Future-Oriented Co-Design

Why You Should Be Thinking About Future-Oriented Co-Design

Explaining the nature and benefits of co-design

March 8, 2018, Jari Koskinen

What is future-oriented co-design? Why does it matter? And how does it work? Futurist and co-designer Jari Koskinen tells you all about it.

Why You Should Be Thinking About Future-Oriented Co-Design

Co-design, co-creation, and participatory design are terms used to refer to facilitated design done as a group. The core of co-design resides in professionally-facilitated group processes.

The word "facilitation," meaning coaching or guidance, stems from facilis, Latin for "easy."

Co-design is one manifestation of the immaterialisation of design and a sign of the increased use of a design methodology in strategic development activities: whereas the contemporary debate often touches on ideas such as the design of systems, strategies, cities, companies, processes, services, brands, digital goods, or concepts, in the past design was coupled with tangibles, such as objects, vehicles, clothing, or furniture.

Facilitated co-design can be done in a small scale. But it can also be done in a more open and larger scale by bringing in participants from a multitude of fields linked to the issue being designed. A co-design team may include executives, employees, partners, clients, customers, and end-users. In co-design, the user perspective is of paramount importance. Participation and participatory approaches are key terms.

The co-design methodology builds on a professionally-facilitated dissemination of expertise and information, differing viewpoints brought together, and genuine encounters and dialogue between people. It's based on empowering, not controlling people. At its best, co-design processes include executives and experts from one’s own organisation (sometimes all employees), outside experts, partners, client representatives, and consumers. There must then be a key facilitator, who plays a key role in assisting participants throughout guided group processes.



Co-design serves various purposes. For one, it can be used for business development or operational development in the public or the third sector. It is also a feasible tool for systemic and cultural dissidence or thinking anew, for creating something completely novel, or for creative problem solving.

While many organisations are experienced and efficient at gradually improving their existing products, services, or solutions, they may have trouble when trying to fundamentally innovate.

Hence, co-design can be used in strategic development, concept design, or any change process imaginable. Here, co-design can be thought of as a means of change facilitation.

But co-design can also focus on systemic or cultural changes. For instance, changes in organisational work habits, reorganisation of product or service lines, or imagining new, foresight-oriented occupational roles. In fact, co-design should have a place in the toolset of societal decision-making, increasing citizen participation.

Here are some areas that benefit from co-design:


  • Product and service development
  • Strategic development
  • Shared and collaborative creation of change
  • Systemic and cultural development
  • Collective competence and expertise development (learning how to learn)
  • Improving the atmosphere and mood of the work place
  • Developing competence-oriented and self-organising work


At the same time, it is important to identify problematic usages of the term "co-design." Some activities may be described as co-design without much, if any, relation to professional activity. These include:


  • Loose debate with superficial facilitation
  • Ceremonial panel discussions with no dialogue whatsoever
  • Complete focus on methods instead of competences or contents
  • Events where bosses or facilitators speak while others merely listen
  • Describing any and all meetings as co-design workshops
  • Workshops as a form of working life theatre, i.e. people pretending to have an impact
  • Workshops concentrating on business talk or artsy antics.


Well facilitated co-design should enable efficient results while creating a shared understanding, and new skills and competences.

What characteristics does a good facilitator have? He or she needs to have a wide knowledge and strategic understanding of the customer organisation. He or she also needs the ability to listen, comprehend, and act in the moment. Further, good facilitators need to have the ability to gather insights and an ability to guide co-design work in a coaching manner. A competent facilitator acts like a conductor, guiding the orchestra in the here and now.

On the other hand, sometimes the team is already quite experienced. In those cases, the facilitator may act just as an enabler, who assists the participants’ self-organisation.

It's important to keep in mind what makes a bad facililator too. People who lack discretion or who cannot read the atmosphere in the group do not make good facilitators. Neither do people who are overtly thorough and concentrate excessively on details or individuals. Same goes for those who tend to overshadow what other people are trying to say. At best, a facilitator is a sort of a renaissance character, who is able to guide the co-design process through difficult circumstances and to discuss any and all subject matters from multiple viewpoints.



An era of digitalisation and technology hype requires compassionate design for and with people.

In practical terms, ”for and with people” translates into a new way of obtaining expertise. Experts have traditionally delivered a one-directional information flow. Current developments promise us future experts who show their expertise in a more interactive manner, by creating shared understanding through dialogue, so that all participants in a discussion can add to the shared pot.

This shouldn’t be taken to mean that so-called experts by experience ought to outrank professionally- and academically-trained experts. The acquisition and development of occupation-specific competences remain as essential as ever. But this could work through interaction and with a wider spectrum, and in closer cooperation with other occupational fields. This is directly linked to the rise of neo-generalists - we will see an increased demand for experts who combine and link different competences, are able to create expertise networks, and work in the in-betweens of professional or occupational fields.

