Participatory Design and Young People as 'Possibilities Personified'

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 Tara L. Conley, Teachers College, Columbia University (March 29, 2013)

This past Friday, I had the opportunity to speak about participatory design and fostering critical connections in our work with young people. Though the talk was meant as a brief audition for TEDxTeachersCollege next month, I was able to share some of the work I've been doing with young people involved in building a text line for court-involved youth in NYC.

As I continue to work with young people on the mobile initiative, I'm beginning to understand why it's important for us, as educators, designers, researchers, and social entrepreneurs to involve young people in the work that we're doing. Particularly if your mission is to actively support communities and young people, it's important to involve motivated young leaders because, quite frankly, they know more than we do about what's best for their neighborhoods, families, and local cohorts. It's sounds simple enough but you'd be surprised at how much we end up not actively involving young people in work that is meant to support their growth.

In this brief 5-minute talk I outline some of the reasons why I believe that participating in collaborative working groups is an effective strategy for community building and social entrepreneurship. I also touch on the idea that the process of building and creating technology platforms with others may result in a kinship formation experience where we not only produce knowledge together but we do so in a way that can yield sustainable outcomes for surrounding communities.

A few key definitions and insights that inform my work thus far:

Participatory Design

"Participatory design is a hybrid experience where participants are neither user or developer but both simultaneously. Characteristics of PD experiences include 'challenging assumptions, learning reciprocally, and creating new ideas, which emerge through negotiation and co-creation of identities, working languages, understandings, and relationships, and polyvocal (many-voiced) discussions across and through differences'" (Muller; 2002).


“‘Believing in the potential of everyone to design is more egalitarian than believing in exclusive talents and specialised roles. However, this is not the same as involving every potential user in every design project, or at all stages, or in the same way as the next person" (Light & Luckin, 2008).

It is not the hand that makes the designer, it’s the eye. Learning to design is learning to see . . .Our experience sharpens our eyes to certain perceptions and shapes what we expect to see, just as what we expect to see shapes our experience. Our reality is perspectival. Although we don’t perceive and sense things that a more experienced practitioner can, we can learn. (Reichenstein; 2013).

Transcript from my talk below.

Thank you.

I’d like to share a quote with you from author Margaret Wheatley, who received her doctorate in education from Harvard University. She wrote in 2006,

“Rather than worry about critical mass, our work is to foster critical connections.  We don't need to convince large numbers of people to change; instead, we need to connect with kindred spirits.  Through these relationships, we will develop the new knowledge, practices, courage, and commitment that lead to broad-based change”

I recently received a Media Ideation Fellowship grant that will allow me to begin developing a text line for court-involved youth in New York City. The text line will support young people involved in foster care, juvenile justice, and criminal justice systems so that can use their cell phones to access educational, vocational, and intervention support resources.

I’m currently working directly with young people who serve on the text line youth advisory board to develop the mobile initiative.

For the TEDxTeachersCollege conference, I would like to talk about the significance of collaborative working groups between young people and social entrepreneurs, and the exponential impact this particular collaborative cohort has on the broader community.

I want to talk about how we can, as Margaret Wheatley amply describes, foster critical connections through our work and by way of democratic working processes, and through what Oliver Reichenstein articulates as an understanding that learning to design (in what ever form that may take for educators, scholars, and designers) means learning to see. Learning to see.

To that end, I want to discuss how we might envision and situate technology artifacts as points of entry where community building and kinships can emerge. And how we might re-conceptualize the process of building and incorporating technologies in learning spaces with members of communities we wish to serve.

While working with the youth advisory board over the past four weeks, I’m beginning to notice these sort of third space, or hybrid, themes come about, and I want to share these themes with the TC community as a way to inform our teaching, researching, and design practices.

Some of the themes I’ve noticed include:

  • The idea that social entrepreneurship is fundamentally participatory
  • That participatory design methods as defined by Mueller look more and more like kinship formations
  • Also the idea that critical connections yield knowledge production that is local, specific, and sustainable
  • And the idea that hybridization does not only apply to theory and practice but also applies to entrepreneurship and learning
  • And finally, it is the notion that education is a concept we can actually define through democratic learning processes and, most importantly, through love.

Before I go, I want to share with you a story. I was walking home with one of the youth advisory board members recently. And she told me that when she first heard about the opportunity to be part of the development of the text line she knew she wanted to be involved. She told me that she thought the text line would be a great way for court-involved youth to access resources that were usually difficult to impossible to access. Then she said to me, “You know, when I first head that someone was developing a text line for court-involved youth, my first thought was, ‘Wow! Someone out there actually cares about fosters kids.’”

That was my ah-ha moment. That was when I realized why it’s so important for us to develop strategies and create spaces where we involved young people in our teaching, researching, and design methods.

Because young people are not statistics or bodies to fill up classrooms, residential facilities, or prisons. They are media makers. They are developers. They are designers. Young people, especially the one I work with, are possibilities personified. Thank you.


Fouche, R. (2013). “From Black Inventors to One Laptop Per Child: Exploring a Racial Politics of Technology” in Race after the Internet, L. Nakamura & P. A. Chow-White (EDs). (pp. 61-83)

Kensing, F. and J. Blomberg. (1998). Participatory Design: Issues and Concerns

Light, A., and Luckin, R. (2008). Designing for social justice: People, technology, and learning. Futurelab:

Muller, M. J. Participatory design: The third space in HCI. In J. A. Jacko and A. Sears (Eds.), The Human Computer Interaction Handbook: Fundamentals, Evolving Technologies and Emerging Applications, Lawrence Erlbaum, Mahwah, NJ, 2002, 1051–1068.

Reinchenstein, O. (2013). Learning to see.