To co-design or not to co-design by Michelle Chan, Joanne Li, Nandita Bijur, Sarah Smythe and Brad Mullen

An exploration of relationship-building and design during a pandemic This roundtable will reflect on our positionality as public servants – how easy it is to break than mend trust in the age of COVID-19. We’ll explore how we’ve tried (and failed) to responsibly engage with communities often overlooked and under-supported by institutions and the value of reciprocal, sustained relationships with community partners to rebuild and regain trust.

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The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated existing systemic inequities. In 2021, the Service and Content Design Team in B.C.’s Government Digital Experience partnered with the Ministry of Health to conduct design research to surface insights about barriers to vaccine access. But vaccine access was just the beginning. Our findings also highlighted equity gaps in access to healthcare information and services for underserved and marginalized communities with histories of mistrust, trauma, and discrimination from the institutional systems our team works alongside and within.

Over the course of this project, we spoke with individuals and support organizations (non-profits and community-based groups) about the challenges that they experience and observe in healthcare access. We learned about the vital role that support organizations play, connecting communities to often lifesaving information and services, and how challenging and time-consuming this work is. We also learned about our own roles as public servant designers and the real and perceived limits of bureaucracy in doing this type of engagement in a way that is sustainable, transparent, non-extractive.

Our team is continuing to explore how we might be more community-led and people-centred in our design practice. We want to build trust with people and communities facing barriers to healthcare services and information. And we know that a first step must be relationship-building with trusted support organizations and partners who are already doing the work with and alongside communities.

Roundtable discussion

This roundtable chat will reflect on our positions of power and how reciprocal and sustained relationships with trusted community partners are essential for reaching and supporting communities government has often overlooked. We will explore the ways we’ve tried (and failed) to responsibly engage with communities and share what we learned along the way.ith participants after the workshop.

Joanne Li looking off camera against modern architecture.

Joanne Li

Michelle Chan smiling against a pink background

Michelle Chan

Sarah Smythe smiling and wearing a black top.

Sarah Smythe

Brad looking off camera as his face is illuminated by a dim light.

Brad Mullen

Nandita standing outside smiling in a yellow shirt.

Nandita Bijur

Joanne's bio

Joanne Li is an equity designer, facilitator, and sporadic creative sharing the land of the lək̓ʷəŋən Peoples in so called Victoria, BC. She’s most energized by (re)imagining just, liberated, and decolonized spaces and systems – values of change that drive her work as a designer and researcher for the Government of BC to improve programs and services. When she’s not musing on community-centred design frameworks, you can find her with gouache by a body of water or online as @jeaneah.  

Michelle's bio

Michelle Chan is a service designer with a background in UX/UI design, and has made it her mission to design for accessibility in healthcare and the public sector. She values creativity and playfulness – often incorporating colour, illustrations and interactions into her design process. She also enjoys engaging in participatory design workshops and learning alongside her community. During her spare time, Michelle loves doing arts and crafts, such as making pom poms and stickers.

Sarah's bio

Sarah believes in the power of community-building, empathy, empowerment, and fun! As an advocate at heart, her public sector career has been a winding path, where she has practiced community education and development, youth work, health promotion, policy development, behavioural insights, and human centred design. She has been working for the BC Public Service for three years and is currently a Service Designer with Government Digital Experience where she enjoys facilitating, designing, and analyzing her way through any problem and system with her amazing team. When she isn’t busy at work, Sarah loves listening to podcasts, reading, and spending lots of time outside with her partner and pup playing frisbee, hiking, and camping.


Brad's bio

As a human-centred designer, Brad approaches problems with an interest in learning from, working with and creating for people. When he’s not trying to co-design equitable public services, he’s often biking through the traditional territory of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh peoples, thinking about the fraught history of Vancouver’s urban planning and dreaming of alternatives to current land ownership structures.

Nandita's bio

Nandita is privileged to live and work on the traditional and unceded Lkwungen & W̱SÁNEĆ territory. She is a design researcher and facilitator who is passionate about creating space and scaffolding for equity, justice, and systemic change. Outside work, Nandita can be found looking for a puppy to play with, cooking something on the cusp of easy and delicious, and matching music to her mood.