Co-design and facilitation: keys to sustainable change

Addressing complex sustainability and development challenges require collective action. This post points to the pivotal role of facilitation and co-design in fostering impactful, constructive change.

“Human behaviours, at various decision-making levels, play a crucial role in navigating the complex sustainability and development challenges facing public sector policy staff today. These challenges encompass critical issues such as climate change, public health, catchment (watershed) management, biodiversity and conservation management. Recognizing the importance of collaborative approaches like co-design and facilitation can help us uncover the underlying motivations and barriers to behavior and behavior change. This collaborative insight is invaluable for policymakers and others in crafting strategies that are not only effective but also inclusive, ensuring that solutions to these pressing concerns are co-created with those most affected by them.

In an era dominated by complex crises, the urgency for collective action has never been more pronounced. Bridging the gap between knowledge and action, theory and practice, despair and hope, is a complex journey that demands more than understanding—it requires the expertise of skilled co-design practitioners with facilitation skills and a deep commitment to co-design.

Facilitation as a catalyst for inclusive collaboration

Co-design and facilitation enable a wide range of stakeholders to collaboratively shape the vital landscapes and systems that nourish our world.

Facilitation, especially in the sphere of environmental sustainability, goes beyond simply guiding discussions or leading workshops. It involves creating vibrant spaces where diverse voices converge, ideas blend, and innovative solutions take root. Facilitation acts as the crucial link that binds co-design with effective collaboration for environmental change, cultivating an environment where every participant feels valued and heard.

Visibility in collaboration is essential not only in recognising who is present at the table but also in understanding who has set it. This visibility ensures that all voices, particularly those traditionally marginalised or overlooked, are integral to the decision-making process. Co-design enhances this visibility by actively involving participants in crafting solutions, reflecting the collective wisdom and input of the entire group. It brings unseen voices to the forefront, enriching the collaborative process with a diverse range of perspectives.

Creating environments where visibility is actively encouraged requires facilitators skilled in navigating complex social dynamics, ensuring transparency, and promoting open communication. This builds a foundation of trust among participants, crucial for the collaborative process. Trust enables the sharing of ideas, expression of concerns, and engagement in collective action, all vital for tackling environmental challenges. The facilitator’s role thus extends beyond coordination, acting as a catalyst that transforms individual contributions into a cohesive force for change.

By embracing facilitation as a catalyst for inclusive collaboration, we recognise the nuanced role of facilitators in guiding and empowering participants. They create a participatory environment where every voice contributes to shaping the future of environmental sustainability. This inclusive approach drives innovative solutions and fosters a sense of shared responsibility and collective action towards addressing our time’s pressing environmental issues.

Designing for change with co-design

Co-design, as showcased through the Design Council’s development of a systemic design framework, embodies a participatory approach engaging all stakeholders in the design process. This method ensures that solutions are not only innovative but also inclusive, catering to the needs and aspirations of all involved. It stands as a pivotal element in facilitating collaborative efforts for environmental sustainability, ensuring that the collective endeavour accurately mirrors the diverse perspectives and expertise of its participants.

Attributed to Dwight D. Eisenhower, the adage “Plans are useless, but planning is indispensable” captures the essence of designing processes that are both learning-based and integrated, capable of accommodating change. Co-design offers a sturdy yet flexible framework that encourages people to adapt as situations evolve and new insights surface. It involves continuous clarification of objectives, fostering open communication, and creating an environment where feedback is not just welcomed but actively integrated, rendering the design process a dynamic and inclusive journey.

The importance of an adaptable approach in collaborative work cannot be overstated. It’s essential to have a design that is both strong and flexible, allowing it to adjust to the unpredictable nature of working together. This approach places high value on the contributions of each participant, utilising the collective knowledge and skills of the group to effectively tackle the complexities of environmental sustainability.

Furthermore, the emphasis on designing for change underlines the significance of learning. As our comprehension of environmental crises deepens, our strategies must remain both responsive and resilient. Facilitators play a key role in steering the collaborative process towards continuous learning and adaptation, ensuring that our approaches evolve in tandem with our growing understanding of environmental challenges.

