Community design as an approach: 4 main project areas

Article by Marta Mainieri


Community design doesn’t exist. At least in literature.
My friend Daniela Selloni, professor of Product Service System Design professor at Politecnico di Milano, wrote to me in this regard: “The term community design is not widely used in the scientific language of design, and I can’t think of any design researcher who actually works on “designing a community”. There is the expression community-centered design which refers to the immersion of the designer within a community to design activities and animation together. But it’s only a little part, at least for me. That is because designing a community certainly includes a part of immersion in the community itself, but first of all it includes the design of the context within which the members gather, move and grow. It is a paradigm shift that has yet to be codified in the literature, but which is in fact being established. In recent times, in fact, we have seen the birth of a community economy, that is, an economy made up of companies and organizations that put communities at the center of their business strategy. Scuolazoo, Weroad, Avventure nel mondo, Airbnb, Friendz, Duolingo, Gengle, are just some of the many community brands (companies that are born around a community) in Italy. Alongside them, brands such as Leroy Merlin, Adidas, Haier, Lego, Salesforce experiment with enabling models for their stakeholders, using techniques and elements of what can increasingly be called community design.

What is, then, community design?
Community design, unlike user-centred design, no longer focuses on the needs of people as individuals, but as members of a group (community), who recognize themselves around a value proposition. This community can be of different nature (of purpose, practice, product, etc), it can be spontaneous or induced, and always includes a proposing organization that promotes and stimulates it. Therefore, community design analyses and designs the interactions of the individual with the proposing organization, but also those of the individual as a member of a group, where he interacts with his peers and with the organization itself, and where he takes on an active role both in the design of the solution (co-planning) and in the organization (co-management).

The 4 project areas of community design
Community design involves, first of all, the study of the identity system of the community which is expressed through the definition of its value proposition — which involves the study of the community’s need -, of the actors who can be part of it, and of those who instead should not be part of it (the antagonists). It also includes the study of the narrative, which must be capable of attracting and transmitting emotion. The identity system of a community differs from that of a brand or product because it always integrates, in all its expressions, a dynamic of activism necessary to aggregate a group and make it cohesive.
The second area of ​​community design is the engagement model. It means defining the offer to be proposed to the community, the contact channels and the editorial plan. Even in this case, it looks like nothing new compared to the design of the model of involvement of a service. However, the design differs to a service in several aspects from that of a service because the offer is never one-way directed (the company that offers) but must always include a part of co-design. The same can be said for channels, which can no longer be just one-way (the company that communicates) but must provide for places and moments of continuous conversation, where members meet, exchange information, ideas, advice. Finally, contents represents decisive importance in a community because it becomes a vehicle for conveying one’s identity (in fact, attention is to be paid not only to what you can say but also to what you cannot say) but also for engagement. In fact, advertising doesn’t work much (at the beginning of the community it does not work at all) and the involvement comes mainly by word of mouth. This can only be achieved by a continuous, credible and naturally satisfying experience.
The third area of ​​design relates to the study of the governance model. It means designing not only the skills needed to manage a community, but also its co-management system. It means defining the rules within which the community moves, exchanges information, talks and helps each other. But it also means planning the roles and activities that are entrusted to the members; the way people grow within the community; the reasons that lead to participation; the reward system necessary to repay the expressed value.
The last area of ​​community design concerns the feasibility model. This means defining not only the resources available (time, skills, places, technology, budget) but also the business model and the measuring metrics. The differences with a traditional service are precisely the metrics which, in addition to being quantitative, must be qualitative and must measure all three areas listed above: the system of identity, the engagement and the co-management of the community. The business model, on the other hand, is often the result of a set of needs that the community gradually expresses. It is not true, as is often believed, that a community cannot be monetized. The community agrees to pay for the services offered to it, only if they recognize their value and if the services are consistent, transparent and of excellent quality.

But the work is not over yet. Designing these four areas does not mean designing a community but it means defining the context and the conditions within which it operates. A community is fluid by nature. It is an organism that moves and is made up of people. Relationships between people cannot be designed, but you can foster the construction of an environment within which they can move. It is with this awareness that we need to approach community design. It is therefore not advisable to define everything before launching a community; instead, it is good to start reflecting on these areas, and as soon as possible to launch the community in order to co-design and test what has been defined with the first members who gradually join in.

