The community dictionary | Episode 1 – Community Design

The community dictionary | Episode 1 - Community Design

The community dictionary | Episode 1 – Community Design

Welcome to the Community Dictionary. This series of articles will feature the English version of the Italian spoken podcast hosted by Marta Mainieri, and produced by Produzioni Dal Basso.

Community Design

The term “Community design” does not exist, at least in academic literature.
My friend Daniela Selloni, a professor at Politecnico di Milano, told me some time ago: “The term ‘Community design’ in the scientific language of design is not widely used. I don’t recall any design researcher who is properly concerned with ‘designing a community’. Of course, because you cannot design communities. Communities are made up of relationships, which are highly volatile, difficult to predict, and certainly undesignable.”

So… perhaps we should end this article, then? Well, not exactly.

Community design has not yet entered the scientific language, but that doesn’t mean it does not exist. There are many ongoing experiments that show how places, territories, and organizations are growing or reorganizing around a community. In fact, there are also businesses, cooperatives, and associations trying to imagine new services born out of the development of communities.

These communities are profoundly different compared to those of the past, but maintain the sense of coming together and developing actions and relationships around a shared value. Communities that often spring up spontaneously, move in an unstructured way, and that often depend on chance and the commitment of their active members to  succeed.

In order to support these experiments and ensure that new ones could be developed without having to start over each time, at Collaboriamo, we gathered all the insights from the communities we have met, interviewed, trained, and helped over these years. By looking at the common features of these experiences, we came up with an approach and a design framework that we called Community design.
This is not intended to be a scientific process, but to provide a navigational framework -a dashboard- for those who want to invest time -and money, why not- in building a community.

Community design is an approach that currently consists of 4 principles.

I say “currently” because, being born out of constant experimentation, it is permanently evolving.

Its goal – and this is its first principle – is to create value from the relationships between a group of people who gather around a value proposition, and to share a sense of belonging and responsibility. In short, to create value from a community, which can be made of citizens, customers, employees, suppliers, and so on.

The second principle is that Community design does not design communities but its context, within which people move, relate, get information, and so on. Therefore, it designs the environment (channels), the tools (the formats, the services, the functionalities), and the infrastructure (the system of identity, governance, sustainability) to create a context within which people can feel safe to express themselves and be stimulated to share and act together; thus, creating community.

The third principle of Community design is that it puts people’s needs at the center of the design, no longer as individuals, as it happened with industrial products or services, but as members of a group who gather around a value proposition. This means that in the design phase it’s good to understand how the opportunistic need that leads a user to join a community, succeeds in gaining value and being transformed when the user joins other people experiencing the same need.

Finally, Community design studies how to foster the growth of interactions that occur not only between the organization and the members of a community, but especially those that occur among the community members themselves. This is one of the most important innovations: it is no longer designed to grow the interaction between a product and a customer, in a one-way manner, but to enable relationships that occur between members, in order then to acquire information to innovate products or services, to improve customer support, to circulate more knowledge, and so on.

At this point, a question arises:

How do you do it? How do these principles become design elements?

To try to ground these principles, we developed a community design framework: a navigational dashboard that aims to guide those who want to build or grow their community. Our framework is divided into four macro areas that are functional in designing the framework to foster the birth and growth of communities. These are: the identity, engagement, governance, and sustainability systems.

The identity system defines the identity of a community and that is its value proposition; who is part of the community and who is not (the so-called openness of a community), and its narrative. Community identity, compared to the one of a product or even of an organization, takes on fundamental importance because it is what holds the community together. That is why it must not be aspirational but concrete, credible, aggregating, and must stimulate activism, which is an integral part of forming a community.

The engagement system is made up of those elements that help foster member involvement: channels, formats (events, meetings, etc.), and content that must be designed to stimulate and engage members. This kind of engagement is no longer based solely on communication, and therefore on a traditional top-down logic, but must have the goal of developing conversations and co-designing to stimulate a sense of belonging, reciprocity, and the desire to do things together.

The third macro area of our dashboard is the governance system, which is no longer closed and linear, aimed at internal management of a service or organization, but is open to the outside world to encourage co-management with community members themselves. Indeed, it is good to entrust them with roles, activities, and responsibilities so that they feel being an active part of the community and continue to engage. Also part of the governance system is the reward system. Rewars do not have to be in cash, but they are necessary to repay members for their commitment and to allow the community to grow.

Finally, the last macro area is sustainability.  This area is important for defining the resources needed to build communities, which are: time, skills, places, technology, and budget. All of this is necessary because building a community is a project that needs time, care, effort, and even money. The good news is that for these efforts, both direct and indirect revenues can be enormous.

Once the 4 macro areas of community design have been defined, here’s one additional advise: Pay special attention to designing with the community, and not for the community. Or rather, you can design for the community to define the strategy and the path forward, but as soon as possible, it’ll be in your best interest to get into a co-design phase with the community or potential members. This can be through workshops, interview sessions or a more structured prototype, such as a series of meetings or the beta testing of an application.

In conclusion, then, community design does not exist in the literature, but so much is already being done and also there’s much that remains to be done. In the continuation of the ongoing episodes of our dictionary we will go in depth of some of the words that make up the approach and our dashboard, for those who would like to contribute to the debate in addition to reading to us can write to us at

In conclusion, although Community design does not exist in the literature, a lot is already being done, and there is still much that remains to be accomplished. In the ongoing episodes of our dictionary, we will delve deeper into some of the words that constitute our approach and our dashboard.

If you would like to contribute to the debate or contact us for further information, please write us to

Photo by Joshua Hoehne on Unsplash