Agonistic Navigating: exploring ane (re)configuring youth participation in design

Public space is important to teenagers, but they don’t often have an opportunity to contribute to the design of public spaces and they are sometimes seen as trouble-makers when they hang out in public. In my PhD research, I set out to investigate problems related to youth participation in the design of public spaces, such as lack of influence in decision-making, poor communication, and non-inclusive or unappealing methods. Through a partnership with Blacktown City Council in Sydney’s western suburbs, I began my fieldwork with broad investigations drawing on literature in participatory design, political theory, geography, and youth studies.

In recent years there has been interest in the way participatory design can open up contested and uncertain issues, and promote engagement without the need for consensus. Here, the political theory of agonism suggests that political issues always involve conflict and dissensus, and we need approaches that engage with this productively. I chose to work with local government who run participation processes, and young people who are often overlooked. This entailed an approach of respecting different views and looking for ways to align the varied interests of different stakeholders. I spent nine months meeting council staff, learning about the infrastructures that support public participation and the design of public spaces, and engaging with young people. While many council staff believe public participation in decision-making is important, young people are sometimes overlooked in these processes. Focusing on the Mt Druitt locality, I learned from young people that they want to be involved in ways that are practical, creative and sociable. During consultation sessions with school students about the reserve next to their school, the need for a space to hang out with friends or family was identified. Sparked by this idea, I initiated the Bidwill Chill Space project, a design-build program with a local organisation that serves young people who are at risk of disengaging from education.

Reflecting on my fieldwork, I developed the concept of 'agonistic navigating' as a politically engaged participatory design practice. Agonistic navigating articulates the way I worked to uphold and (re)configure political commitments within the complexity, tensions and power dynamics of participatory practice. I explored the reflexive work of orienting and anchoring myself in the fieldwork site, and manoeuvring in relations with council to leverage political will and maintain engagement. Within the Bidwill Chill Space Project, I found myself navigating with and between uncertain matters such as voice, decision-making, and fun. As a facilitator I juggled and prioritised, and we worked to articulate what these aspects of participation meant for us in the particular situation. Here, moments of unsettlement prompted reflection on the way I had pre-configured participation while planning the project, and helped me to re-configure participation according to what mattered to the young people. I developed the idea of “design fingerprints and trails” to describe how voice was manifested as the collection, mediation and transformation of design ideas over time. Further, I expanded my understanding of youth participation beyond the dominant norm of adult-facilitated activities, to include everyday, youth-initiated actions that sustain engagement in the long term. Overall, agonistic navigating is a dynamic practice of configuring and re-configuring participation with others to suit the needs of specific contexts.

My written exegesis is available from the RMIT research repository. As part of the examination process (during the pandemic lockdown) I produced this 1 hour video presentation.