Green vegetable gardens float next to houses in Au Akol village on Lake Tonle Sap. People with gardens eat vegetables twice as often as they used to, and they are confident about the quality: they no longer risk buying a bitter zucchini, tainted with suspicious chemicals. Four of the gardens are prototypes developed in a participatory design process that involved village families, Cambodian facilitators and Australian designers. Rin Chan-ny, 31-year-old mother of five, says: “I feel glad and proud of our project… I have helped four of my husband’s relatives to start gardens. I gave them seeds, shared my knowledge, and helped them to build it. Now we have a crop exchange so we can share different things we are producing.

People in Au Akol are skilled and resourceful. This should be obvious—they manage to live in very difficult conditions—but sometimes designers see poor people as helpless recipients, rather than useful and rightful partners. Participatory design turns this mindset around. It is an approach that integrates local and professional knowledge to develop innovative and locally appropriate designs. Methods such as flashcards can help structure discussions, so that each person’s knowledge is made available to the group. But methods alone are not enough. Participatory design also requires a mindset that values different contributions, and facilitation skills that acknowledge differences in power and culture.


The gardens are constructed using local tools and techniques. Flashcards with pictures of materials help structure discussion about availability, cost, durability and suitability. [Source: CoDesign Studio]
The gardens are constructed using local tools and techniques. Flashcards with pictures of materials help structure discussion about availability, cost, durability and suitability. [Source: CoDesign Studio]
Building floating vegetable gardens on the Tonle Sap Lake, Cambodia. [Source: CoDesign Studio]
Building floating vegetable gardens on the Tonle Sap Lake, Cambodia. [Source: CoDesign Studio]
Floating vegetable gardens provide a new form of sustenance for the communities of the water-based Tonle Sap Lake, Cambodia. [Source: CoDesign Studio]
Floating vegetable gardens provide a new form of sustenance for the communities of the water-based Tonle Sap Lake, Cambodia. [Source: CoDesign Studio]


What can an Australian design team offer? People in floating villages have limited access to new information, and ideas from the internet are useful in any design process. Through precedent studies, the team determined that plastic water bottles were a feasible option for floatation. When they arrived in the village with samples, the villagers were disappointed. In their experience, plastic bottles are useful as fishing floats, but they bob around and float away. How could they possibly make a stable structure for someone to walk on? Photographs proved to them that this is possible.

The way goals are described affects how designers work. In this project, the partner organisations developed these measurable goals:

_Improved nutrition (health)

_Effective participatory design (empowerment, recognising gender as important)

_Increased knowledge about design and agriculture (sustainable skills)

_Economic benefits of gardens (affordable, income-generating)

_Innovative design outcome (based on a brief developed with villagers)

To achieve these goals requires focus on both process and outcomes. Participation is not just a method to achieve a better physical product. It is also an orientation to addressing poverty that draws on fields where poverty is core to the discipline, such as international development. Ownership of knowledge is accepted as key to empowerment, and participatory design can facilitate ownership. Chan-ny’s prototype had problems: it incorporated large plastic bottles that became brittle and cracked. But she has re-purposed them and developed other solutions. She recognises the usefulness of the experiment. In her words: “if each family shares their knowledge, it can make the whole village better. When I see other families gardening successfully after my help, I feel very happy. These other families have not received money or support from a donor, but they have changed their behaviour anyway.” Chan-ny’s ownership and knowledge is important: to herself, to her village, and to wider discussions about the role of design in tackling poverty.

Based on experience in Au Akol, CoDesign Studio produced a handbook about participatory design to help other designers and community organisations. It is available for free at kateferguson.org

Many thanks to the partner organisations CoDesign Studio, Agile Development Group, RFCD, and to the participating families led by Srey Mom, Sobhoeun, Pah, and Chan-ny.


The team is proud and happy with their prototype for a floating vegetable patch. [Source: CoDesign Studio]
The team is proud and happy with their prototype for a floating vegetable patch. [Source: CoDesign Studio]

Interested in knowing more? Click here to download your free copy of the ‘Participatory Design Handbook’.