Participate! Questioning the link between participation and empowerment in design for development


Participatory design methods are embraced by most design professionals, teachers in “the field” and academics working with design that aims for empowerment and poverty alleviation. That participatory methods lead to empowerment amongst the poor, marginalized participants and communities is left rather unquestioned by most of this literature and the practitioners undertaking such projects in developing countries.

When comparing design research to development research on this area(Cooke and Kothari 2001; Hickey and Mohan 2004), one will come to realize that designers can benefit from a reality-check of their assumptions concerning participatory methods and empowerment in design for development projects. Sufficient and transparent research on this field will lead to designers knowing when and where participatory methods shall be used, or how they can be adjusted for the intended purpose of long term sustainable development of the communities involved.

By taking a theoretical stand on a practical “design paradigm”, this article explores the possible limitations and even negative effects that participatory design methods may have on empowerment. The literature comparison will also highlight further research needed and alternatives to participatory methods. 

Key words:  participatory design, participation, empowerment, design for development, development studies

Cooke, B. and U. Kothari (2001). Participation: The new tyranny?, Zed Books.

Hickey, S. and G. Mohan (2004). Participation: from tyranny to transformation?: exploring new approaches to participation in development, Zed books.


About Brita Fladvad Nielsen

I'm a Postdoctoral researcher at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology. My focus is on Smart Energy Communities in urban settings as well as design of energy-devices for emergency settings and design for humanitarian markets, especially for refugee camps in rural areas of Africa. I blog about my research approach Design Thinking on and about humanitarian design at . I am also a mother of a child who is deaf, and I blog about her language development on
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