Designing Communities

Can co-design transform the lives of people living in a disadvantaged community?

Designing Communities

" The design team have achieved in six weeks what other agencies have failed to achieve in 10 years."

Dott Cornwall

Designing Communities was a unique project and one that became the most talked about amongst ministers and elected members as part of the Dott Cornwall programme. It transformed from a small feasibility study for a new community building into a potentially system changing initiative that could, with support, reduce negative social and economic impacts associated with deprivation across the UK.

Pengegon is officially Cornwall’s most deprived neighbourhood. It is in the UK’s bottom 2% for overall deprivation, income deprivation (bottom 1%) and employment deprivation (bottom 4%). The percentage of children in poverty (under 16) is 50.8% – which equates to around 135 children. The community has been described as lacking confidence and aspiration, and many residents don’t access the services available to them due to mistrust of agencies.

Armed with such information, it’s almost inconceivable that anyone would describe Pengegon in anything other than pejorative terms. Many agencies and stakeholders described the community as “hard to reach”. But as we found out, apathy sits on both sides of the fence and this led us to draw fundamentally new conclusions on how to tackle deprivation in communities.

This project began as a feasibility study into whether a new community building could bring about lasting benefits to the residents of Pengegon. Our ambition was to explore whether an active community existed – because no community would surely mean no need for a building. To our delight, we witnessed a strong sense of community identity and togetherness, and so we set about conveying the community in a very different light. This challenged perceptions.

Our approach was relatively simple. We entrenched ourselves in the community to capture views and understand need. We discovered a deep feeling of mistrust for support services and agencies. There is a perception that Pengegon residents benefit hugely from government support but, beyond a small Localism service (which was scrapped in March 2015), agency intervention is minimal. We realised that to gain trust and encourage residents to share their ideas, we ourselves needed to connect with them around the things they were interested in.

We made films with various social groups, community allotments and sports clubs. We also put on a ‘co-design party’ where children had fun designing a new community building out of cake! These creative activities gave us an opportunity to uncover the truth about people living on the estate.

We demonstrated a much stronger community spirit and desire for change than the facts and figures might suggest and, in just two 6-week cycles, we engaged with approximately 20% of residents. We also undertook research with the wider community, including a number of stakeholders and service providers to examine the local issues in more depth.

We concluded that a new community building was viable, and ran co-design activities with local residents and agencies to ensure that it would be sustainable and embedded into the fabric of the community.


Whilst getting to know the community, we tested the idea for a ‘community benefits system’, which was later presented within the House of Lords and Department for Communities and Local Government. Lord Nat Wei, the government’s then advisor for Big Society, described our work as a compelling example of Big Society in action – where ideas and improvements were best achieved in partnership with residents and agencies already active in the community. The Guardian newspaper agreed – showcasing our project on the front cover of their Communities supplement.

“The residents already feel that they own the new community centre, even though it doesn’t yet exist” Claire Arymar, Neighbourhood Manager, Community Regeneration Team, Cornwall Council.

“We have had a good experience with the Pengegon project, and we are really pleased. Made Open spent an awful lot of time embedding themselves within the local community and have kept really good contact with us as a client. They engaged with that community and brought them together in a way that hadn’t happened before, which is very positive.” Lynda Davis, Programme Integration Manager, CPR Regeneration

“Made Open have achieved in six weeks what other agencies have failed to achieve in 10 years. I think partly because they are a new organisation looking at the community’s needs, without an on-going vested interest. That’s meant they have been able to shift things forward apace and have offered a genuine opportunity to make a long-term change in the area.” Tarn Lamb, Chief Executive, Cornwall Neighbourhoods for Change