Which are the application for community design?
Community design, finally, is much more than the design of a community: it is an approach that can be applied to all contexts in which there is a group of people that one wants to involve and make active. Within a company, we can refer to customers or groups of them (e.g. lovers of a particular product), suppliers, local communities, employees — who can in turn be divided into practice groups, business, volunteers. Within an administration we can refer to neighbourhood communities, communities of practice (e.g. social innovators) and community of purpose. Within an organisation we look at all the associations and groups that are part of it.
The design of a community, therefore, is applied to the study of each group that you want to aggregate and with which you want to build a real relationship. This is the real value of this approach: transforming an audience that by definition is passive or that has a minimum degree of interaction, into a group of active people who dynamically collaborate in the construction of a solution, of a benefit, of an asset. Therefore, the correct question is what is the scope of community design, but what is the predisposition that one must have in approaching it. It is not so much understanding which stakeholders are to be involved but how much you really want to build a productive and enabling relationship with them, and how much you really believe that the effort of having active collaborators can be a value for the organization and for society as a whole.

community economi per le organizzazioni

How community design can help companies rethink their organisations

The internal organisational problems of companies are well known by now, but their solution is less so. Employees can no longer be treated as such. Not only because Covid has undermined a corporate organisation based on locations and hierarchies, but above all because it has accelerated a change that is first and foremost cultural. The digital transformation has given us the tools to be our own designers, but at the same time it has also accustomed us to relate to others from a horizontal rather than vertical perspective, thus eliminating the value of hierarchy and freeing up capacity and creativity. Thus, the Taylorist work organisation no longer fits today's conditions and what we have become.

Last century's theories that work should be reduced as much as possible to mechanical processes can no longer support either the demands of a market that is now much more complex and constantly evolving, nor the desires of people who demand that their productive activity no longer just provide them with a living wage, but above all with meaning and value for the soul. It is therefore no coincidence that a 2017 Gallup analysis claims that organisations with highly engaged employees achieve very high results in terms of profitability, productivity and customer satisfaction.

How then? How to turn employees into engaged and satisfied employees?

Community design approach can help. Communities grow and organise themselves by putting at the centre of their strategy not only the people themselves, but also their relationship with others and with the organisation that promotes them. Some of the ways in which communities are shaped and grow can thus be adapted to all those contexts that want to enhance a system based on motivations and relationships.

From mission to purpose.
All communities are born around a core value that brings people together, which might bea passion, a condition, a purpose or a practice, and represents the identity and the sense of belonging. In order to advance this shared core value, people take action. In an organisation this means translating the once distant and elusive mission into a concrete purpose for employees, something very realistic and attractive that stimulates them and makes them feel part of a change. The value of Spotify is to unlock creativity by giving everyone the opportunity to live from their art. Those who work there believe in the democratic nature of art and the importance of having the opportunity to express it.
The value, however, must not be just an exercise in style – nice hung words at the entrance of the offices, if there ever will be any again, but must be declined in the behaviour, in the choices, in the decisions of the company towards employees, suppliers, products and even civil society.

From hierarchical to horizontal organisation
Everyone has to feel part of a change, but needs to be empowered to contribute. To do so, organisations must distribute autonomy and trust, breaking down hierarchies and enabling people to unleash their creativity and skills. This is what communities do. Communities have a very low degree of hierarchy; the most important division is between those who govern and those who are active. Within this boundary there are few roles, and leaders emerge spontaneously. Legitimacy is given above all by competence and by how involved one is in the community. The leader has the task of observing, nurturing participation, supporting and rewarding, but also of establishing the main rules and activities within which to move. Within this scheme members move autonomously not only by doing what needs to be done but also by proposing, advising, helping, and co-designing.

From communication to co-design
Co-design is an important part of a community member involvement system. It means that members can express themselves, suggest, propose ideas, on products, services, organisational methods. In order to achieve this, communities create channels not only for communication but also for conversation and support. Organisations that want to innovate must provide these same channels so that communication is no longer top-down, but two-way, and value is not just the expression of management but is co-produced by the members themselves. Of course, this can happen if, alongside these channels, a listening system is established that monitors and collects what is said and proposed, and if people are encouraged to express themselves transparently and calmly. In this way, members feel motivated to open up and contribute.

From an extrinsic to an intrinsic rewarding system
If the community produces value, the members must be rewarded. Not only because it is fair but also because it encourages them to keep going. In a community the reward is not only economic (in some cases it never is), because the motivation that drives the members is mostly intrinsic. what drives the participation of the most active members of a community is the desire to do good, to be part of a group, to advance a cause, to be recognised. Motivations to do well are the same that, according to many studies, make employees happier and increase the productivity of companies. To innovate an organisation, the first aspect to think about is increasing intrinsic motivation, and then flank the financial reward with systems that recognise it, such as transparent acknowledgements, training and experience.


These are some of the principles of community design that can also be applied within organisations that want to turn their employees into collaborators. In the end, this is what it is all about: stopping treating staff as subordinates, mere executors of commands from above, and starting to think of them as people who can move independently and with whom they can co-produce value for the company and for the entire system.

Marta Mainieri


community economy

From Sharing Economy to Community Economy: why it is important to learn how to design communities.

