University of New South Wales (UNSW) industrial design professor Oya Demirbilek is an advocate for co-design, a participatory and collaborative approach that can improve the environment and wellbeing.

According to Demirbilek, co-design involves partnering with the end-user from the beginning, requiring a mindset change from ‘designing for’ to ‘designing with’. Rather than focusing so much on aesthetics, co-design prioritises purpose and functionality.

The process of co-design places value on sustained qualitative research methods. As an intensively collaborative approach, it can involve years of brainstorming sessions, workshops, journaling, consultations and other engaging design research activities. The results are products or concepts that are ultimately more meaningful, more accessible, more inclusive and more sustainable, according to Demirbilek.

"It's not about just producing more things that people want. There’s lots of that,” she says.

“It's about producing what people inherently need, and that would make a positive impact on their lives.

"Good design can be beautiful. Yet it has to be intuitive, and it has to serve a real need first. You need to get to the inherent needs people have and the tacit knowledge that is within them. It goes beyond what you can ask them in a survey, or even what they say in an interview.

"The problems we face in the future are more complex and ill-defined than ever…so it's not just about developing one product. Co-design thinking can be applied to all the systems of different scales that affect the way we live, to products, environments, systems, services and experiences.”

Demirbilek has employed the co-design approach across multiple scales with success, including bathroom furniture and home appliances. She believes co-design can be scaled to improve quality of life across the board, which is of vital importance to the ageing population.

"The environments people live and work in, and the devices and objects they interact with daily have a huge impact on a person's experience and extent of ability and disability... especially for older people, or people with dexterity, vision, hearing, cognition or mobility issues. And we are not talking about small groups of people here; for example, there are 4 million people affected by arthritis in Australia alone.

"With a co-design approach, we can make sure designers get a better feel and understanding of the target markets they are working with, and that they factor in the needs of older people, or people with different ability levels, into the design process. For example, partnering with old people to create more supportive, meaningful and stimulating environments will allow them to contribute to finding the best ways to age in place, with their families, their communities; and that can also help keep them engaged with their neighbourhoods and their cities, all of which can only improve the quality of their lives."