Storytelling, Upcycling + Community Engagement: In Conversation with Participate in Design

The First Interview!

I’m very excited to share my conversation with Jan Lim and Mizah Rahman, founders of the design non-profit Participate in Design (P!D) in Singapore. These two designers are doing inspiring work by embedding themselves in Singapore’s MacPherson community and applying participatory design methods to engage citizens across generations, ethnicities, and socioeconomic scales. If you’re interested in how to apply storytelling and repurposing to community engagement, watch the video below or read the full transcript. 

I hope you enjoy our conversation and glean some inspiration on how to engage your community!

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I’m Katie Crepeau, founder and writer at Design Affects, and I’m here today with Jan Lim and Mizah Rahman from Participate in Design, a Singapore-based design non-profit organization that is researching, testing and developing socially just and inclusive methods of design that are appropriate for local neighbourhoods and communities in Singapore.

Let’s start with the beginning, when you formed Participate in Design. You two first met at University while working on your Masters of Architecture. Tell us about how your thesis project led you to form P!D.

Mizah: We didn’t really plan to start Participate in Design so it kinda came [about] somehow. We did collaborate for our thesis work and upon graduation, we still continued to work very closely with the community of MacPherson. We got involved in a couple more projects and we realized that maybe it’s time for us to come together to form something. So that’s how P!D came about. [This was] one or two years after we graduated.

Jan: As students, both of us were interested in doing something more for the community. We were always exploring options so there was an opportunity to work with the MacPherson community and we took it.

Honestly when we started out, we had no idea what we were doing because we hadn’t facilitated workshops. We went into it to just try it for the first time. A lot of the work that we do is experimental because of that. It was great fun and after the whole experience was over, we realized what we had with the community of MacPherson was something that we felt was quite precious. It’s not easy and because we don’t [live] there, to go into another place and build up that relationship from scratch, we wanted to continue building up work with them and push the boundary of participatory design.

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You’ve focused mainly on the MacPherson community. What about it has made you want to stay, invest your time and work with them over the years?

Mizah: Since the beginning during our university days, we were really fortunate to have a very supportive government agency of what we do. They are very open to our crazy ideas. We are very fortunate and grateful to continue to work with them on one project to another. That’s why we are still doing the projects with the MacPherson community.

Jan: The longer we work there, the more people we know and make friends there. It’s an emotional attachment because we have grown while we build our relationship with them. We have even considered moving there because we’ve been doing so much with them. We [live] in the west so every time we go there, we take a long ride [to get there].

It’s really about the people and the support from the government agency, the openness that we have, and the openness from the people and the residents who [live] there. It’s so easy to go in there and strike up a conversation with somebody and they’re open to sharing with you. That’s why we’re still there.

Mizah: And when our designer friends want to do community projects, they approach us because we know MacPherson community so well. That’s why our projects continue to be based there.

I saw that you’ve partnered with quite a few different organizations. How have you selected those partnerships? Have you had any challenges with establishing the partnerships that you’ve made?

Jan: The architecture community in Singapore is not that big so when we started, there was only one university to study architecture. If you study there, you know everyone else so the people who we met from the organizations are friends from our circle that we’ve met at one point or another, whether it was through P!D or our other networks.

I don’t think we selected them in that sense but rather it was an organic sort of collaboration.

It’s basically a group of friends who get together and who have the same values and we all want to try out similar things. So we come together and pull our resources to do something.

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Do you feel that the lack of architects or architecture community hinders or helps your efforts? In the States, the AIA is a huge body and in all the major cities, there’s a chapter there. A lot of cities have a lot of architects in them too. How you’re saying that there’s only one school in Singapore and it seems like it’s a smaller community, do you feel that that gives you more leeway with what you can for projects? I feel like the AIA has a pretty strong presence so a lot of the rules are set so being smaller, do you feel like you can be more creative with what you do?

Jan: I haven’t really thought about that.

Mizah: For the community projects, we didn’t start off by having relationships with Singapore Institute of Architects, for example. We’ve worked more closely with the government bodies and agencies. So they [SIA] come in when they’re interested in supporting a particular project. Being small and being young, it’s to our advantage in a way. It depends on who you work with so our community is more open than others. Some are more reserved, especially with doing community projects.

The government that you work closely with is pretty accepting of your methods and how you’re experimenting?

Mizah: The Singapore political landscape is different in a way. Each government agency–in a neighborhood context–takes care of the portion of the residents. The MacPherson community center provides various activities, various programs and support for the residents. Every community center has a different agenda.

How would describe the MacPherson community’s personality, both government and residents?

Jan: They’re open, supportive, and they’re really keen to engage the younger people. The MacPherson estate has a reputation for having an older demographic that is slightly higher than the rest of Singapore. But it’s not as much as people usually say.

