Can community organising help us co-design? The origins of a new relational method

Amanda Tattersall
11 min readNov 18, 2021

Amanda Tattersall & Marc Stears

Co-design is an alluring concept. But while the idea of researchers building deep partnerships with communities sounds attractive, the practice is interpreted and used in an almost confusingly vast spectrum of forms. Co-design may come from the traditions of design thinking, but today the terminology is used to label all manner of community engagement research methods across universities, the public service, corporate consultation, and civil society practice.

We argue here that co-design — broadly defined — can include many of the practices and approaches of another long-living method — community organising. Indeed, the origin story of community organising comes in part from academia — at the University of Chicago in the 1920s and 1930s. Community organising, however, didn’t remain in the hands of researchers for long. It soon travelled beyond the university wall, reaching civil society through the work of Saul Alinsky’s Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF). Over eighty years the IAF used community organising at a scale that not only brought people together, but had vast real world impact, helping communities across the United States transform their own fortunes and developing a complex detailed account of how power works in the modern world.

Saul Alinsky on Chicago’s South Side

We argue that today community organising is well place to be reappropriated by universities as a research method. We call this method the relational method and have outlined its key principles of relationality, power and uncertainty elsewhere. Here we explain the history of organising more fully — outlining the relational method’s origin story.

A short note on co-design

Co-design has become a concept de jour in many universities. It has become the default phrase to describe a research approach where there is meaningful community engagement in the design and execution of a particular ‘thing’, whether that be a product, research or policy.

The term co-design had its roots in the practices of Scandinavian participatory design, which evolved out of the work of trade union movements that pushed for the democratisation of workplaces in the 1960s and 1970s. At its roots, co-design is an approach that…

Amanda Tattersall

Associate Professor at University of Sydney’s Sydney Policy Lab. Helped start Sydney Alliance & GetUp. Lived experience advocate on mental health.