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ThinkPlace's online collaboration - Airlabs

COVID-19 will change co-design and engagement…perhaps for good


Staying connected to the community is going to be different - for a few months at least.

In a matter of weeks, we have seen the COVID-19 pandemic disrupt some so-common-they’re-almost-invisible norms of societies around the world. Handshaking has wound down, strategic shopping has ramped up in ways both good and bad, and gatherings have become sparser.

Workplaces who have never even considered work-from-home arrangements are shifting staff from offices and cubicles into studies, lounges and kitchen tables, at speed.

In this atmosphere, the need to co-design, conduct research and test with ideas with users and communities has never been more important. But, over the last few weeks, you’ll know from experience that workshops are understandably attended with a sense of trepidation, and every errant cough or sniff is like a small shot of adrenaline to nearby participants.

What we’ve learnt from Airlabs

ThinkPlace’s Airlabs service is our 100% online workshop/research capability - was never intended as a response to a pandemic situation - we didn’t even name it until recently. But over years, we’ve used it in complex and sometimes sensitive policy spaces to convene groups, for the purposes of building insight and breaking through on hard problems.

When we designed Airlabs, we considered how we could replace elements of ‘physical conversation’ with new, natural-feeling ways of interacting, engaging and building a shared journey. It wasn’t always about one-for-one substitutions, but about “reimagining the workshop” or “reimagining the research session”, with technologies that let us do things you couldn’t do otherwise.

We worked hard to make experiences feel equitable and inclusive for all participants, to create engaging moments of insight, generating and using data and thinking generated in-workshop immediately and creatively. 

New norms had to be created for virtual break-out spaces, tools like polls, back-channel conversations and ideation had to be woven in seamlessly. When using Airlabs to engage people experiencing vulnerabilities, we had to think about how we created authentic social safety and a sense of empowerment for everyone linked in. 

We needed to think about breaks differently, and how people could be energised or just given some space to think and move around within the Airlab process.

The result has been a service that’s engaging, intense when it needs to be, compassionate when it needs to be, and that feels both very different and very natural at the same time.

Public good relies on, and emerges from, connection

From our early days, we have held the belief that bringing together many voices, with different expertise, interests and lived experience, is an essential part of solving complex societal problems. The business of government may skip a beat in the next week or two, but then it will have to go on and take on challenges that are not just novel, but potentially unimaginable even a few weeks ago.

We think co-design and user engagement should, and can, help chart the pathway through the pandemic, and for the work of government that must continue despite it.

We’re here to support you

As we are all trying to work through the COVID-19 disruption to continue delivering important services and functions to the Australian community, ThinkPlace is, and will remain, open and ready to support you.

Please reach out to us if you would like advice on how to shift co-design workshops, consultation workshops, research, user testing or training online, or to use our Airlabs service to stay connected to your ecosystem and to the people you are trying to help.

You can refer to the downloadable pdf below for more information for you or your organisation.

View our Airlabs guide 

Get in touch about airlabs:

Australia: +61 2 6282 8852 | airlabs [at] (subject: Airlabs%20Enquiry)

New Zealand: +64 (04) 472 1212 | info [at] (subject: Airlabs%20Enquiry)

Singapore: +65 9046 0340 |  info [at]

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Darren Menachemson

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