From co-design to co-creation: Building responsive relationships and delivering outcomes with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations

Emma Taylor, Claire Marsh, Rosie Schellen and Melinda Goodyear, Australia, March 2023

Resource Summary

Emerging Minds develops a range of resources, tools and information for professionals working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, parents and families. As an organisation, we strive to ensure these resources are informed by First Nations peoples and grounded in the principles of self-determination.

In practice, this means we work alongside Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander consultants and organisations in genuine, culturally secure partnerships. Together, we develop resources that build the capacity of all professionals and organisations who work with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and families.

This article shares learnings from our recent collaboration with The Healing Foundation. It explores how a participatory approach could deliver benefits in your work.

Project foundations

This joint project commenced in 2019, with the goal of co-designing a range of resources to provide a holistic understanding of social and emotional wellbeing in children and young people. The resources needed to be imbued with cultural authority, voice and expertise.

Participants agreed on workforce packages as a final product, consisting of a range of learning materials (such as in-person trainings, online courses, animations, fact sheets and tools). These packages are available from the Emerging Minds Learning website and are free to access for practitioners and organisations around Australia (and the world).

Emerging Minds recognises that it is not our business to provide direction to practitioners on how to work with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples alone. Rather we need to ensure the workforces we support have access to resources infused with the cultural authority of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander authors. This project was an opportunity for a non-Indigenous organisation and an Aboriginal community-controlled organisation to come together and draw on their complementary expertise.

This collaborative approach embodies how Emerging Minds strives to operate, reflecting the goals in our Reconciliation Action Plan and setting the foundation for a co-design approach to thrive. While co-design can be viewed as a process, we see it as an ethos, guiding the development of relationships, structures and activities. More than a consultation or one-off interaction, our approach requires power and authority to be deferred to the group. It uses the group process and expertise to develop a product or resource that enhances outcomes for the end users or beneficiaries.

Emerging Minds is driven to co-design and facilitate the creation and implementation of resources that encourage a holistic, cultural strengths-based approach to working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, families and communities. We understand that we can only be seen as an allied organisation through the eyes of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

Planning, activities and outputs – how we delivered the project

This project commenced pre-COVID-19 and, like all organisations, we had to modify planned activities to accommodate the challenges that came with the pandemic. Phase 1 ran for 12 months from July 2019 to June 2020 and was dedicated to establishing activities, including:

Phase 2 focused on developing and trialling the resources and documenting the project and processes. Pivots related to COVID-19 restrictions came with pluses and minuses. Adapting the in-person training to online delivery made it more accessible and resulted in increased uptake of the content. Team collaborations which had to be moved online lost some of the connectedness of face-to-face interactions, but allowed a more diverse group to be involved.

Our learnings – co-design strengths and challenges

The joint evaluation allowed us to explore process and implementation aspects of the project. We focused on the benefits and challenges of co-design, and whether it increased the depth of cultural knowledge and lived experience-informed practice advice in the resources developed. Our findings were as follows:

An effective way to combine knowledge, expertise and experience

Project participants recognised the value of co-creation as an effective way of combining the knowledge and perspectives of a diverse range of stakeholders. It was a way to ensure the development of quality resources which represented the expertise contributed by individual parties.

The project sought to involve a wide range of stakeholders, enabling participants to learn from people they might not otherwise have worked with. This approach has been credited with delivering quality resources that achieved the project purpose.

Building genuine, trusting, culturally safe relationships

The opportunity to build genuine, trusting, respectful, culturally safe relationships was a strong theme echoed by both the project team and stakeholders. Participants felt like they were heard, and their input was considered respectfully. The use of culturally integrated collaboration activities such as Knowledge Circles helped build this feeling.

The extent of the strengths and the impact of the relationships sometimes took participants by surprise. The depth of relationships seemed to grow from the recognition of each other’s expertise and contribution to the project, which also enriched individuals’ own learning experiences.

‘I’ve always felt respected, [like] my voice mattered, and a lot of what I suggested was taken on board.’