Integrating systems thinking and design thinking

Through co-design and facilitation, conservation efforts can demonstrate a collective commitment to environmental stewardship and sustainable development.

Integrating systems thinking with design thinking is essential for fostering effective environmental collaboration. Originating in business, particularly in product design, design thinking aims to create innovative solutions that meet people’s needs, thus sparking innovation. Participatory Design, or co-design, extends this approach by actively involving all stakeholders, including end-users and the project team, in the design process. As design thinking expanded into management, it adapted to address broader challenges beyond immediate design outcomes. Confronted with complex ‘wicked problems’ in management, design thinkers have sought to incorporate a more systemic perspective. The synergy between design thinking and systems thinking enhances their effectiveness, and their combined application through systemic design is increasingly adopted by organisations aiming for meaningful interventions.

Co-design is instrumental in this integration, facilitating a participatory process that not only encourages innovation but also promotes systemic change. It invites us to re-evaluate our interaction with the environment and pursue solutions that benefit the planet as a whole. This approach underscores the importance of holistic solutions in addressing environmental challenges, echoing the blog’s emphasis on the complementary nature of systems thinking and design thinking to achieve more comprehensive and human-centred outcomes.

Facilitating systemic design involves creating environments where diverse perspectives can converge to tackle complex issues. Co-design steers these conversations, ensuring they probe the root causes of environmental problems and formulate comprehensive solutions. Facilitators play a key role in making systems thinking approachable and stimulating, leading the group towards practical and lasting outcomes. By incorporating specific tools like the Iceberg Model or systems mapping, facilitators can apply these integrated approaches in practice, offering a more tangible way to navigate the complexities of environmental sustainability.

Concluding reflections

Our journey towards environmental sustainability is profoundly enriched by co-design. By embracing collaborative design and facilitation, we commit ourselves to a path that is not only hopeful but also actionable. This journey is a collective endeavour, requiring a shared vision, concerted efforts, and unwavering resilience. It’s a reminder that our collective efforts are crucial in shaping a sustainable future, emphasising the importance of unity and perseverance in our environmental pursuits.

Reflecting on success through case studies, such as integrated freshwater initiatives or community-led conservation projects, provides valuable insights into the effectiveness of co-design in facilitating collaboration and driving significant environmental change. These stories not only inspire but also ground our understanding in tangible real-world applications, showcasing the transformative power of collective action and underscoring the pivotal role of facilitators in this process. They serve as beacons of what can be achieved when communities come together, guided by the principles of co-design.

As we progress, the demand for skilled co-design practitioners with facilitation skills, capable of navigating the intricacies of environmental collaboration, is set to rise. These individuals are not just facilitators but architects of transformative spaces, guiding us through the complexities of collective action and igniting the spark of innovation and hope. Their expertise in co-design and dedication to facilitating meaningful dialogue are vital in cultivating environments where change can flourish.

Engage, reflect, and act. The future of our planet hinges not merely on the robustness of our ideas but on the strength of our collaborative actions, facilitated through co-design. Let’s connect, share experiences, and carve out a sustainable path forward—together. In undertaking this journey, we not only confront the immediate challenges posed by environmental crises but also lay the groundwork for a future that is resilient, equitable, and flourishing for all. This call to action reinforces the necessity of collaboration and co-design in overcoming environmental challenges, urging us to unite in our efforts for a sustainable and equitable world.


Additional information can be found from the related LfS pages – Systemic co-design  and  Facilitation tools and techniques. Other closely related site sections include: Planning, monitoring and evaluation, Team building, communities of practice (COPs) and learning groups and Cross-sector partnerships and collaborations.


An independent systems scientist, action research practitioner and evaluator, with 30 years of experience in sustainable development and natural resource management. He is particularly interested in the development of planning, monitoring and evaluation tools that are outcome focused, and contribute towards efforts that foster social learning, sustainable development and adaptive management.

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