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Intermediation Practices

Strategies and tactics for community engagement to achieve mutually beneficial outcomes

Media architecture projects by their very nature tend to be situated in the public realm, commissioned by different clients, require input, support and approvals from institutional entities and funding bodies, and seek to engage a diversity of users and community members. We suggest that dealing competently and successfully with the complexity of this community engagement challenge warrants an explicit and methodical approach: intermediation practice.

Why is this needed? The typical creative process in many media architecture projects already comprises well-established design research and design thinking methods for ideation, conceptualisation, content production, deployment and testing. These methods tend to have in common a focus on creativity, originality, novelty, usability, user experience and, hopefully, eventually client acceptance. While this may be conducive to get creative juices flowing during ideation, these design methods have also been criticised for their limitations of dealing adequately with common institutional constraints. For example, design thinking workshops have been likened to setting up a ‘sandbox’ environment.1

Design visions eventually have to leave this safe space and be implemented by unwieldy government departments or business partners. Lodato and DiSalvo1 identify some of the potential pitfalls, or ‘administration gaps’, such as failure to secure ongoing funding for content curation, programming and maintenance post-deployment. Problems can also arise from an ideological mismatch between the values and aspirations imbued during the design phase versus the reality and lived experience of those actors and staff charged with implementing and maintaining the project. A project can be met with pushback if it clashes with more rigid and risk-averse structural hegemonies, vested interests or fiefdoms and their gatekeepers both systemic and human.

Even in the best of situations, without the above blockages, where actors are supportive and keen for projects to succeed, staff work under pressure. While they may enjoy being innovative in the sheltered workshop, they seldom have time in their pressured daily grind to think conceptually, far less implement new ideas. Thus, a project’s migration from theory to practice is not always smooth: prosaic operational reality is a whole other set of challenges beyond the sandbox. This is where we situate the skilled intermediary.

Learning to master intermediation practices can enrich the methods toolkit of media architecture practitioners. It equips the practitioner with the strategic vision and tactical acuity to broker their project’s passage from idea to reality in difficult operational contexts. Design for mutual benefit, that is, benefit for all the actors in a scenario including gatekeepers, is a skill that goes beyond simply negotiating a project or artefact into the public realm. It positions the practitioner’s imagination as a valuable enabler to a broader set of agendas: a navigator of complexity whose intervention can not only smooth the transition from theory to implementation but deliver benefits to others. The intermediary is a joiner of previously unseen dots, whose intervention adds practical, strategic and discursive value across diverse, sometimes divergent, fields of interest.

Method Steps

  1. Focus on your own design problem.

  2. Conduct actor mapping. This will provide the baseline data for any designer as intermediary.

  3. Check the coverage of your mapping. Ensure you include not just direct actors but also indirect, hidden or prospective future actors that are not always apparent straight away.

  4. Create a 3 x 3 matrix (with headings it is 4 x 4, see below table). You can use the template from the 3C Project Design Methodology (pp. 18-19) available at: In the first column, write down your top three goals or aspirational project outcomes. E.g. ‘community, culture, commerce’ or ‘make money, change the world, have fun’.

  5. Identify practical outcomes and benefits for each actor or group in the second column. E.g. jobs and professional development, creative expression, community engagement, enhanced consumer experience.

  6. Identify strategic outcomes and benefits for each actor or group in the third column. E.g. organisational capacity in the community sector, leadership in social / digital inclusion, new modes of social investment.

  7. Identify discursive outcomes and benefits for each actor or group in the fourth column. E.g. knowledge creation, cross-disciplinary projects and research, design for mutual benefit.

  8. Use the matrix to identify mutual benefits your project can deliver but also potential conflicts that could arise. Access the recommended follow-up readings to help you navigate disagreement and friction in order to produce win-win outcomes.