For example, when we talk to the residents, many people assume that 70% are elderly but it’s really less than half. It’s just the perception because they are the ones who are downstairs and using the public spaces on the ground floor. Because of that, there’s this perception. The government agency is keen to engage younger people, especially the youth who live there to have that vibrancy in a town that is seen as for older people.

Mizah: For the senior citizens, the government has been doing a very good job in providing a lot of activities for them and help and support. I think that the reason the MacPherson community center is more open to ideas is to engage younger people who might not be as engaged as the senior citizens.

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So you’re [in essence] linking the elderly population with the young people through design.

Jan: We’re trying to do that. The beauty of design is that if you do it in a way that is really open and inclusive, you can bring all sorts of people on board. Whether they’re lived there longer and have more stories to tell or they’re young and have new energy and ideas, they can [all] have a conversation and compliment each other.

How do you explain to people what you do? I find that this is always a hard one in the ‘public interest’ field.

Mizah: It’s always been tricky for us. We started back in 2010 during university. P!D has only officially formed late last year so we’ve been trying different ways on how to introduce ourselves to the residents, other designers and our peers. One of the challenges is people don’t understand what we do fully. It’s always been trying out how do we promote or see ourselves or they want to see us. [We say] we are a design organization, a nonprofit and do design with a social angle.

Jan: One of the big buzz words in Singapore is community engagement. That was a big thing over the last election. It’s the idea about going to the ground and understanding people and giving people a say in what they want. For example, when we talk to people from the government, that’s usually how they see us in terms of what we do. A large part of our work is about engaging but I think the word engagement is quite vague. What does that really mean?

So we’re trying to explore on our own. There are certain ways that the community is being engaged by the government but for us, we always want to see how much more we can do by not just asking what people want but go down into their core needs, their core aspirations.

Can we do it in a different way that gets them feel like they are part of something and they can make changes?

It’s quite political because we’re really talking about empowerment. It’s when engagement becomes a form of empowerment and we address what we feel are gaps in the system. We are giving people who may otherwise be part of a focus group or engaged or aren’t savvy online and don’t have an avenue to express themselves.

In terms of residents, when we started out we were in school, so we would introduce ourselves as students so they were always nice to us. They would say, “We’ll help you do your homework.” As we’ve grown, now we tell them that we’re trained in architecture and design and we just want to hear your stories. We’re part of an organization that’s been doing work here and we want to hear your story. We want to know about you.

Are you looking to expand your work into other neighborhoods?

Mizah: Definitely yes. We have been approached by other communities to do engagement in other neighborhoods. Right now we don’t have the capacity to do so but hopefully in the future after we create a prototype from MacPherson, we can bring it to other neighborhoods in Singapore.

Many projects around the world could benefit from the deep community engagement workshops that you do, but governments–at least with my experience in the US–typically don’t have money to do this.  How do fund your services? How do you operate?

Mizah: Currently right now we volunteer. Most of our projects are funded by a government body. Right now we are working closely with MacPherson Community Center, which is a government body that deals with all of the programs in the neighborhood. Most of the projects are funded by the government agency.

Jan: It falls under the Community Arts & Culture funding and that’s how we derive the money for our projects, exhibitions and initiatives. The work that we do requires a lot of time and energy to plan, organize, and put the whole thing together so we are looking for ways to make it more sustainable in the long run. We’re still in the midst of doing that.

What types of things are you looking at, if you don’t mind sharing?

Mizah: Currently we’re focusing on the Upcycle Project. [Going back to the question about funding projects] Singapore is a little bit different. From P!D being around for less than a year, we have been approached by various government agencies who are interested in what we are doing and they have a lot of funding to fund such community projects.

We have agencies like the NEA (National Environment Agency), NVPC (Volunteer Agency), the National Library, and various others who are coming to us to do various projects. The main challenge for us is now who do we work with because we have some many opportunities but haven’t sat down and thought about who would be best to work with. Should we work with all of them on various projects? Or just select one agency? In terms of establishing partnerships with the government agencies, that is one of our main challenges. It’s a good one!

Have you thought about expanding P!D to include more people?

Jan: Yes. The two of us started this but when we were working on the Upcycle Project, we’ve met a lot of interesting people who are excited to be a part of it. Our team for this project has expanded with the relationships that we’re building. We’re always keen to work with other designers, architects, and many students tell us they’re interested in the social aspect of the work. We are really excited by this.

Ideally, if we could build this up into a movement that everyone is keen to be a part of, for us, that would be the ultimate goal. Something that is natural to do rather than something that stands in the margins and is seen as an alternative practice.

