Avenues of Dialogue – Using Participatory Design to open up dialogue between The Glasgow School of Art and Garnethill
In June 2018, the Glasgow School of Art’s (GSA) Mackintosh Building caught fire for a second time, destroying the building and greatly impacting the surrounding neighbourhood of Garnethill. This incident increased tensions between residents and organisations of Garnethill and GSA. In response, GSA decided to evaluate how it impacts and connects with Garnethill by appointing a Community Engagement Officer to focus on developing a more constructive and positive relationship. I took on this role part-time in November 2018 and, running alongside, undertook this research to explore how Participatory Design (PD) methods can be utilised within this context to immerse, analyse and rebuild connections between a Higher Education Institute (HEI) and neighbourhood, both dynamic and complex contexts.
The relevance of HEIs in their cities has been under growing scrutiny in recent years, in response to changes such as rising tuition fees, a pressure to evidence research impact and an emphasis on international reach. In reaction there is a movement amongst some to explore and develop their civic role, integrating community engagement more deeply into their strategies and exploring alternative and democratic processes for knowledge creation.
Participatory Design (PD) has historically focused on creating a more democratic process by bringing participants and their context expertise into the design process. In recent years this practice has been criticised for becoming de-politicised when working in community settings, with practitioners focusing too much on the micro-level impact of their work. This research seeks to explore how the civic role of GSA can be developed by opening up effective avenues of dialogue with Garnethill stakeholders using PD methods. Following a Participatory Action Research methodology and using methods of conversational scoping, walking interviews and co-design workshops, context-specific PD tools are developed to facilitate participants in reflection and ideation about the future of Garnethill and the role of GSA within it. The output of this value-driven research is a community engagement strategy, co-developed by local stakeholders, and a series of identified engagement opportunities. Alongside this, the research examines the use of PD methods within a HEI/community context and considers how these methods can provide a space for social impact and transformation for both a HEI and the communities it works with.