TPG Demo Day: Radical Participatory Design

Demo by Victor Udoewa

CXO, CTO, and Service Design Lead [Public Sector]

Article by Rhett King, TPG Community Leads Committee


On June 7th, Technologists for the Public Good (TPG) hosted its first-ever Demo Day session—a talk and Q&A on radical participatory design led by Victor Udoewa, a public sector CXO and design lead, and TPG member.

What are Demo Days?

Demo Days, a new event series from TPG, are opportunities to showcase our members and the larger civic tech community by sharing ground-breaking work and lessons learned. The intention of this series is to inspire new ideas and deeper connections for TPG members.

Meet Victor Udoewa

Victor Udoewa is the CTO, CXO, and Service Design Lead of small business innovation, research, and small business technology transfer programs at NASA. Previously, he worked as the Director of Strategy at 18F, a digital services agency within the federal government, and has also worked as a global education instructional designer at Google. Now, Victor works holistically on design leadership at both  the service and product level (service policy) – and also across the government to affect other research, products, and services, as well as how the government makes policy.

Intro to Radical Participatory Design (RPD)

The history of research within the civic innovation community is marred with countless examples of “extractive” research practices that take from communities instead of bringing promised positive change, deepening communities’ distrust of the institutions that undertake research with the intention to help them. Our Demo Day speaker, Victor Udeowa, challenged TPG audience members with a weighty question—“how might we change to be better?” 

What is RPD all about?

Victor first took on the challenge of defining radical participatory design as a concept, and further, demystifying it. Some students of participatory design (PD) and participatory research (PR) associate their history solely with Western scholars, like Kurt Lewin, or scholars in the south like Paulo Freire,  who “first” named PD and brought it to the consciousness of mainstream academics, starting from the 1940s or 1970s onward. 

Through the work of  “decolonizing [PD and PR’s] mythology,” Victor explained that to only view PD and PR within the window of 20th century, Western-centric, mainstream institutional knowledge is a very limited lens, given that PD it and PR have innately been woven into our research and design practices since the dawn of human communities. Earlier PD and PR practices from human history took us deep into prehistory and around the globe—from the prehistoric Stone Age, when humans were experimenting with their first tools and weapons; to medieval times, when midwives gathered knowledge with animal herders to refine their practices; to colonial times, when West African women braided seeds in their hair as a way to preserve their culture amidst the forced migration of slavery.

"Participatory design throughout the history of communities" - a diagram timeline from 'Homo Sapiens appear' all the way to pivotal participatory design movements in the 1940s-1970s. The point is that participatory design has been around as long as human communities have been.

The history of PD is not limited to the 20th century when it entered the mainstream academic consciousness. Humans have been participating in PD and PR throughout the history of the communities.

Image by Victor Udoewa.

Research programs, even co-design programs that aspire to integrate PD practices, generally have an established power structure where the research designer and facilitator is at the center. Even when a facilitator aims to “empower” a community—“empowered means we’re reinforcing the hierarchy we’re trying to subvert.” Only through elevating community members to be the facilitators of a program can power be assumed by the community. “If you change who facilitates,” Victor explained, “you change the outcome.”

Illustration of participants showing how a truly participatory project could be done. For example, a "community member" could be an "organizer and activist," another community member could be a "historian and poverty reduction expert," another community member could be the "designer / researcher."

An example of how a community-facilitated RPD program could be structured. Image by Victor Udoewa.

In participatory design, the community initiates, participates, and leads research and design efforts. The following characteristics generally describe  research, design, and development programs where  community members truly “assume power” as research and design facilitators:

A critical aspect of PD that sets it apart from other research methods—tying in to the point that the community should own their own cultural data, artifacts, and outcomes throughout the PD process—is that through the practice of PD, community members’ lived experiential knowledge, and cultural and spiritual knowledge, are considered equal, or at times even more valuable, compared to mainstream institutional knowledge and research practices. Because institutional practices set out to study and assess experiential knowledge, experiential knowledge ultimately leads and defines the institutional knowledge that follows.

Benefits of RPD

Victor next highlighted seven distinct benefits of RPD:

Evaluating RPD programs

Victor next defined what success and sustainability looks like within RPD, in terms of evaluating an individual program’s effectiveness.

Building an ethical RPD practice requires making sure that participants are compensated fairly, relative to the value of their time. However, community members’ time may be worth even more than the designer’s, given that their participation in a program may mean pausing other efforts to advance their own careers or support their community.

As a baseline, equitable compensation means compensating research participants for their time and efforts participating in a research program, generally with liquid funds. Where it was not possible for Victor to directly pay research participants on resource-constrained projects in the past, however, he sometimes experimented with authorship, referrals, and other forms of trying to support participants’ career advancement, as long as it was the participants’ choice of how to be compensated.

Success is ultimately defined within an RPD program as one where a majority of team members “experience a sustained and sustainable shift in power.” Participatory design proves effective where the community is able to assume the power “ceded” by the professional designers and facilitators.  

An example from Victor’s career he considered a success was a research and design program he previously led in India. The research process and learnings inspired and empowered each of the team members and participants, including Victor himself, to change jobs—or to change career paths entirely—at its conclusion, to increase social capital or to give up social capital.

Expanding the impact of RPD

To conclude the talk portion of the Demo Day session, Victor discussed his efforts to bring more awareness to RPD in the civic innovation sector.

He’s designed a plan of action the executive branch could implement to embed RPD practices into all federal government agencies, which would involve establishing Radical Participatory Policy Design Labs for each agency, and an office of the CXO within the White House.

Victor also hopes to launch a Participatory Government Awards program, which would allocate $12,000 at minimum annually to projects recognized for successfully implementing participatory design. (If you’re interested in contributing, financially or creatively, in this effort, you can fill out the interest form here.)

Discussion and questions

At the lively discussion session that followed, Victor responded to number of audience questions, including:


We are incredibly grateful to Victor Udoewa for taking the time to educate the TPG community about the elements, strategies, and benefits of radical participatory design. While our initial discussion in the Demo Day session largely focused on how RPD strategies are applicable to improving research and design programs, the power-ceding practices interwoven into RPD can be applied to countless other areas of community action work within the civic innovation sector. 

“How might we be better?” One answer is to consider broadly, how we might be more participatory? 

Given our shared humanity, our work to better our communities is inherently participatory. If we as civic innovation change-makers can lean into resetting the institutional power structures that hold communities back, we can affect more positive and resonant change.

Additional resources

Check out the links below to learn more about radical participatory design, and Victor Udoewa’s efforts to bring awareness to RPD practices.

Demo Day session

Victor’s RPD Projects

Texts discussed

More Demo Days from TPG

Stay tuned for announcements about the next Demo Day in the TPG Newsletter and TPG Slack channel. You can access these resources by becoming a member.

Interested in leading a Demo Day session? If you’d like to showcase your work, or nominate someone to present at a Demo Day, please reach out to the TPG Leadership Committee: #ask-committee in the TPG Slack, or by email (

Interested in joining TPG? Sign up for membership here.

Rhett King has spent over a decade helping scale trust & safety strategy and manage growing online communities at a variety of tech platforms of all sizes and audiences. She is currently working on Legal Operations and Trust & Safety for a social platform, and serving as a volunteer on the Leadership Committee of Technologists for the Public Good.