Mizah: It wasn’t something that we expected when we started the Upcycle Project. It’s very organic. People come to us or email us and say they are interested in doing it. They come once and become active friends and volunteers. It’s really great. This is what P!D is all about.

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I’d love for you to know get into the Upcycle Project. There has been a lot of talk about how to incorporate storytelling with public interest design and your Upcycle Project does just this by combining storytelling with furniture repurposing and community engagement. Tell us about the project, your process and how it reinforces your mission.

Jan: When we started this, it was a follow-up from an art project that we did last year where we also used storytelling. We worked with one of the design schools in Singapore (the other school–there are two architecture schools) and we got the students to go out there and gather stories from people in MacPherson and then translate these into art installations that were exhibited on site.

Through this experience we realized that one of the people that we, kind of, failed to engage or didn’t engage successfully where people from the lower income group. Of the few people that we met, we really inspired by some of the stories so we really wanted to see how we can engage them more effectively and more directly and bring them into the work that we are doing.

So the idea is to collect items that people in MacPherson no longer want or need and bringing designers in to upcycle these items into new things that other people will find useful.

We started by talking to people who are staying in the two room flats in Singapore, which are rental flats and usually house people from the lower-income. One of the first interviews that we did was with a guy who we had been in contact with during the previous year’s project. When we talked to him in the beginning, quite truthfully, when we went there we thought we were going to ask him, “How can we help you? How we can make this project useful for you?” But the moment we told him about the project and whole the idea behind it, which was before we started collecting the furniture, we realized that he got really excited and started to find out ways where he could help us. He offered furniture to us. We realized that he has a personal connection to the project because he used to have his own business repurposing furniture, particularly wooden furniture, so the moment he heard about it, he said, “You know what, I’m going to help you do it. I’m going to help you collect furniture.”

We realized how empowering this could be, when you see yourself as someone who can contribute something rather than someone who is just receiving things.

In this spirit, we want to bring to the project how to talk to people and try to find out how they can come in using things that they have or skills that they have, sharing their stories, and not just being on the receiving side and taking handouts from government agencies. Whether it’s giving an object or if you’re on the receiving end of this project, they have to share a story with the person who’s giving so there’s some form of exchange that’s always going on.

Mizah: The beauty of the Upcycle Project is that we are bringing in the residents and community together with the designers to participate in this movement [and] this particular project. In a way our main mission was to really get everyone–be it you’re low-income, wealthy or not–to come together and participate in whatever kind of processes or position that affect their environment. The furnitures are contained within their neighborhood, and for example, if I were to throw away a chair, [to think] that sometime down the road might need that particular chair. It’s about using the existing resources that one had to contribute back to the neighborhood or community.

So do the people take in the furniture and put it in their homes? What’s happening with the furniture?

Mizah: We have just completed phase one of the project whereby we have collected the various furnitures from the rubble or donated from the residents. We also have collected various stories and exhibited them in one of the Upcycle exhibits. So this is first phase where we are celebrating the objects before they are upcycled.

Then phase two, which is happening right now, we are inviting various designers, carpenters, and anyone who are very hands on in building their own furniture to choose a particular object to upcycle and link them to a particular resident. They will then have to meet the resident or their client to find out more about what they need. For example, so far there is an aunty who wants a storage space. These are things that a designer could upcycle or adapt old furniture to suit their client’s needs. Then we will exhibit the stories of the receiver and the giver of the object together with the designer.

So in the end, people will a piece of furniture that’s been upcycled that will link the maker and the receiver through stories.

Jan: That is the intention behind the project.

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Going with this, would you say this is exactly where you go or where do you see the Upcycle Project leading you?

Jan: The way we chose to look at Participatory Design [in] Singapore, we are at the beginning of what we hope is a much longer and more sustainable growth for everyone. At this stage, we’re looking to build up people’s awareness of their own capacity by using things that they have from the home or using skills that you have with the stories you have to build the sense of community in their neighborhood. In that light, we hope this is one of many initiatives that will continue to build up the power of storytelling, the power of design, and really start to create connections between people.

Ideally after this stage, if we do it successfully and we feel people are at the level where they see themselves and their neighbors in a different light, we will go into a deeper form of engagement that could perhaps involve coming together and looking at a particular space in their estate and try to solve certain issues around it or create something together that everyone can use.

It’s really the first step out of many steps that we see.

I can see this turning into something like a PARK(ing) Day. I can see the Upcycle Project turning into a similar toolkit that people could use in communities all around the world to combine storytelling, furniture repurposing, and community engagement. And maybe making an Upcycle Day!

Jan: That sounds like a good idea!

Mizah: Me and Jan have been talking about this–how to make this toolkit. Since you mention it, it makes sense for us to continue to develop this toolkit.

