Co-design

Introduction


The various collaborative finance tools that Mutual Credit Services uses have – with the exception of the Credit Commons Protocol – long histories. Multilateral obligation set-off and shared ledgers have been in routine use at the heart of the corporate and financial sectors for centuries, whilst recognisably modern mutual credit systems have come into and out of existence on the economic margins since the 19th century. In technical terms these systems are relatively simple, and there is an accessible literature on their economic benefits. Given this, the question for would-be implementers becomes: why are they not mainstream already?


Mutual credit networks have always faced a dilemma of remaining marginal or becoming centralised, and the Credit Commons Protocol is intended to overcome this limitation. In the case of multilateral obligation set-off, developing the capacity to collect and process the required data outside of an institutional context has only become feasible with the advent of ubiquitous digital tech. However, technological constraints are only part of the problem. Although we explore some other big-picture factors in our blog post Complementary Economics Wont Do It, the focus of this piece is on how, in practical terms, MCS is bringing collaborative finance tools to the mainstream.


This starts with a recognition that there are no one-size-fits-all approaches. Every economy, and every subset of every economy, is unique, and as with all complex adaptive systems – the law of unintended consequences applies. This makes any approach based on universalism dangerous. What is called for is an application of technical expertise to each context on its own terms. This will necessarily involve (at least):


MCS refers to this process as co-design’, and it is at the core of our way of working. In our experience, it is much more effective than designing systems ‘in a vacuum’ and then attempting to persuade others to use them.


However, there is a countervailing requirement – if our work is to have any substantial impact beyond a few isolated corners, then what we design must be applicable elsewhere, ideally without prior investment in deep design capacity by those who wish to use it. Each of our models and projects is an attempt to develop a pattern, embodied as a piece of collaborative finance infrastructure, that resolves the tension between customisation and replicability; specific enough to be effective in, and recognisably of the originating context, yet general and flexible enough to be adapted for a broad range of circumstances. After describing co-design as a somewhat generic procedure, some simple examples from MCS’ work are provided as illustrations.



Co-design in Brief

Purpose


The purpose of co-design is to produce practical, successful, and appropriate outcomes – implementations of proposals which will be viable. Such outcomes must connect with the reality of the place – and thus become part of the life of the place, supported by the daily actions of the people there (including those not formally involved in the co-design process). Note that ‘place’ can be any sort of context: a neighbourhood, an organisation, a community of interest – even something like a supply chain. To achieve this, designs should be developed:



Collaboration


Co-design is a collaboration between people/groups with different expertise. Many kinds of expertise are possible, but the two basic types are: 


Local experts the people who know the context. These people know, through lived experience, what their ‘place’ is like the people, their culture(s), the conditions, the neighbours. They provide the grounding and the understanding which sets the basis for the work. They must have consciously chosen to work with the technical experts to positively want to join in with the process. For the local experts, the experience should be interesting and creative, they should feel heard, included, and empowered.


Technical experts whose theoretical understanding should ensure well-founded outcomes when applying domain-specific knowledge to a new situation. These people have experience and understanding of the techniques, tools, and materials necessary to build and service what is designed. They take responsibility for facilitating the process not power or control, but responsibility. Their technical expertise and understanding is in service of a successful outcome creatively enabling rather than constraining. For this to be possible, technical experts must also take responsibility for good communications so that all are heard and can participate.



Process


Co-design starts with the local experts, and operates through three basic modes these do follow a sequence, but in practice there is much looping back as new ideas, perspectives, proposals, and realities are arrived at in the course of the work. When the process is well-embedded, distinctions between the modes will begin to blur. As long as documentation and other recording is maintained to an effective standard, this blurring is to be welcomed.


Growing Shared Understanding so that all can contribute

To begin with, the participants need to learn from each other often this learning is between members of groups, as well as from one group to another local experts will have different experiences and understandings of their context and needs, and technical experts may likewise have different knowledge and approaches.


Work is needed to develop shared language about the work in hand so that increasingly sophisticated and specific ideas can be effectively communicated.


Developing Proposals the work of design

Creative work should start on the basis of even a small amount of understanding. Complete understanding is never possible. Creative thinking on the basis of some understanding will raise new questions and produce new understanding. Be prepared to ‘loop back’ to the ‘Shared Understanding’ mode often throughout the process.


Building Responsively refining as we go

Implementation should start on the basis of the first proposal that seems reliable; ‘safe to try, good enough for now’. In MCS’ work, this usually takes the form of trials with intended users of one of our platforms. In keeping with the rest of this piece, the outline below is somewhat philosophical, whilst our page on grassroots trials gives a more concrete sense of the process.