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Co-design aims to bring designers and end users together to improve the quality of design projects. In low- to middle-income countries, there can be social distances between these actors due to imbalances in socioeconomic power, education levels, gender, or geographic origin. As a result, enhancing proximity between these groups can be beneficial and lead to a more collaborative design process.

As an architect engaged in spatial design, I see the different forms of design activities as closely related, with the potential for mutual learning. Theoretically, the disciplines of design and architecture have distinctive discourses on participatory engagement and empathy, and I aim to bring these perspectives into a dialogue.

My thesis examines how the different actors can be brought closer to each other to enhance horizontal co-design that aims to achieve equality. Furthermore, collaboration between actors in the design process can support the local and socio-cultural rootedness of a project. The thesis is a compilation of five published papers and an introduction or "kappa," which consists of six chapters. Three of the papers are peer-reviewed journal articles, one is a peer-reviewed book chapter, and one is a journal article based on a key-note presentation. The introduction binds the papers together and explains the background, theoretical framing, research design, cases, results, and contributions.

My practice-led research through design builds upon findings from architectural design projects conducted in Tanzania and India. In this thesis, I study in-depth the design process of two projects: a housing proposal for a community threatened by eviction in Zanzibar, Tanzania, and a maternity ward for women delivering in low- to middle-income settings that was designed for Zanzibar, Tanzania, and Odisha, India. In the design projects, we employed collaborative design methods to work with the future inhabitants and users of the buildings. The results of these collaborative works influenced the design.

My research presents evidence of the significance of empathy in the design process. In the two design projects, I identified the benefits of empathising during the different stages of the design process. Thus, I argue for the adoption of an empathic approach that guides the design process from the beginning, throughout the project, and beyond. Designers can empathize both from a distance and when being closely immersed with the end-users. These understandings result in the presentation of three registers of empathy: empathy from a distance, engaging empathy, and empathy in depth. The analyses of these registers indicate that there is no need to exclude one or another register. They can all be combined to complement each other or utilized in different circumstances when one of them might be more appropriate than another. Through the presentation of the registers, my research draws attention to the potential offered by empathic engagement and supports designers and architects in becoming aware of their empathic abilities.

A. ‘Empathy from a distance’ embodies the value of the architect’s/designer’s presence and capacity to employ personal experiences and an active motivation to imagining being the user. In this register, the architect/designer is strongly embodied, and the actual user is often obscured. This register can give designers and architects the freedom to introduce new innovative solutions that promote development. However, it also has limitations and can result in an outcome that is not adopted by the users.

B. ‘Empathy through connection’ emphasises the users with a pragmatic focus on their activities, emotions, and aspirations through practical methods and tools. In this register, the users are in the spotlight. The designers and architects are seeking to understand them with sensitivity, curiosity, and integrity. This register gives users a voice and a part to play in the design process.

C. ‘Empathy in depth’ proposes that the designers and architects take a step closer to the users, seek out similarities and differences, and aim to reduce distances between stakeholders with compassion. This happens through establishing an intimate connection with the environment, culture, and users. This register connects the two previous registers as the designers/architects, users, and other stakeholders share experiences and form a collective understanding.

I argue that using all three approaches to empathy enhances the connection and collaboration between actors and promotes a more horizontal design process. From a theoretical perspective, these approaches clarify and unify different interpretations of empathy in design and architecture. Using these approaches has wider value, not only for practice but also for research within and across these fields. I believe that empathy is a crucial skill in design, and we should value and develop it. Furthermore, designing with empathy can create spaces that encourage empathetic encounters. This could be a fruitful area for further research.

I’m sitting on the "barasa" outside a house in Ng’ambo with Omar Muhammed Ali. He built his house himself in 1958. He is spending his days on the bench in front of the house as his legs are tired with age. 40 years ago, his mother planted a tree in front of the house. The tree is big now, one of the biggest in the area. I ask Bwana Omar if he thinks that trees are important in the city and in his neighbourhood. He sighs and tells me that for a long time he has been in favour of trees, and particularly in favour of this tree in front of his house. However, now he has come to the conclusion that, after all, the neighbours are more important than the trees. The roots of the tree are taking water from under the house of his neighbour Mama Barke and the roots are cracking the foundations of her house. Now Bwana Omar is ready to let go of the tree to keep up his good relations with his neighbour.


Ng’ambo, Zanzibar, 2016 

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