Jan: One of the ideas we’ve been playing with and haven’t quite finished is how to extend it. There seems to be so much interest in this from people we’ve met from an environmental angle, people coming from a social angle, with quite a lot of interest. We want to capitalize on this and grow the movement of participatory design.

For example, if the Upcycle Project could be turned into a toolkit, so how we’ve chosen to go about it, if we could take some time at the end of this to reflect and refine it and publish it online, perhaps, any designer in Singapore can take it upon themselves to do something in their own neighborhood. Wherever they live, they can find somebody to work with, find objects laying around, and create that offshoot. That would be really great. That is an idea that we are currently considering doing and we might be doing it within the next year if everything goes well.

Great! Let me know when it’s up! So to go in a different direction, another thing that I’ve heard a lot about is tracking the impact of your work. A lot of nonprofits use this to prove to their donors, and for applying for grants, and government agencies might look at this to see proof of what they’re doing. Have you looked at tracking impact in anyway of your projects?

Jan: Not quantitatively. We’re going down to numbers, surveys or things like that. Usually after we do a project, there’s some form of photo or video documentation. We do try to retain a sense of what happened and publish it so others [will] know. We haven’t actually thought that much in terms of tracking impact. That is something that we really want to look into to really see if whether the methods we’ve been using are working as successfully or not.

Especially since you’re pretty well embedded in the MacPherson community. Perhaps when you go into a new neighborhood in Singapore, you could set a baseline for engagement and build up from there. You wouldn’t be able to compare it but since you have your programs and projects in place, it would be an interesting thing to see the different types of outcomes.

Mizah: I think because MacPherson has been our comfort zone for quite some time, it would definitely be a challenge to kind of test it out in a different estate. That would be something quite interesting and challenging for us for the next phase.

I know that you have a lot of students and younger people who are interested in doing this type. Generally, what advice would you give to somebody who is interested in participatory design? Or are there any lessons learned that you wish you would have known when you started out?

Jan: I think fearlessness would be a big thing. Just not being afraid to try out ideas. That would be the most important thing. I do a lot of young people who come up to me and say that they are interested in doing social design or community design and I always say “Why not?” All you need to do is have the idea and to go out and test it and not be afraid to fail.

Quite honestly, when we started out, we didn’t know what we were doing because we had experience beforehand. The best was that there was two of us so we could bounce ideas off of each other even though we were a bit afraid of things going wrong but we thought why not just try it out. We had that support. So I think that’s also important if you can find people who believe in the things that you do. It’s always good to have that support.

Mizah: For me and to add on to what Jan said, do lots of research and be connected to other like-minded people who are passionate about the same things. Because it’s really quite challenging and tiring to do things on your own but if you have a network of people who share the same values as you, you feel that you can do things together and have a bigger effect.

You can start small in your own community just by doing a small community project that could be one small step to do community and social design.

My last question for each of you is what are three tools that you always have on you? These can be tangible or intangible, from your favorite notebook to your best skill.

Mizah: My iPhone because I have everything in my iPhone. If I [need to take] pictures, I can take a picture. If I need to show some pictures, I use my phone. That is a very important tool that I want to have with me all the time.

The second one would be my notebook, something to write down to take note of or draw something.

The third one would be to always have a smile on your face. Bring your best smile. Because for anyone to talk to people, you have to be cheerful and joyful so that’s an important tool that everyone should have.

Jan: For me, I’m not sure if this counts as a tool, but always being curious and having the eye to look up at what people are doing and wondering why they are doing things in a certain way, why things are happening in a certain way, why people feel in a certain way. That’s one really big thing.

[Two] Having openness and empathy, and heart, and be able to imagine that you are that person and to see from that point of view. That’s the thing with participation; being able to do that.

The last one would a tangible one for me–my notebook and pen. I do take a lot of notes and observations of things that I see and have that in my book.

Thank you so much for taking time to share your experiences. I look forward to watching you progress!

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Bonus!

If you’ve made it this far, thanks! Your reward is this bonus video (if you’re up for it) where you can hear Jan and Mizah talk a bit more about stories from the community and the affect it’s had on their engagement.

Want to know more? Leave a questions for Mizah and Jan in the comments section below, visit ParticipateInDesign.org or tweet Mizah Rahman.

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Image sources: Participate in Design and Amelia Rhea

Graphics + video production: Katie Crepeau

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2 Responses to Storytelling, Upcycling + Community Engagement: In Conversation with Participate in Design

  1. Gloria Foti says:

    So inspired by your Upcycling Project!! Would love to talk to you more – I am involved in creating a similar project on the Lower Eastside of New York City. Can we chat??

    Gratefully yours,

    Gloria Foti

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