Engagement by Design: Engagement Through Design — A Proposal

This is an overview about my research proposal. Its purpose is to give anyone attending my presentation a general sense of my area beforehand (or a reminder after) about my project.

It's a cut down version of a full proposal that I'll share after receiving feedback. As this project could easily exist within a multitude of different disciplines (and is being approached as a consciously interdisciplinary project), the purpose is to frame where it ‘lives’ and what it is setting out to do, but also what it isn't. 

What's the area of research?

The focus of this project is within the sphere of Public Engagement with Science and Technology (PEST).  

What's my research question?


How can design be used to improve public engagement with science and technology (PEST) development and outcomes*?
*or strategy and delivery

What's my perspective for approaching the research?

What have you found so far?

I have undertaken a literature review, and some semi-structured interviews with recognised science communicators in Aotearoa New Zealand. I have noted:

  1. Engagement (or PEST) is a term that gets used a lot. It is all through CoRE / National Science Challenge documents, and is used extensively by the science communication community. But, it’s not clear that there’s a standardised or uniform understanding of what ‘engagement’ entails, or how it relates to other terms like science communication and outreach (this blog post covers my findings on science communication's nomenclature history)

  2. There is a gap between the theory of science communication (from STS, PEST, social sciences) and the practice (‘the doing’ in terms of development of strategy and the interface with audiences/participants/public(s)) 

  3. Anecdotally, planning for engagement is done ‘on a hunch’ at the organisational level, and at the individual scientist-communicator level. Reflection (and measurement of success or impact) also tends to be ad hoc.

Which leads me to question, does design (as a user-centred approach to problem-solving) offer an opportunity to do engagement better, both strategically and practically? And specifically, can a design process add clarity about 1, 2 and 3 within a hands-on project using Te Pūnaha Matatini as a case study?

How might that be structured? 

Workstreams within PhD project. All named people/oranisations are, at this stage, wish list and unconfirmed/unapproached

Organisational case studies

My case study subjects will be inter-institutional, cross-disciplinary research networks/organisations that have ‘public engagement’ explicitly stated as an objective or performance measure:

  • The Deep South Challenge
  • Te Pūnaha Matatini
  • MacDiarmid Institute (tbc)
  • (Other CoREs / National Science Challenges?)

There have been studies before (such as Davies, 2013 in the UK) but this will give a specifically Aotearoa New Zealand perspective.


This will take the form of a semi-structured qualitative study (Blandford, 2013) incorporating some elements of surveys/semi-structured interviews/workshops and subsequent thematic analysis.   

Individual case studies

My individual case studies will look at practitioners approaching science communication from different angles. These people are recognised experts, and the purpose is to analyse both their perspectives on 1, 2 and 3 above, and to see what their approaches offer. 

Design-based development and delivery of engagement strategy with Te Pūnaha Matatini

Te Pūnaha Matatini are a CoRE working in the area of Complex Systems and Networks. I will embed within their engagement committee to develop an understanding of engagement perspectives (as per 1), then codesign and test tools to help them understand the positioning of their engagement (downstream, upstream), and their audiences.

Initial work with the engagement committee suggests Te Pūnaha Matatini investigators value increasing science literacy over communicating their actual research. This may be, in part, due to the theory-practice disconnect. 

Within this embedded project, I will address the need for a ‘communication of the science of science communication’ (Harris, 2018) through a design process to develop and test suitable interventions.

Informed by the individual case studies and literature review, I will also consider how disruptive, critical design approaches can be used as a provocation to challenge assumptions about public engagement.

Reflexive design

This stream sits alongside A, B and C as a seperate, secondary process. In a personal, autoethnographical reflexive practice I will document my process, and develop a series of design responses that can be used in C as provocations, or simply function as repositories of a reflexive journey. 

What are the anticipated outcomes?

  • Analyse PEST in the context of Aotearoa New Zealand inter-institutional, cross-disciplinary research networks/organisations, clarifying the parallels with or differences to other locales
  • Analyse approaches utilised by a group of practitioners utilising different PEST strategies to both document, categorise and inform interventions
  • Propose and test new methods of defining and developing PEST strategies within this kind of organisation, using design (in many guises) as a guiding principle, including ways to communicate theory to practitioners
  • Open source any materials as a design-led toolkit

Addendum: 12 December 2018

I have just done my presentation! It went well. I have a few questions to work through, but I literally just got out so I need time to digest :-) Please do tweet me or email me any feedback! 


Addendum two!

So the committee signed off my proposal! If you're interested,  it's here :-)



Thoughts > PhD Part 10: scans and looking inside


Thoughts > PhD Part 08: What is science communication?