapore is a local non-profit called Participate In Design (P!D). Founded by Jan Lim and Mizah Rahman in 2012, P!D is dedicated to “engaging and enabling people in shaping their everyday environments and local communities.” Jan Lim is kind enough to give Singapore Poetry an interview on what Participatory Design involves.


SP. According to the P!D website, “Participatory Design is a design approach where all stakeholders are actively involved in the processes and procedures of design. Traditional design processes commonly include the paying client and consultants within or related to the profession; in participatory design, the users and even the wider public are also recognized as stakeholders and are brought into the process as well.” The aims and values of Participatory Design are democratic and inclusive, but I wonder what are some of the challenges in implementing the process on the ground. For instance, what happens when the wider public is involved and they don’t agree with the designers or one another? Could you explain how disagreements are resolved in theory and practice?

JL. Conflict resolution is something we get asked about a lot, and it’s also an area we are interested in. When we interviewed individuals and organisations working in similar fields in New York City and Copenhagen — as part of the BetterSG project we are currently working on — we posed the same question to them. What we gathered was that while there is no one answer, there are things we can do that will help immensely.

For instance, having a neutral party play the role of facilitator is very important. That means someone who has no stake in the outcome, and who is on an equal level as the participants. In initiatives like “The Upcycle Project” and “Safe Streets”, we intentionally assume this role, and bring in other designers to work with local residents in MacPherson estate.

Another strategy that is often useful in situations of conflicting opinions is to simply test out the various positions and possible solutions through low-fidelity, small-scale prototypes. This way everyone gets to see how the different ideas really play out, before deciding on the most appropriate solution. Moving forward, this is a strategy we are really pushing for with the agencies and neighbourhoods we work with.


“Safe Streets” Workshop


SP. Another challenge may be the aesthetic conservatism of users and the wider public. Have you encountered this difficulty in your projects? How do you broaden for all stakeholders the horizon of possibilities? Has the wider public done so for you as a community organizer and designer?

JL. If you ask the man on the street to design the local community centre for you, you’re likely to get a wide range of ideas, from the ultra-conservative answers to the really crazy ones. (I think that not even designers and architects can agree amongst themselves what constitutes good taste sometimes!)

But that’s not the point of participatory design. The participatory approach is about recognising that every individual is good at something, and encouraging him/her to bring that to the table. For example, a person who has been living in the area for 20 years would probably know the place and needs of the community much more intimately than the visiting architect; the architect, on the other hand, would be expected to offer sound professional advice and translate the community’s needs imaginatively into the built form. So I wouldn’t engage people on, say, the choice of paint colour, but I would like them to tell me what they would use, how they would use it, why that matters for them, etc.



“Retellings: A Community Art Exhibition”


SP. In recent news, the residents of Fernvale Lea in Singapore are very unhappy about the building of a columbarium as part of a Chinese temple next to their condos. According to news reports, a dialogue between residents and their Member of Parliament, with representatives from the Urban Redevelopment Authority, the Housing Development Board and the developer Life Corporation Pte Ltd, resulted in an impasse. Would Participate In Design have handled the whole process differently, and, if so, how?

JL. The Fernvale Link episode is the latest in a series of incidents where residents and member of the public have openly expressed their unhappiness on proposed developments in their neighbourhood. Many of these appear to revolve around spaces for eldercare or end-of-life facilities.

The first thing I’d like to do is to understand the root causes, which may differ in each scenario. In Fernvale Link’s case, are most people upset because: (a) they feel cheated (plans for the columbarium being indicated only in the fine print of the brochures for some public housing projects); (b) they see death and spaces for death as taboo; (c) they feel disempowered about not being consulted before the decision to site the columbarium was made? Or are there other underlying reasons behind their responses?

P!D has been working on developing a participatory framework for Singapore (see BetterSG), that lays out methods and tools for involving people in creating community-owned solutions. I’d like to use this toolkit to first discover and understand the root causes, objectively present both sides of the issue, and ask for the affected residents, the developer, as well as public agency representatives to help develop a solution together. The platform with which to facilitate this process is important. Dialogue sessions can sometimes feel antagonistic if the issue is already divisive, but what if we carry it out as a workshop? We could also think about how to present the arguments for and against the columbarium in a different format, to allow everyone involved the critical distance he needs to review his own opinions.



“The Upcycle Project: 2 Day Challenge”: building prototypes in Bishan Public Library


SP. The aims and values of Participatory Design are obviously dear to you. How did you come to hold these values? What or who are your influences and inspiration?

JL. Over the course of architecture school in Singapore, I became interested in the idea of “designing for the other 90%” (a Cooper-Hewitt exhibition about designing for people traditionally underserved by design professionals), and felt that the profession had to take on some form of social responsibility, since the output of our work can be so invasive and can often consume large amounts of resources. I remember going for an overseas volunteer programme in my second year where we were tasked with creating a library for the village school, and I did what I had thought I was supposed to do as a designer — dictate my “vision” for the space. But I always felt uncomfortable about it, although I didn’t understand why for some time, until I encountered the theory of participatory design, and realised there was an alternative way to approach a design project. My focus now is to figure out how to design “with” as opposed to just “for” the 90%.

There are many architects around the globe who have been doing great work in participatory design. But one challenge for P!D is to develop processes and methods suitable for our local context, culture and politics. Thankfully, there has been growing interest in the approach we take, amongst agencies and communities in Singapore. We’re always on the lookout for those who are willing to share the risks and uncertainties — but also the rewards and long-term benefits — that come with public participation, with us.





Jan Lim is a community organiser and textile artist with a background in environments design. With industry experience in design thinking, she brings her ability to understand and translate people’s underlying needs into beautiful, human-centric experiences to her work with local communities. From facilitating workshops with a wide range of stakeholders that include government agency representatives, school students and public housing residents, to volunteering with various NGOs in the region, Jan is committed to working closely with and alongside people, to develop their capacity for bettering everyday conditions. She graduated from the National University of Singapore (NUS) with a M.Arch.


All photos are taken with permission from the P!D website.


About Jee Leong Koh

My book of poems Steep Tea (Carcanet) was named a Best Book of 2015 by UK's Financial Times, and a Finalist by Lambda Literary. I also wrote three other books of poems and a book of zuihitsu. My work has been shortlisted for the Singapore Literature Prize, and translated into Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamese, Russian and Latvian. Originally from Singapore, I live in New York City, where I edit the arts blog Singapore Poetry, and run the Second Saturdays Reading Series and the Singapore Literature Festival in NYC.

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