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Origins of Co-Design - Norway to Australia and Indigenous Culture

This article is the third in a series to share information, resources, answer questions and offer tips and tools to support you as you work across the Southern NSW Innovation Hub and beyond.

The Hub is implementing Co-design. This is an approach to designing “with” and not “for” or “to” people. These regular articles are designed to challenge, teach, and motivate you to explore and use Co-design in your work (and it will have relevance beyond the work environment too.)

All updates are written by the team of Jo Eady, a human centred facilitator, strategic designer with a keen interest in social change based in Victoria and Dale Stringer, innovation specialist and key knowledge broker with Southern NSW Innovation Hub.

50 years ago

What were you doing 50 years ago? Over in Norway, computer technology was being introduced to the iron and metal working industry. The Norwegian Metal Worker’s Union was advocating for workers to have more input and control across their workplace practices. It was decided that the people most likely to be affected by the new technology should be involved in its development. As a result, workers participated in a significant change process. They were consulted and listened to the whole way and gave important feedback about the way computer technology was to be introduced and how workers would be trained to use it. At the time the process was described as participatory design resulting in high ‘buy in’ from the workers. You could say workers were treated more as partners in the process. What happened in Norway was given the term Co-design and since then it’s been used extensively to support change processes across many industries with the approach spreading globally.

Co-Design in Australia

A quick google of Co-design shows 5,910,000,000 results. A google of Co-design Australia shows 1,310,000,000 results. Co design is used across an endless variety of contexts in Australia. This includes education, mental health, crisis management, palliative care, social policy, justice, architecture in public spaces and the list goes on. In some instances, government policy is being influenced by Co-design and government is requesting the use of it as part of funding.

New term, old practice

Co-design is relatively ‘new’ as a term used to describe a highly participatory process where expertise and lived experiences are recognised and respected and where outcomes achieved are seen to be of higher value than what could be achieved by those not working in partnership. In practice, looking to indigenous people and communities, a form of this practice has always been a part of this culture. “Co-design is in this sense a way of thinking, rather than an event, that requires a different mindset and a new framework for working toward a solution. From the perspective of aboriginal peoples, Co-design is action over words, a mechanism to build a foundation of trust, and a commitment to partnership and collaboration.”

A recent Australian example

Co-design played a key role in the development of the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS). Back in 2015, workshops were held from one side of the country to the other with over 50 disability sector organisations and over 1000 people to get specific about funding priorities, desired outcomes along with success factors. As a result, pilot programs were put in place which assisted in the development of today’s system. The buy in and take up of the NDIS can be partially attributed to the Co-design process.

Co-Design is much more than a tick-the-box activity

Many people tell us they’ve always consulted with people as part of their projects, including those with lived experience and those that will benefit most from the changed practice. “People often feel like they’ve ticked the box on Co-design even if they involve people at the beginning, even if they aren’t participating in the rest of the process” says Irene Verins , VicHealth Manager of Mental Wellbeing. “That’s just not true. Consultation isn’t Co-design. It’s just one part of Co-design.” Verins shares that Co-design is like a very strong thread that needs to run through all stages of a process. It stands to reason that the more people who participate, the more interested they will become in designing a solution and the more likely they’ll be to buy in to the outcomes. In turn this will deliver change and practices resulting in improved outcomes for those most affected.

Dr Tim Dietrich, a research fellow at the University of Queensland and Griffith University was met with a degree of resistance when he introduced Co-design to a Youth Centre he worked with. “We’re flipping the table in terms of how we listen to the consumer and I’m a big advocate for this approach. Co-design gives the opportunity to better orient any program we design to really meet the needs of an audience. Co-design can even be a first step to understanding the problem at hand before you even consider the solution. Sometimes we’re just too top down in our problem assessment.” Dietrich sums up the benefit of using Co-design for programs as creating “a better and more relatable end result.”


  1. Page 9 Co-designing recommendations to government. A literature review and case studies from the OCHRE initiative. An Aboriginal Affairs NSW Practice paper July 2021 by RG (Jerry) Schwab.
  2. Dietrich from Co-design Delivers Agency, Achieving a Real-World Impact. VicHealth

Over to you

We hope this article gives you food for thought, and that it supports you when planning your next Co-design initiative.

Click here for Article 4

Click here to see all Articles in this Series.


We’d love to hear from you. Please email through any comments or questions you have. And if you have topics you’d like to see addressed in future articles, please share them here or call 0419 912 879. Feel free to share this article with those you think might find it of value too. For more information about the Southern NSW Innovation Hub please contact Dale Stringer or call 0428 409 680

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