What is Co-design?

Co-design is a process that actively engages those who will be most impacted by the design of a service, product or process (or in the case of data governance, those who are most extracted from, mismodeled, or over/under-represented), beginning with the earliest stages of planning and creating. Participants, often those whose needs are least served by existing designs and/or those who have experienced historical exclusions and inequities, are involved as designers engaged in active and sustained collaboration. Co-design can support the direct engagement of cooperative member-workers in important decision-making processes that impact the design of new technologies. 

Community-led co-design is an approach in which the entire co-design process is developed with and by community members. It engages existing leadership within the community during the co-design planning stages, by identifying and collaborating with members who will be impacted by the outcomes and who may take on the role of leading the co-design sessions.

To learn more about co-design, see Community Co-design: Introduction.

Co-design for Cooperative Governance

Governing Uncertainty

Co-design can be used to address and reflect on issues related to technology and its impact on equity and social justice – by those who will be most impacted by that technology. As the pace of change in technology and particularly AI increases, co-design can provide a method of contending with the impacts of that rapid change on the work and lives of cooperative workers.

Co-design provides a means for participant-members to contend with the uncertainty, openness and abstraction of a new project or emerging issue, by offering a path to generating possibilities (Sanders and Stappers 2014). 

Co-design as Generative Tool

Cooperative decision making can happen through consensus, majority rules, sociocracy and other models of governance, which provide different ways for cooperative members to choose from a number of possible options. Particularly when navigating systemic challenges and uncertainty, co-design can support and enhance cooperative governance by providing coop members with an approach to generating new options collaboratively and equitably. The co-design process can also support coop members in working together to refine those options and come to an agreement on design decisions that will best support the organisation. In turn, the co-design approach is inspired and informed by cooperative governance practices and cooperative principles including Democratic Member Control, Cooperation Among Cooperatives, Concern for Community and more (ICA 2015).

Co-design and Data Governance

Co-design can be used to co-create a data governance agreement appropriate to the context of coops and worker-ownership, where ownership is understood as not only owning the value of the data, but deciding how the data is used or not used. Decisions about how to keep track of where the data came from, determining its value, and deciding when and where communities can be put in charge of its use or reuse (including aggregation and disaggregation) can be made by conducting co-design with worker members.

Full Autonomy

Decision-making is an ongoing and fundamental part of co-design, and equitable cooperative governance requires that participants have autonomy over the process from beginning to end. From the start, participants can work together to make decisions about the timeline, size of the workshops, who to invite, what activities are appropriate, whether to meet online or in-person and how to document the work and outcomes. As the co-design process progresses and ideas are generated, additional decisions need to be made such as identifying and prioritizing emerging themes and synthesizing and refining results. Only when co-design participants are the ones making these decisions will it be possible for them to have full agency over the outcomes.

The Role of Trust

During the co-design process, participants may be asked to share personal experiences and personal information relevant to the issue being addressed. This can put participants in a position of vulnerability as it may feel or be risky to share this information for many reasons. Thus, successful co-design requires a level of trust between individual participants and between participants and those who are facilitating or leading the group. 

Building trust through the co-design process is important for successful cooperative governance (Arora and Hiriyur 2022). In many cases members of a coop may have established trusting relationships among themselves but there is a lack of trust of those who are not part of the community and wish to conduct a study or design a product or service for the community. For this reason, community-led co-design works best when leadership and facilitation comes from community members themselves, and when ongoing relationship-building is part of the process.

In one example, the members of Megha agri-coop (part of the SEWA federation of coops) were part of a research study in which a survey was given to member farmers without explanation of the purpose of the survey or transparency into the metrics or outcomes of the survey. The surveys were long and purely quantitative and there was no direct interaction between members and those conducting the survey (Arora and Hiriyur 2022). Members were placed into a research subject role, which eroded trust between participants and those doing the study, as it created a situation of the “overstudied Other” (Tuck and Yang 2014). 

Co-design can be a vehicle for building trust when it is clear to participants that they are in charge of defining the process and co-creating the outcomes, and when they have a say in how their information and ideas will be used (or not) and how their privacy will be protected. Trust in the co-design process can grow when participants are aware that they will have an opportunity for collaborative reflection on the outcomes of design decisions and the ability to revisit and modify those decisions. 

Decision by Proxy

In some cases, those most impacted by a decision may not have the subject matter literacy that would allow them to make an informed decision. In one example, a SEWA federation staff member completed the financial analysis for Megha coop using the federation’s financial dashboard and shared that analysis with the coop. In this case Megha coop’s board did not have the financial and digital literacy to analyze their finances (Hiriyur 2023). Based on the analysis provided by the federation member, decisions were then made within the coop by coop members themselves. In this way the most important decisions are made at the cooperative level, and funnel up to the federation.

This governance by proxy approach relies on existing trust relationships within the organisation (in the example described above, between the federation and individual coops who are members of the federation). When necessary, co-design can be conducted by proxy in a similar way, such that coop members rely on trusted representatives to participate in the co-design activities and make decisions on their behalf. In these cases, co-design outcomes can be brought to community members for review and feedback before conducting additional co-design workshops. 

The Role of Capacity-Building

Building capacity with coop members gives them more power to make decisions that impact them directly. In one example, the SEWA federation worked with project partner Digital Green to lead a workshop with women farmers where they learned about data collection methods and the important role data can play in supporting their work and livelihood. A training manual was developed, providing the first step towards capacity building of Farmer Producer Organizations (FPOs) to enable them in increasing the engagement and income of farmers through data-based decision-making. As a result of the training, coop members were more informed to make decisions for themselves and to better understand decisions made by the federation or by community leaders. In this way, capacity building can support or eliminate decision by proxy.

A Common Purpose

Members of a coop can leverage their common purpose to support co-design efforts. Starting out with shared goals can ease the process of onboarding participants into the co-design space. At the same time, co-design can also support decision-making across multiple coops (e.g. SEWA federation of coops). In the latter case participants come together with a shared purpose based in cooperative values rather than one based in the specifics of their sector. 

“…the idea here is to begin any public process by mapping where the people involved are starting from, and making sure everyone can see each other.” (Wylie and Barry 2023) 


Arora, Ayushi and Hiriyur, Salonie Muralidhara. “Building robust local economies through decentralisation: a case study of women-owned agriculture cooperatives in India”. 16th ICA CCR Asia-Pacific Research Conference, IKOPIN University, Bandung, Indonesia, December 15-17, 2022.

Hiriyur, Salonie Muralidhara. Personal communication, 2023.

International Cooperative Alliance. “Guidance Notes to the Co-operative Principles“ Web. Accessed November 15, 2023. 

Sanders, Elizabeth and Stappers, Pieter Jan. “Probes, toolkits and prototypes: three approaches to making in codesigning”. CoDesign, 10:1, 5-14, 2014.

Tuck, Eve  and Yang, K. Wayne. “R-words: Refusing research.” In Humanizing research: Decolonizing qualitative inquiry with youth and communities. Edited by Paris, Django  and Winn, Maisha T. 223-248. Los Angeles: SAGE Publications, 2014.

Wylie, Bianca and Barry, Liz. “Consensus Does Not Equal Political Legitimacy”. Medium. March 30 2023.


Technology and social justice are complex topics that require a diversity of perspectives and contributions. Join the conversation by sharing your thoughts, questions, critiques, and relevant resources with us at info@data­communities.ca.