Open Access Te Herenga Waka-Victoria University of Wellington
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Compassion informed co-design? Exploring the promise of compassion in co-design practice.

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posted on 2023-02-19, 01:02 authored by Dey, Leanna

This research responds to an increasing body of literature calling for socialdesigners to account for themselves in relation to the people the design isintended to serve. The purpose of my research is to identify the enablingenvironment for reflexive practice, and what the compassion literature canoffer to support reflexivity in design theory and practice. This investigation explores whether and how evidence-based compassion skills supportdesigners to not only better notice and address the harm of inequity andoppression but also promote the wellbeing of themselves and the peoplearound them.

My primary research question subsequently asks:“What is the role of compassion to support individual and team reflexivityin co-design practice?”My secondary research question asks:“What is the enabling environment for reflexivity?”The ethical benefits of reflexive self-awareness, to surface and mitigate“blindspots” of power dynamics and bias within a co-design process,are well established (Light & Akama, 2012). Reflexive processes requiredesigners to notice, question and challenge their identities, who they arein relation to their work, taking steps to mitigate the impact of their biasesand maximise the potential for wellbeing. From a co-design perspectivethis involves, or arguably should involve, attuning practice to alignmentwith the principles of Aotearoa New Zealand’s founding document “Te TiritiO Waitangi / The Treaty of Waitangi”. Encouraging reflexive self-awarenessis particularly important to co-design and social design in New Zealandbecause they aim to prevent further harm and promote the wellbeing of ourmost marginalised communities (Hagen & Mark, 2020).

This research is the first to investigate how evidence-based models ofcompassion can facilitate reflexivity in a co-design process, arguing thatcompassion is a critical component of designerly ways of working for betteraccountability and wellbeing outcomes. This research adds to the body ofwork aiming to bring the fields of compassion and design closer together,to radically enhance the ability of design to contribute towards equitablewellbeing outcomes. Also, this research offers new support to design theoryand practice by identifying specific characteristics regarding why, when andhow reflexivity is made possible or seen as advantageous.

With little evidence to suggest social designers engage in such self-scrutiny(Akama et al., 2019, p. 64), it’s crucial to explore whether designers have theskills, a supportive social and physical environment and sufficient motivationto engage in it. While design scholars agree that reflexive self-awarenessrequires vulnerability (Akama et al., 2019), interdisciplinary research identifies a strong tendency for people to protect and enhance their identitiesrather than challenge them because vulnerability feels threatening (Alicke& Sedikides, 2009; Chugh & Kern, 2016). With skills enabling a sensitivityto the causes of harm and actions to prevent it, the application of compassion is shown to overcome such avoidance behaviours associated withreal or perceived vulnerability threats (Gilbert, 2014, 2020). Promisingly, agrowing base of evidence links the use of compassion skills to an improvedaccountability, as well as increases in ethical decision-making, and bettersocial and wellbeing outcomes (Breines & Chen, 2012; Kirby et al., 2017;Gilbert, 2020). Therefore, this research delves into whether and how thesebenefits are being realised by social designers, to support reflexive practicefor community wellbeing in Aotearoa.

Led by a co-design approach and engaging behaviour change tools, thisinvestigation firstly identifies factors that help or hinder behaviours consistent with reflexive practice. The benefits of compassion led reflexivepractice are outlined throughout, but also paralleled with a few clear risksto continuing the status quo, being not undertaking reflexive self-awareness. Guided by an evidence-based model of behavioural influences, socialdesigners are interviewed to uncover the enabling environment for reflexivity. Seeking to identify the appropriateness and any promising strategies tointegrate compassion into co-design the findings are reviewed with socialdesigners in workshops. Finally, a practical tool is introduced and considered in the context of working as a social designer in Aotearoa.


Copyright Date


Date of Award



Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Rights License


Degree Discipline

Design for Social Innovation

Degree Grantor

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Degree Level


Degree Name

Master of Design Innovation

ANZSRC Socio-Economic Outcome code

280104 Expanding knowledge in built environment and design; 280121 Expanding knowledge in psychology

ANZSRC Type Of Activity code

2 Strategic basic research

Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Research Masters Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

School of Design Innovation


O'Sullivan, Nan