Community Centred Innovation Co-Design for Disaster Preparedness

  • 2014

  • Service
    Education Services

Designed By:

  • RMIT University

Commissioned By:

Bushfire Co-Operative Research Centre

Design Research Institute

Centre for Sustainable Organisations and Work

Australian Emergency Management Institute

Designed In:


Natural disasters are predicted to become more frequent and severe. This entry is a suite of innovative co-design methods used to facilitate engagement with communities and emergency agencies in Australia to build their adaptive capacities for collective and continuous development in strengthening resilience. The successful design approach uses visual and tactile artifacts (Image X) that trigger thinking, catalyse discussion, heighten awareness to potential risks and collectively devise emergency plans. This effective method is currently used by various communities, and as a training tool by the Australian Emergency Management Institute (AEMI), demonstrating its adaptability into localized and multi-hazard contexts across Australia.

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  • The community's autonomy and inter-dependency for disaster preparedness is a core objective, averting the need to depend upon emergency services alone. To overcome social and mind-set barriers for preparedness, it required a radical re-design of power-dynamics between the fire authorities and communities and strengthen social relations among residents. Instead of 'solving' this problem through a service delivery provision, the approach we took used a co-designing method in partnership with relevant authorities and councils, enabling communities to devise 'solutions' for themselves. This approach catalyzed the need for conversations on collective action and to continue this among co-located groups to strengthen resilience.

  • We designed various methods for the co-designing workshops, like Playful Triggers (Image A) that has a visual, tactile and accessible quality. In the Southern Otways, residents used them to indicate potential hazards and resources, access routes and vulnerable residents on a local map. In Tasmania it visualised community networks to think through whose advice will be sought and trusted in an emergency (image B). 'What if' scenario cards (image C) highlighted common accidents and unexpected occurrences to prevent insular thinking. These methods catalysed a knowledge sharing processes, emphasising that the community has 'expert', relevant and critical knowledge to mitigating disasters.

  • Our design approach precipitates collective discussion to share tacit knowledge, question assumptions or misunderstandings about preparedness, helping people to make sense of the complex issues and challenges in their own words, views and contexts. Such interactions scaffold group action, inducing neighbours who know little about one another to formulate reasons to take collective action for survival. Scaffolding this community-centred engagement can build social bonds where learning and transformation of behaviour can take place among a supportive group, leading to more resilient and sustainable change. The design's role here amplifies people's latent ability and builds their adaptive capacity and reciprocal interdependency.

  • The highly successful uptake of our methods in communities is expedited through AEMI's Community in Emergency Management course, scaling up impact in disaster management field. This course trains various staff - local government, community development, volunteers, police and ambulance etc, across Australia. Our design methods is a central feature of their course since 2012 (Image D), helping staff address the traditional 'command and control' management culture that often took a 'top-down' community engagement approach, further entrenching complacency and dependency. The hands-on-learning workshop enables them to re-shift their practice towards a community-led process and adapt it to their local contexts (image E).

    More than five years of extensive research has enabled a thorough understanding of the complex issue, drawing upon world-leading approaches for design and social innovation and continuous discussion and input by community, emergency agencies and expertise in disaster planning, making this an exemplar multi-disciplinary design. The caliber of scrutiny is achieved by adhering to protocols of an ethics committee, ensuring honesty and integrity in evaluating the process and outcome. Numerous high-impact peer-reviewed articles have been published, benchmarking this as cutting-edge on a national and international scale in leading the application and contribution in service design, social innovation and disaster management.