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Citizen Science – a way to reinvigorate tenant participation?

Pink images of laptops, microscopes and magnifying glasses on a black background. Image by Jackie aim, Edinburgh University. Sourced from Flickr.

Tenant participation has been scrutinised in the social housing white paper (Ministry of Housing Communities & Local Government 2020). Problems regarding landlords not listening to tenants and a general lack of professional standards in social housing practice were highlighted.  In my thesis, I argue for co-design labs as a means for social landlords to develop meaningful interventions with tenants. Co-design labs do more than require landlords to listen to tenants; they require action to be taken with tenants on the problems that are within the remit of social landlords to deliver on. Furthermore, co-design labs require new skills that may provide a roadmap for the professionalisation of the sector.  In my view, the sector is a little far away from achieving such an aspiration, and citizen science is a means of adopting some of the ideas I argue for.  If this article resonates, here is a link to a training module on 2 November at 10.30 am that expands on the ideas*.

Co-design is an approach shaped by Scandinavian participation traditions and digital technologies and services development. The history of its use in participatory planning and community development is relevant to social housing. Co-design requires a diverse range of participants to understand often complex problems and create the means to alleviate them. These participants are involved throughout intervention design, from setting the agenda to developing ideas and testing interventions. It is underpinned by principles of creativity, a view that people are capable, imaginative, and open to new approaches and means to aid collective intervention design (Blomkamp 2018). Essentially co-design is concerned with bringing about real change to complex social problems through the creative engagement of all the parties involved in the problem.

‘Labs’ are a short-hand for a scientific and experimental approach to engaging in complex social problems. They share with co-design designing thinking influences, innovating through careful experimentation, and the requirement for a diverse range of people and organisations who are in contact with the problem to be involved in working on solutions to the problem. What differs is the incorporation of scientific methods to test the efficacy of the intervention and provide evidence that it works so that the approach can be shared (Wellstead, Gofen et al. 2021). Labs then introduce a level of scientific rigour, and I argue in my thesis that they can ensure that ethical reflection is a core part of designing interventions. This is because scientific research has high standards for research that involves human beings, while social housing work has no equivalent standards. Furthermore, scientific enquiry shares findings openly. This is to advance knowledge about what works and what does not. This same spirit of open enquiry could aid landlords in improving their transparency with tenants and the wider public.

Citizen science is when citizens take part in scientific research. Citizens tend to be involved in only part of the research process. For example, they might count the number of bees they see or help scientists categorise data. At a more involved level, citizens may be involved in the entire research process and receive training to help with this (Willis and Edwards 2014). This more dynamic approach mirrors the co-design labs I argue for in my thesis.  Citizen science then offers a spectrum of ways to involve tenants in the work of social landlords.  In the training, I outline examples of how the principles of citizen science could be applied to policy reviews, the piloting of innovative approaches to service change, and what working with a university to aid their research may look like.  Citizen science is a way for landlords and tenants to explore more cooperative and open approaches to working together to bring about change at different scales.

In summary, the white paper highlights key areas where social housing needs to change. I make a case in my thesis to change how social housing thinks of participation and to consider the adoption of co-design labs, particularly for complex problems that some groups of tenants experience. The scientific and people skills required to undertake co-design labs provide a roadmap for professional standards for social landlords’ customer-facing work. Furthermore, adopting scientific values encourages landlords to share what has worked and has not worked. This may be more effective than national benchmarking in encouraging landlords to change their services to meet tenants’ needs better. Citizen science offers a framework for exploring some of the ideas and values that underpin co-design labs without a significant resource commitment.

*Tenants, residents and housing activists, please message to express an interest in this training. TAROE Trust is our #fairaccesstoknowledge partner for free and reduced-cost webinars of our chargeable content. TAROE Trust is an independent charity seeking to influence housing policy and improve services for tenants and residents living within the regulated housing sector. We thoroughly recommend signing up to their newsletter and supporting their work.


Blomkamp, E. (2018). “The Promise of Co-Design for Public Policy.” Australian Journal of Public Administration 77(4): 729-743.

Ministry of Housing Communities & Local Government (2020). The Charter for Social housing Residents Social Housing White Paper. M. o. H. C. L. Government. London.

Wellstead, A. M., A. Gofen and A. Carter (2021). “Policy innovation lab scholarship: past, present, and the future – Introduction to the special issue on policy innovation labs.” Policy Design and Practice 4(2).

Willis, J. W. and C. Edwards (2014). Action Research, Models, Methods and Examples. Charlotte, NC, Information Age Publishing

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