Recently I had the opportunity to interview to Mirian Calvo, a PhD candidate within the researcher training programme at Leapfrog. Leapfrog is a 3 year research project led by Imagination Lancaster in partnership with The Glasgow School of Art Institute of Design Innovation (GSA). Mirian described the goals of Leapfrog as; empowering communities using design, in particular the way communities and the public sector communicate.
I wanted to find out more about Leapfrog, the design tools they create and their unique approach to community engagement to help me reflect and refine my Master thesis project approach to designing with communities who have done buyouts.
I asked Mirian to talk me through the type of work undertaken by Leapfrog since it started. She described how the Glasgow based Leapfrog team mainly do projects with rural communities in Scotland whilst Imagination Lancaster situates projects in urban areas. Mirian spoke about ongoing work on the Isle of Mull, where Leapfrog have held two co-design workshops with citizens of Tobermory, to develop tools that meet their needs. I came to understand the challenges of life on Tobermory which Leapfrog needed to consider, such as the lack of public meeting places and the fact there is limited internet access, making it difficult to share any digital tools created.
I discovered that unlike other design agencies Leapfrog does not choose communities to design for, rather they negotiate with different communities to understand who would like to collaborate with them. In a sense Leapfrog is also "chosen" by communities and does not go anywhere which they have not been invited. This technique ties in with Leapfrog's point of view towards the community as the experts, rather than the researchers. I find this approach fascinating and truly innovative because so many agencies are instead sent to communities to empower them without first considering or consulting members of the community about what they want. I think this negotiation stage, described as the "scope" phase of their approach would be very valuable in my thesis project. I also use empathic and co-design methods and I am constantly trying to make my design approach more open, transparent and participatory.
Mirian went on to describe Leapfrog's process in more detail; every project begins with a "scope" stage which involves negotiating with communities and understanding what they would like the outcome to be, this is followed by co-design workshops which lead to a set of design tools, the tools are delivered to the community who provide feedback and adapt them. Finally, Leapfrog follow-up the tool delivery with an evaluation to understand whether the tools have achieved their aim. Miriam and I discussed the difficulties of evaluating the success of design tools and design in general when it is applied to social change. It is challenging to measure in a standardized format whether a goal such as "empowerment" has been achieved. Nevertheless, as Leapfrog has clearly identified, it is vital that we are able to evaluate the value of design to learn and improve, but also to convey its' worth to various stakeholders.
"Engagement is crucial when working towards
collaborative action for social change."
- Miriam, PhD research assistant at Leapfrog
One of the tools created through the Leapfrog project is a co-presentation app that helps people to cooperatively prepare presentations for meetings. Users of the app can decide the topic of the presentation and select images remotely using their phone, without speaking to other collaborators. This is a great application for introverted young people who have difficulty negotiating in a group. The tool could also allow researchers to engage with people earlier in the research process and collaboratively devise a workshop. Mirian told me she finds this app particularly interesting because "...engagement is crucial when working towards collective action for social change." This is a point I need to keep in mind as my project progresses. How can I engage with communities, create something of real value to them and most importantly, engender a sense of ownership over my design outcomes through working with them?