Reflections on 2020 that aren’t all about the pandemic

Emma Blomkamp
9 min readJan 20, 2021

Ngā mihi o te tau hou, happy new year!

I can’t compete with Margaret and David’s review of 2020, or The Guardian readers who summed it up in one word (shit), but I have a few reflections to offer on what I noticed in looking back on the past 12 months.

A swirly timeline entitled A Chronology of 2020 by Liz and Mollie

For me, 2020 was particularly unique as it was the first year running my own business. This post is therefore something of a first annual report to stakeholders. Not something a freelancer needs to do — but my commitment to transparency and reflective practice spurs me to share these thoughts. In this love/learn/lack/long(for)-letter, I use a favourite feedback framework to share my highlights and learnings from this last trip around the sun. I also flag what I’m looking forward to in 2021.

Screenshot of my website home page:

Background: I set up my home office just a couple of months before desk chairs became a rare commodity when every other office worker was suddenly forced to do the same thing. I launched my website — with a beautiful brand created by talented friend Emma Kaniuk — in the midst of the global pandemic. Not exactly the optimum timing to go out on my own, especially in a country where I’m not eligible for any government subsidies or benefits, but it all worked out OK in the end.

To structure my reflections on the year that was, I first sat in the park with a workbook from local artist Sarah Firth, then wrote up this summary following the ‘4 Ls’ framework I often use when asking for feedback from clients and participants.

Screenshot of RSD9 workshop participants providing feedback using the ‘4 Ls’ framework on a Miro board created by my collaborator Zenaida Beatson

What did I love?

Finding my ikigai with my first clients this year was awesome— I discovered how much I love co-design project mentoring and social innovation coaching. It was especially gratifying to share questions and suggestions that resonated with emerging practitioners, not to mention how stoked I was to read this encouraging article written by a client about his experience of our coaching sessions.

“The longer term impact that coaching had on the quality of my work and my thought processes was unbelievable. I really don’t want to exaggerate it. I felt more confident communicating my work, more assured of myself in client meetings and vastly more efficient with my time without decreasing my effectiveness on projects.” — Michael Lim, YLab Manager

Kelly Ann McKercher and I were thrilled with the huge response to Co-Design Club — a small community of practice we started for experienced co-design practitioners in Aotearoa New Zealand and Australia — although this made the selection process incredibly difficult! I’ve been energised and challenged by every session we’ve convened with this incredible group of diverse practitioners. Connected to that, I’ve been delighted seeing my friend and collaborator celebrated for their excellent book on co-design.

The questions we set out to explore when launching Co-design Club

I also found flow developing my systemic design practice framework. It’s still a work in progress but I have been incorporating helpful and encouraging feedback from workshop participants and academic reviewers. The framework underpins my upcoming course Co-Design in Complex Systems and, as well as a journal article, I am preparing a version to share publicly in the near future too.

It’s always lovely to receive recognition for work, and I was honoured to be part of the team that received an Australian Good Design Gold Award for Supporting Justice. This collaboration between Paper Giant (led by Kate Goodwin) and RMIT’s Centre for Innovative Justice resulted in an online resource to support court and legal professionals to better respond to people with a disability, as well as changing perspectives and practices of participants and stakeholders. My role involved making it safe, fun and easy for judges, lawyers, court officers, health bureaucrats and people with lived experience of justice, cognitive disability and mental ill-health to participate in the design process.

An impact story in the evaluation report for Supporting Justice (image credit: Paper Giant)

I was also blown away by the ‘gushing’ review of a report that the talented Jo Sczcepanska and I wrote for Justice Connect, based on our research with people seeking help for common legal problems in the midst of Melbourne’s hard lockdown. In ‘Seeking Legal Help Online’, we share stories from a diverse range of determined people along with tips for the creators of digital legal resources.

“This is a rich consideration of how self-help resources can be designed. It puts Australian experience front and centre of global discussion of a key topic. And, drinking its own kool aid, the report itself is really well designed. Read it to see what I mean. Some skill has gone into its preparation.”
— Roger Smith, The Legal Education Foundation

Beyond flattering my ego and dangerously encouraging work that has led to burnout, these accolades give me great hope that the participatory principles and systemic methods of co-design practice are gaining ground, in this case, in the justice sector. More and more professionals are seeing the value of engaging a diverse range of people in their work in creative and respectful ways. And people whose voices have previously been ignored – like Dorothy, our Supporting Justice team member with lived experience – are now finally being heard.

“People with lived experience can offer insights into how a system operates in ways that a person with learned experience cannot... Introducing lived experience into policy design and service delivery challenges attitudes that dehumanise. By introducing people with lived experience and having them contribute in a meaningful way, it helps create opportunities to challenge attitudes, the general blanket thinking that people have toward offenders. It also creates pathways into employment for people who want to contribute to changing a system and help others who are living through what they have overcome.”
- Dorothy Armstrong, Voices for Change

More recently, I’ve been thrilled by the enthusiastic response to the co-design courses I’ve launched, especially to see Co-Design Bootcamp sell out. I’m delighted to see registrations from experienced service and experience designers who are pivoting towards ‘design justice’ and people with lived experience who are getting opportunities to lead this sort of work, especially in the health sector.