Extract from the introduction of: “Community Economy” (Egea 2020), by Marta Mainieri

In 2013 the Economist introduced the Sharing Economy to the world.
At that time there was talk of a new economy that favored the sharing of goods instead of owning them and exchange instead of purchase. Since then, many things have changed, and today the Covid-19 has also highlighted the fragility of some of the most famous services; more than ever, the question is what is left of the sharing economy and its narrative. Some services have grown or have been called into question, others have instead entered into crisis in a perhaps irreversible way, but beyond the single services we can certainly say that today collaboration is no longer only between people who share goods or services but between individuals who participate in the construction of a brand (profit or non-profit or, even better, hybrid) and in the design of its offer. The community economy is the most interesting evolution of the sharing economy, an economy made up of companies, groups, places that put the community at the centre of their business (profit or non profit) strategy; by doing so, they transform markets and organisations. Indeed community brands are brands and organisations that no longer work on the engineering of supply, on its conception and production within an industrial context, but on the aggregation of demand, on listening to its needs, and on the satisfaction of its demands. We are talking about organizations that, on the basis of a value proposition, aggregate people who share a sense of belonging, rituals, traditions and a sense of mutual moral responsibility. Communities are no longer a marketing tool but become a strategic value for the company. Examples are Airbnb, Blablacar, Houzz, Refugees Welcome, but also many places that, on a smaller scale, are born around an idea, a passion, a need, and on that they build communities.

Through continuous co-design activities, these organisations bring to the market new services that already have a target audience — because they are themselves the expression of that need — and as such are potentially more competitive than traditional actors. To serve these niches and to promote their production of value, the community brand cannot use the old management models of a company but must rebuild itself according to an “enabling” logic: platform-based, entrusting roles and responsibilities to members, using communication channels that make the boundaries between inside and outside the company increasingly fluid and permeable.

This new way of doing business and dealing with clients is not a moment’s trend.

On the contrary, it is a sign of a profound change destined to remain in time, as the result of a firstly cultural, and only then economic, transformation. It is rooted in the social and economic crisis and in the last decade of digital transformation. The crisis has made clear new needs and new market niches, the transformation, by introducing new means of communication — social media — has transformed not only our habits but also our way of learning and behaving. These, in fact, have given us the attitude and the opportunity to be at the same time producers, consumers and also activists and designers, i.e. people who detect a need that gives rise to frustration, passion, activism and decide to commit themselves, or people who adhere to a someone else’s project because they identify themselves with it.

In this fluidity, the relationship between the entrepreneur and the employee is also blurred, as both parties are part of an organisation that recognizes itself in a value proposition. It is therefore evident in the assumption of roles that were once opposed and that today we play alternately depending on the situation, that the change is first of all cultural; but this can also be found in the fact that the platform model is adopted in different contexts and starting from any topic. There are community brands everywhere, they are spread digitally, locally, in social groups, they gather around any kind of passion, condition, purpose, cause. And even the very concept of community has renewed its meaning in recent years: the aggregations we are talking about are no longer moved by geographical, ideological or social status interests as they once were, but by emotional and knowledge interests, that are mostly expressed and maintained through digital tools, while physical encounters respond to the need of strengthening the relationship. At this stage, the concept of community moves between analogical and digital in a complementary and fluid way.

This necessary change, moreover, has become even more evident during the Covid-19 emergency. The lockdown has taken away our chance to stay together and to relate to others, clearly showing how this is a fundamental need for our survival. The desire for community was expressed on a local extent: meeting on the balconies, joining our neighbours and organizing collective groceries, in the many solidarity initiatives carried out in the neighbourhood in aid of the most fragile people. At this moment digital has played a fundamental role not only because it has acted as a sounding board, but above all because, perhaps for the first time, it has shown its ability to weave relationships. Digital is therefore the place where distances can be shortened if people have reason to meet around common interests, values and rituals.

It is also an opportunity for those who want to rethink the organisation of companies and the employees’ work. The lockdown has accelerated another underway path: the rethinking of work as a need of the soul and not only as a productive activity. Remote working forces us to rethink the company’s organisation no longer by hierarchical lines, but by meaningful grouping, and the physical distance of employees requires us to renew forms of aggregation and to think about new channels of communication. Here too, there is a clear need to set up small communities that are no longer united around a far and little sharable corporate mission, but around new interests where relationships and distances can be redefined.
Getting to know the community economy, therefore, is interesting for those who want to do business. This is why we need a toolbox for those who want to innovate. We are no longer in a phase where we can see things changing, we are fully swinging in the middle of change.

Other people’s experiences can serve as a guide for those who want to personally try to launch a new service on the market or to implement a new approach in their organisation. Today, even in the uncertainty of a time that no longer allows us to plan and to implement, but requires continuous attempts procedure, one indeed must look at other people’s experiences in order to acquire greater awareness. This is why we have designed a method and a set of tools that can help design or manage communities’ growth with awareness.

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