Making and sharing the commons: Reimagining 'the West' as Riverlands, Sydney through a dialogue between design and ethnography

University of Western Sydney
Publication Type:
Journal Article
Global Media Journal: Australian Edition, 2015, 9 (2), pp. 42 - 56
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Scholars from the social sciences and humanities are increasingly seeking to improve the relevance and social impact of their research beyond the academy. In this context, ‘designerly’ thinking and methods are being drawn on to inform social change agendas, and a range of new relationships and collaborations are forming around this node of activity. This article critically reflects on this trajectory through a dialogue between ethnography, design and theoretical principles from anthropology and human geography. We draw on the example from a workshop during the ICD Symposium and our response to the challenge of reimagining Western Sydney as ‘Riverlands, Sydney’. We found that various conflicting descriptions and residents’ experiences of Western Sydney warranted a critical take on the constitution of a ‘problem’ of Western Sydney and the possible solution as ‘Riverlands, Sydney’. We argue that a diverse mix of experiential and theoretical ‘knowing’ is needed to tackle locally embedded opportunities and challenges, and that local knowledge must ‘sit at the table’ on an equal footing with design practice and academic analysis. The article outlines points of contact that could be created to involve local people and organisations as experts in a hypothetical, collectively imagined project, and how this could lead to their active engagement as co-researchers, co-designers and co-producers in making and sharing commons. The article demonstrates how this type of critical and collaborative design framework incorporates theoretical and ethnographic dialogues, and how this approach provides the entry points for going beyond stale policy-based responses to contemporary societal challenges. Using a combination of experiential and theoretical tools to look beneath the surface of the already constituted ‘question’ or ‘problem’ allows possible re-framings to be explored before responses are developed. We argue that ethnographic understandings developed in dialogue with design, which are rooted in a perspective that takes seriously local ways of knowing as forms of equal expertise, can enable this.
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