Connecting with others who are committed to creating more compassionate systems was also a highlight of last year. It started with an in-person gathering (that seems so long ago now) led by the systems school and ended with an online system mapping workshop ably led by Thea Snow and Nicole Barling-Luke (with whom I formed a book club following the systems school event). In between, I enjoyed many online workshops, webinars and meetings, especially the Sydney Policy Lab event with Hilary Cottam and guests, not to mention every single session of Co-Design Club.

What did I learn?

  • Like many others, 2020 taught me not to take anything for granted. The scary, big C wasn’t only COVID-19 but also the grim reaper of cancer. A friend and family member who were diagnosed with breast and prostate cancer, respectively, were fortunate enough to get the treatment and results they needed. But we lost the incredibly inspiring Dr Kim Dunphy to pancreatic cancer — not before she got a Medal of the Order of Australia for her services to dance therapy, spent some precious time with her newborn grandson, or taught us some more lessons in life (and death) though. RIP my amigo indicado.
  • Everything is an experiment — I have learned so much this year from trial and error and adapting along the way!
  • Renewed energy and attention to the Black Lives Matter movement (with a spotlight here in Australia on Indigenous deaths in custody) highlighted my whiteness and other privileges I benefit from. I continued learning about decolonising design (especially from Tristan Schultz and Diana Albarran Gonzalez) and decolonising solidarity (with a book club using resources from Clare Land and contributors). I was fascinated to make connections between harmful, capitalist work culture and white supremacy (thanks Tema Okun) and learn about Indigenous ways of understanding the world (via Tyson Yunkaporta’s incredible book, Sand Talk). But I learned the most in the uncomfortable moments when my blindspots were exposed (and missed being able to debrief with my old Fail Club).
  • How to say no! Though I keep forgetting, and have learned the hard way (too many times), I’m finally getting better at this. I’m learning to love saying, “not me” or “not yet”, especially when I see opportunities that may be open to others when I get out of the way.
  • Practices to keep myself well. When we could only leave the house for an hour a day, I became so aware of the importance of my daily yoga ritual and regular need for time outdoors. Faced with arthritis, anxiety and ageing (to the extent we all inevitably are), I am also gradually coming to terms with my limitations.

What did I lack?

  • Time in nature — I fell out of love with the urban surrounds of my hipster suburb when we weren’t allowed to go further than 5 kms from our house.
  • Honouring my commitment to take care of myself in the way I had intended. My main purpose in going out on my own was to be able to prioritise my wellbeing and hold space for myself (to borrow words from Jocelyn K Glei). Yet there were times when I found myself falling into old habits around work, not helped by a scarcity mindset that snuck in when projects started getting postponed or cancelled due to the pandemic.
  • Stability and certainty have been in short supply. But even those in ongoing jobs in supposedly stable organisations have learned not to take anything for granted. The world has always been a complex and uncertain place. We’re now learning to live without the false certainty we used to have when booking trips interstate or overseas.
  • Community — it’s growing, but starting a business and leading complex projects on your own is as hard as you might expect! I miss having colleagues, though I am enjoying being my own boss.

What am I longing for?

  • Bigger budgets and longer timeframes for co-design, policy design and other systemic design work! Seriously, this work needs to be fairly compensated and allowed to ‘move at the speed of trust’ (adrienne maree brown).
  • A collective to play in. I’ve been exploring concepts such as microsolidarity crews and practice pods, inspired by groups like The Point People and Enspiral. I’ve appreciated many open and generous conversations with peers and more experienced practitioners, yet I keep wondering whether joining or forming something more structured might be helpful.
  • I have missed Aotearoa so much this past year. I hate feeling cut off from the land, waters and people there. I can’t wait to visit friends and whānau in New Zealand once that long awaited trans-Tasman bubble opens.

What am I looking forward to?

This isn’t usually part of the 4 LS framework, but I have to give a quick plug to the things I’m most excited about on the immediate horizon – and end on a positive note.

I’m delighted to now be focusing on capability building work – through my upcoming training programs, project mentoring and individual coaching.

I’m looking forward to the excellent line-up of speakers and workshops at ServDes2020 (which is now happening online, 2–5 February 2021).

I’m trying to get out of the city more, and make the most of being more or less stuck in Victoria, by exploring more of this beautiful state. I’m particularly looking forward to a trip to Wilson’s Prom in March.

I’ve also got some more writing and a visual practice framework in the pipeline that I can’t wait to share once they’re ready…. Watch this space!

Eyes forward, heart open — art print by Lisa Congdon



Emma Blomkamp

Pragmatic idealist, working to co-create compassionate systems.