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Co-Thinking: How We Collaborate

“Nothing truly valuable can be achieved, except by
the unselfish cooperation of many individuals.”
—Albert Einstein

An exhibition starts with an idea, and by a series of processes, it becomes a reality. By its nature, the exhibition process must be collaborative, as no one person has all the essential skills. If you don’t have a clear idea at the start, the focus gets lost and the exhibition ends up with less impact.

The collaborative exhibition process needs three components: content, design, and visitor voice (often represented by an educator). If the content dominates the process, a wordy, somewhat boring exhibition results. If design wins the day, the exhibition may look good, but visitors won’t learn much. If visitor voice takes over, the result can be uninspiring. Effective collaboration and balance are essential.

The traditional approach to exhibition development assumes the deficit model: “We know, they don’t, how can we best tell them?” We might say the new approach, exemplified by co-design, is: “We don’t know, you do, please tell us.” Co-design has its own challenges, but its focus on listening, respect, and collaboration can result in a successful outcome. These are desirable qualities in an exhibition team anyway.

This issue of Dimensions is inspired by one of the topics of the upcoming Science Centre World Summit 2017: co-design for transformation. The articles in this edition explore the potential of co-design between science centers and their audiences—as well as collaborators in industry, government, and elsewhere—to create transformational changes in communities and society. Co-design involving target audiences has a particularly strong potential for transformation. How do these collaborations work? Everyone needs to agree on what the problem is and commit to finding a solution. Everyone participating is an expert. To quote John Chisholm of Lancaster University in the United Kingdom, all participating are “experts in their own experience and become central to the design process.”

In addition, the content and design experts need to be appreciative of what participants offer. As Laila Gifty Akita of Smart Youth Volunteers Foundation puts it, “Sometimes the experts forget they were once beginners. You must be gentle with beginners; they have great potential to be experts.”

Finding a comfortable and gentle way to involve the end users in the development process is key. It is also essential to agree upon what the subsequent process will be for integrating their opinions, research, and feedback. Mutual respect is a must.

I was once in a taxi in the west of England after a ceremony where an 82-year-old was awarded his master’s degree. I told the driver, thinking how great this was, but he replied, “Phoarr, ain’t he learnt it yet?”

Well, as a sector, no, we haven’t, so we just need to go on learning. I hope you enjoy this edition of Dimensions and get inspired to carry on the exploration and experimentation.