Mizah Rahman, Co-founder, Participate In Design, Singapore

By Nurfilzah Rohaidi

Women in GovTech 2018 Special Report.

How do you use participatory design to improve citizens’ lives? Tell us about your role or organisation.

The work that I do at Participate in Design (P!D) enables me to help community partners design with people and not just for them. I create value through participatory design by co-creating solutions with users when designing their neighbourhood spaces. At P!D, we have created a system and framework where we see ourselves as catalysts to enable different stakeholders, be it seniors, children and experts — to come together in a fun and non-threatening manner.

By involving people in the decision making process, it will lead to greater community investment and instil a sense of accomplishment and pride in the end product. It gives people an accessible platform for active citizenry where citizens get to be architects of their own solution, gain confidence in their own voice and get to know their neighbourhood and neighbours better!

A lot of our projects are based in neighbourhoods with an increasing number of seniors. And seniors are often neighbourhood-bound and one of the important users of the public spaces in neighbourhoods.

We worked with our partners, Pacific Activity Centre and National Council of Social Services, for two of our projects, located at Yishun Greenwalk and Fajar Spring. The brief was to design a Senior Activity Centre at the void deck. In a typical design process, you just hire a interior designer, but in this case, we wanted to empower the seniors to be part of the design process. We brought the seniors into the conversation in a design workshop to talk about the design and even discussed the programme and ground rules for the space.

We give them a voice in the design process. They are often consumers of solutions, and they are used to things begin given to them. In this case, we want them to collaborators and part of the solution. This empowers them and shows them that their voices are important and are very much needed to create a meaningful outcome.

The seniors are the users of the space, and the success of the space very much depends on them. As designers, we are outsiders in the community, and we will leave the community at the end of the project. So we want to ensure that once we exit the community, they are able to sustain what we have envision together as a community.

You can have a beautifully designed space, but if it doesn’t address the true needs of the community, it is a missed opportunity.

What has been the most exciting thing that you worked on in 2018?

This is hard! There are many exciting projects that we have embarked on this year!

I will share one of the projects that we worked on this year: a participatory arts initiative titled Arts@MacPherson. It is a series of art initiatives which aims to create delight in everyday experiences through pops of unexpected art around the neighbourhood.

From August 2018 to March 2019, MacPherson residents come together with artists to enliven their public spaces through the co-creation of three community arts projects. From the everyday to the extraordinary, these permanent creative installations will celebrate MacPherson as they will be inspired by the resident’s own memories and stories of their neighbourhood.

We just kickstarted in 2018 and will celebrate the artworks next year in March 2019 with a community arts trail. This project is part of National Arts Council’s Arts and Culture Nodes Network.

It is exciting to have the opportunity to influence the neighbourhood through the arts in a neighbourhood-wide initiative, and having the support from National Arts Council. It is heartening to see residents, community partners, local business owners and artists coming together to have conversations that hopes to bring joy and delight to people of MacPherson through the arts.

Our role as curators and participatory designers aims to provide that platform to make arts more accessible to everyone and enables everyone, no matter weather you are an artist or resident, to creatively tackle neighbourhood issues through arts.

If you were to share one piece of advice that you learned in 2018, what would it be?

More give, less take. Over the years, I’ve had many opportunities to share my work on local and international platforms, and one of the best pieces of advice that I have been learning to embrace comes from Simon Sinek, author of the classic Start With Why.

He shared, “The best motivation to present an idea is to come with the spirit of giving. When someone shows up with the desire to give, to share an idea, to share a perspective, to share a product, to share a new way of looking at something, people are much more receptive. When you show up with the mindset that you want nothing in return and to share what you have learnt, to share what you know, to present what you discover, people will become curious for more.”

Despite the many presentations that I have given, there have always existed a lingering sense of insecurity about sharing my story, work, or thoughts with a wider audience. There is a constant fear that I have nothing interesting or ‘intellectual’ enough to share and often, these presentations are done with an efficient delivery mindset.

As much as I tried, the doubts continue to hang over my head and it was only when I approached a presentation with the generous spirit of giving, that I became comfortable taking the stage.

When you set your intention to give and not to take, you receive, gain and learn so much more. There is something so innately magical about being able to share one’s perspectives and leaving with new ones from the people that you meet and work with. This is why I love the work that I do.
“There is something so innately magical about being able to share one’s perspectives and leaving with new ones from the people that you meet and work with.”
What tool or technique particularly interests you for 2019?

Gamification. I have always been curious and interested in using games or fun theory to not only inject a ‘fun’ element in the work that we do, but to be able to use games to demystify complex issues such as policy and urban planning issues. So, this will keep me and my team busy next year to explore this even further!

What are your priorities for 2019?

As we move into 2019, I carry these priorities with me: to share with the spirit of giving, to listen with compassion, and to always be mindfully present.

What is one skill that has helped you the most throughout the course of your career?

The ability to understand why it matters. This is by far the most important lesson that deserves reminding in the midst of datelines and busyness.

Understanding why it matters to approach design with empathy.

Understanding why it matters to design and create with a heart.

Understanding why it matters to give a damn.

This is a fundamental principle that drives the work we do at P!D, and over the years, I have seen projects and stories that remind me of its importance. I saw people who recognise that decisions are only as good as the decision-making process. And I saw people who truly give a damn.

What advancements do you predict will happen in your field in the next ten years?

Using technology in providing a platform for active citizenry.

Coffee, yoga, music… what powers you through your day?

Morning meditation, yoga, a good breakfast and a nice warm cup of organic green tea!