Instead of traditional, one-way expertise, interactive expertise means:

  • Openness and readiness for continuous learning
  • Empowering, collaborative, and inviting instead of exclusive and closed
  • Genuine interest to listen and understand others
  • A more human-centred work life: encouragement, inspiration, and support
  • Creation of new and shared knowledge and understanding
  • Pedagogically justified leadership through facilitation
  • Creative problem solving
  • Wisdom of the crowds



Co-design comes with a set of core principles, which I hold essential in environments where collaboration and shared development activities take place:


  • Together and in cooperation
  • Everybody is invited!
  • Immediate results in the here and now!
  • Openly, transparently, and democratically!
  • With empathy, through support and encouragement!
  • WHAT is said is more important that WHO speaks!
  • Thinking YOURSELF, TOGETHER, and ANEW!
  • From systems and processes towards human-centred and continuous co-creation
  • Focus on the user and customer viewpoints!
  • Pluralistic, transdisciplinary and value-rich!
  • Comprehensively but not without self-criticism
  • Away from silos!
  • Work is a continuous, shared process of learning, development, and developing!
  • Work is based on competences and skills and, by nature, self-organising!
  • Situational awareness and discretion enable flexibility and agility!


At its best, co-design is an actively intelligent, smart development activity. Dutch philosopher Johan Huizinga discussed the idea of a playful human (homo ludens). Learning through games and play is a natural part of co-design, particularly where a game-like approach is pedagogically utilised to relax participants, create a good atmosphere, find motivation, and to boost creativity.



The real life is rarely built ”either-or”, but ”both-and”. Regardless, things are often presented as black and white through juxtaposition. This sort of thinking does not take the complex nature of matters, continuous change, or context-dependency into consideration. Co-design is a good means to analyse complex and constantly changing issues in cooperation with others.

Continuous, accelerating changes demand us all to change our current ways of operation. A handful of key phenomena impact our everyday.

VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous) translates into an accelerating pace of change, increasing complexity, chaos, uncertainty, volatility, and ambiguity. This challenges lengthy processes, traditional, silo-like planning and decision-making.

What's worrisome is that even the starting points for design or planning grow rapidly old in situations where the threats and opportunities of the future have not been identified or analysed.

Accelerating change and increasing complexity are particularly problematic in organisations that have become rigid and slow monoliths. Monolithic organisations deal with long processes and hierarchic, silo-ed operations. The focus of operations is in management instead of customers or service users. Rigid organisations form a systemic whole, which can perhaps be tweaked and fine-tuned here and there. But they are unable to react quickly and flexibly as a system to abrupt changes in its operational environment. Matters can be adjusted in such an organisation, but the organisation itself cannot be managed with foresight knowledge.

In an era of ever-quickening change, increased complexity, and uncertainty, there is  great demand for new kinds of planning and decision-making as well as for foresight and change capabilities. Such as doing things differently in a systematic way within a culture of experimentation. This means rapid prototyping and testing as a basis for planning and ideating that proactively anticipates the future and prepares for it.

FORESIGHT ABILITY is at its highest when foresight is a systemic and systematic part of all planning, operations, and decision-making. All plans and decisions need to be reflected in relation to potential (and obvious) changes in the operational environment.

CHANGE CAPABILITY, on the other hand, is derived from the ability to take identified and analysed changes into account proactively in all operations.

So how to succeed amidst accelerating changes and increasing complexity? The answer is futures-oriented co-design and improved foresight ability and change capability. Systematic foresight + co-design = futures-oriented co-design. In practical terms this means that each time something is planned or a decision is made, foresight knowledge is reflected upon.

Foresight and change capability coupled with co-design give people a sense of security. When a group repeatedly gathers to discuss future threats and opportunities, changes no longer seem to come about abruptly and people are aware of possible implications. On the one hand, futures-oriented co-design is a means to prepare for the future, and, on the other, an attempt at becoming a forerunner.

Futures-oriented co-design can take place in face-to-face meetings in workshops or via digital group work tools (such as Futures Platform).

Successful futures-oriented co-design underlines the importance of what Pasi Lankinen calls "the will to encounter": "In a VUCA world, dialogue skills form a key characteristic for experts. The will to encounter is the ultimate prerequisite for coping and creating new things in a volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous operational environment, where anticipating situations is difficult. The most essential thing is not what you know when you encounter others – a whole lot more importance has to be put on what you learn in interaction with others and how your thinking evolves. This calls for the ability to be impressed by other people’s ideas and particularly by shared understanding. Encounters never come easy. It is difficult to move from one’s position, and one’s own thoughts usually feel like the best ones.”

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