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Four key co-design principles to explore complex health issues

Dementia affects the lives of 298,000 Australians and 1.5 million carers. It is predicted to become the leading cause of disability in Australia by 2016, with massive impacts on our health and aged-care systems. (Statistics - Alzhiemer's Australia)

Dementia presents both a challenge and an opportunity for medical and care research and innovation in Australia. The National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) is working with ThinkPlace to engage with a diverse range of dementia stakeholders to identify priorities for dementia research and innovation. We have approached this complex subject with four co-design principles, which we use in many of our co-design projects:

  1. Authentic conversation: we create a safe space for real, honest conversations. Our aim is to gather genuine input from multiple voices and to uncover different perspectives, needs and insights as early in the process as possible. An authentic conversation means going slow to go fast. Opening up a space for such conversations – where you don’t know what you’re going to hear, and you probably won’t agree with all of it – might seem risky or hard to manage in the short term, but will increase the rigour of your strategy and the buy-in of your stakeholders in the long term.

  2. An iterative approach: we put things on the table for genuine input and feedback before they are fully formed. We get it wrong early to get it right in the end.

  3. Respect complexity: we recognise that no individual has all the answers and that there is not a simple right or wrong solution to any complex problem.

  4. We are not the experts: the expertise that will inform the NHMRC’s priorities for dementia does not come from us. Our role in this project is to coordinate input from the many diverse stakeholders who are each an expert in a part of the puzzle. We are good at giving structure and coherence to conversations, listening, synthesising diverse input and making sense of complexity. The content, the expertise and the recommendations for priorities will come from the professional stakeholders we engage with – people with expertise in policy, research, translation, medical practice and professional care, to those living with dementia, and their carers.

These co-design principles are learnt through applied practice, and serve as important reminders for all projects that explore complex and sensitive issues.

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Cate Shaw