Walgett, in rural New South Wales (NSW), Australia, is a community of resilience and heart. It’s also a community that faces socioeconomic disadvantages; there are high rates of unemployment amongst Indigenous people, low rates of school and vocational attendance, a declining population, increasing welfare and a narrow industry base.
The Department of Regional NSW engaged ThinkPlace to work with the community, applying place-based, human-centred design. The Cultural & Community Pop-up Hub was a solution born from a conversation with a local Indigenous leader who wanted to establish a cultural centre in Walgett, a town belonging to the country of the Gamilaraay people.
Walgett can appear divided and closed along economic, racial and cultural lines, and is represented in the media as such. A lack of shared space further amplifies this division and restricts opportunities for locals to connect and design together.
Using place-based, human-centred design, ThinkPlace worked with the community. Together, we helped build thriving relationships and the social cohesion and capital that is essential to economic growth and vocational engagement.
This project could never have been completed in this way from afar. For its effectiveness, we decided to place members of the ThinkPlace team within the community. By being immersed in the town, we were able to identify individuals who were connected by purpose but lacked social bonds. Using the co-design nature of the project, we connected individuals at the points where their interests intersected.
Working closely with an Indigenous leader and their extensive network (namely the Walgett Community Working Party, a local group representing the Aboriginal voice) we harnessed their passion for their community and together launched Walgett’s Cultural & Community Pop-up Hub, in an abandoned social enterprise cafe. By testing a cultural centre prototype, we could also learn more about the community, which would help inform the employment and vocational strategy.
Once the pop-up hub was created, the community had the chance to experiment with the space. Doing away with formal workshops and sticky notes, instead, there were art workshops, community dinners, and the space for light-hearted conversation. The merit in these methods comes from ancient Indigenous knowledge systems, rather than any new, innovative practice. By actively listening to the community and their wisdom, we were able to build on the design ideas of these essential voices.
We answered this design challenge without asking a single design question. Instead, we co-created the conditions for people to safely connect, build trusting relationships, and explore ideas that generated the strategy and action plan.
As a testament to this project’s success, the Cultural and Community Hub went beyond the initial prototyping phase. We secured a long-term lease of the property, with endorsement and financial support from the Department of Regional NSW. This enabled the Hub to continue running beyond the project’s closure.
“This is the first time Walgett has had something like this where no one was excluded, and everyone felt welcome.” – The viewpoint of a local Indigenous person
The thoroughness of the prototyping experience empowered the Community Working Party to take leadership in running the Hub. They were then able to create new connections with service providers to deliver a variety of classes and workshops.
The design of the project is grounded in place-based and strengths-based practices, which can be applied in many communities and co-design projects. We considered the scalability and application of this approach in other rural and regional communities that are experiencing high unemployment and low vocational outcomes.
For a town that has experienced significant negative social and media attention, the shift in perspective inspired by this project has been immense. By modelling a brighter, more collaborative future in the form of a Cultural and Community Hub, the Community Working Party, the Walgett community and the Department of Regional NSW have together generated stronger connections and opportunities through a shared vision of a thriving community.
This project was recognised with a Good Design Award in Social Impact. Here is what the awards jury had to say about our work:
“Walgett’s Cultural and Community Pop-up Hub is a transformational design that shows great potential to boost social cohesion, spark economic growth and challenge negative yet unfounded assumptions of the community.”