– Stakeholder

Building strong partnerships between organisations

Project team members and stakeholders felt the co-design approach not only contributed to the success of the specific project but had a broader impact, leading to the identification of further collaborative opportunities and connections. The recognition of each organisation’s expertise was an important factor in the quality of that relationship, and was considered by team members to be a model of how Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations and non-Indigenous organisations can work together.

Trust is not a destination; it is a continuous goal between parties. Project team members were conscious of the importance of focusing on actively maintaining this trust between the partner organisations.

‘…trying to get people thinking differently about partnerships and value…I think that that’s been a really, a big outcome, not only for our organisations, but modelling that as a non-Aboriginal organisation.’

– Co-design participant

Co-design should be embedded in a project’s DNA

This project was successful in part because of the values-driven commitment made by all involved. Co-design was comprehensively embedded into the project, from a principle driving the behaviour of project team members, right through to an outcome measured in the evaluation. This ensured it was not an after-thought.

Co-design symbolises the principle of ‘nothing about us without us’, supporting self-determination for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Including co-design as an evaluation outcome allowed for early consideration of what to measure, from whom, when and via what data collection methods.

Planning for challenges

Several challenges were also identified that centred around the practicalities of a diverse team working together. The following are areas to consider for future co-design projects:

  • While participation was broad, project team members felt there were additional voices that could have been incorporated into the process to better represent the diversity in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.
  • The resourcing, workload and time demand for organisations, expert contributors and project team members must be managed throughout the project to ensure such projects meet timelines.
  • Streamlining administrative processes and collaborative platforms for busy inter-organisational teams (such as streamline sharing and reviewing documents) could increase project efficiency.
  • Clarity of project communication to reduce risk of delay or misunderstanding of instructions or decisions made in the process.

We also learned that such cultural expertise is in high demand and those available to share it are stretched, making prioritising the work on our project a challenge.

Is co-design worth it?

The quality of the learning resources and the organisational growth that resulted from this project show the value of taking a co-design approach.

The project was able to be adaptive and responsive to both the needs of the audience and the times in which the resources were developed. The quality of the resources produced is demonstrated by high levels of satisfaction among stakeholders, a swift uptake among professionals, and reports of increased knowledge and confidence from practitioners using the materials.

From co-design to co-creation

As a learning organisation, we take pride in what we achieve and apply these learnings as we continually refine our participatory approach to resource development and research. Our partnership with The Healing Foundation represents a steppingstone in this evolution, and is also an opportunity for us to reflect and get better at articulating our philosophy.

This philosophy is about not only bringing together different understandings, but elevating alternative ways of producing knowledge. Expertise in this project was also directed into the actual making of the learning products. It became clear that our approach is better represented by the concept of co-creation, where both knowledge and production result from genuinely working together.

Co-creation means building on traditional concepts of co-design to create a process and approach of inclusive content development. It is about preferencing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander knowledges and ways of being, knowing and doing, to work towards pedagogical and epistemological equality.

This strengths-based approach recognises the resilience of individuals and communities. It acknowledges that the community is a rich source – that people come with great knowledge and expertise and are able to learn, grow and change. This is a philosophy we also hope practitioners employ when working with children, parents and families.

We aim to continue to refine and improve co-creation with communities, lived experience advocates and the workforce. While they may take a little longer, participatory approaches such as co-design and co-creation result in richer outcomes and effective outputs that ultimately provide greater benefit to users.

We recognise the many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander lands on which this project unfolded, and pay respect to the peoples, ancestors and Elders past, present and future.

Emerging Minds and The Healing Foundation thank the Emerging Minds National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Consultancy Group, the valued stakeholders who participated in the Knowledge Circles, and the learners who undertook the training workshops and online course evaluation activities for their contribution to this project.

Up Next: Planning, activities and outputs – how we delivered the project

Discover more resources

Login to Emerging Minds Learning

Keep a list of your favourite resources for reference or try some of our courses.

Subscribe to our newsletters