Connecting to Country through Co-Design

Connecting to Country Through Co-design.

Early sketch outlining the sensorial connection to site. Drawing by Bronwyn McColl.


The Australian design community has long borrowed from First People’s cultures without the appropriate acknowledgements, or consideration of heritage, nuance, and cultural sensitivity.

Leading practitioners are now calling for the integration of their voices within architecture especially, reflecting a considered and authentic approach to building, led by co-design principles.

First Nations peoples have been dutifully caring for Country for thousands of years, creating rituals and mapping places that has allowed their culture to be maintained longer than any other living culture in the world. Through authentic engagement, empowered allyship, and a caveat that the journey will be rocky, we are beginning to course-correct our industry’s erasure of First Peoples knowledge, as our professionals rethink their practice, placing Indigenous perspectives at its core.

Award-winning designer and creative polymath Alison Page has spent over 25 years leading initiatives that connect First Nations and non-First Nations creatives, encouraging a values-led approach with hands-on cultural experience as the jump-off point for collaboration.

Page is a Walbanga and Wadi Wadi woman, and is fascinated by the Australian identity and our insistence on steel and concrete structures that overlook connection to Country.

“Robyn Boyd wrote about this in The Australian Ugliness over sixty years ago, and we still haven’t figured it out,” reflects Page.

“We see Mum and Dad investors developing land for financial reasons, so they can travel to see beautiful places, with beautiful architecture. Really, we could give voice to the Indigenous people of the world, who are the knowledge keepers, and invest in building something genuine and beautiful in our own back yard.”

Page supports a shift towards Aboriginal-led projects that go beyond a conversation. Her 2021 book ‘Design: Building on Country,’ co-authored with architect Paul Memmott and edited by advisor on Indigenous arts Margo Ngawa Neale, was created as an accessible vision for sustainable design. Her ethos is driven by open dialogues, practical action, and the continuation of songlines; pathways memorised in song, one of many millennia-old traditions of imbuing knowledge into objects and artworks, without words.

Established architect and committed ally in Indigenous co-design, Bronwyn McColl acknowledges that, like sustainability ten years earlier, co-designing spaces with Indigenous communities will be clunky at first. We need to set out to greet each other’s mistakes with grace, in favour of optimism, and progress.

“People are excited to change what has been a poor way of doing things in the past,” comments McColl, who is a Principal at Woods Bagot.

“But some people are terrified of stuffing it up. We all may unintentionally stuff it up, but we are heading in the direction of change, and that is the important part.”

An uplift in demand for input can leave First Nations leaders exhausted. “To combat this challenge,” says McColl, “we need to encourage people to become trained specialists in cultural intelligence and truth-telling sessions. Then, we can share the load, so that allies have the knowledge and confidence.”

To foster better engagement with First Nations peoples, it is essential to shift from a consultation-based approach to a collaborative one. Nadine Samaha, an architect, biophilic, and environmentally sustainable design specialist, encourages practitioners to create a space for meaningful dialogue, understanding, and recognition of different worldviews.

“Everything is interconnected in the Indigenous world, but in the Western world, everything is separated, labelled or put into a box. Through collaboration, we can explore holistic approaches, utilizing technologies and ways of living that reduce our environmental footprint and foster a harmonious, equitable and regenerative future.”

Social impact co-design consultant Sarah Naarden brokers partnerships that deepen dialogues for change making in the built environment. Instead of treating community engagement as a box-ticking exercise, Indigenous principles of self-determination can be explored through co-developing and co-programming projects and buildings.

Naarden is currently working with Initiatives of Change Australia on Turruk, a cultural intelligence learning program with First Peoples, co-led by Uncle Shane Charles.

Rather than relying on terms such as ‘briefs’ and ‘sprints’, building relationships and respecting each culture’s values is paramount. With this approach, we can foster greater trust, understanding, and collaboration with First Nations peoples.

“Co-design with Country is a principle that needs to be applied with rigour as an ongoing call and response during a project and buildings lifespan.”

So, where do we start? Education, empowerment, inclusion from the outset, and ongoing involvement paves the way for change that will transform our design culture into something distinct, connected, and more exciting to bring to life. Alison Page paints a compelling picture of Australia as a world leader in this area:

“Bring other artists, poets, painters, marine ecologists, and fire experts into your work, and it will make it more interesting. Design and architecture can be an act of power and a force for great social justice. For architects and designers, that’s an incredibly exciting responsibility.”

Hear more from these voices at our panel Co-Designing with Country, 10:30am on Thursday, June 15, on the Design Talks Stage.

This article was supplied by our content partner Trout Creative Thinking. Trout is hosting various panels across all three days of the event.