The ‘Power Elephant’ In The Room

Lauren Weinstein and Pritpal S Tamber

August 7, 2019

As health care begins to grapple with the fact that our social circumstances create up to 80% of our health, there’s increasing talk of ‘co-producing’ solutions with people with ‘lived experience’. While a laudable idea, Lauren Weinstein, a self-described sociology-nerd-turned-designer isn’t sure that the people doing this work are aware of how their backgrounds – especially their power – might be inhibiting the ‘co’ of co-producing. In response, she created Powerplay, a game to help people understand and talk about power. I came across Powerplay over Twitter and Lauren was kind enough to share more about her work.

Pritpal S Tamber: Hi Lauren. Thanks for connecting over Twitter. Could you start by sharing more about your journey from sociologist to designer? 

Lauren Weinstein: Well, I loved that sociology opened my eyes to the ways in which social structures influence the life chances of individuals. However, while sociology started to explain the reasons behind some of the injustices I was seeing, I was missing the transition from insight to actionable responses. I was curious about what could be done if we know that a system is inherently broken or racist. At first, I leaned into community development to satiate that hunger but it felt reactive. It seemed to me that the responses I was seeing were still trapped within the dysfunctional overarching narratives and limiting beliefs that were doing a disservice to communities. 

Pritpal: Whoa. What does that mean? 

Lauren: The responses in community development tended to be programs or handouts that sought to help people cope with the results of inherently unequal systems rather than question and change those systems. Whether I was in Nicaragua or New Orleans, it seemed to me that seeking to cope with the results of our systems did little to question why our systems are driving inequity. 

Cards depicting ‘power assets’ in Powerplay (photo: Lauren Weinstein)

Pritpal: So, the narratives and beliefs that we hold as a society shape our systems, and because they’re dysfunctional and limited so are our systems. Got it. So, what did you do next? 

Lauren: I kept searching for how I could add the most value, and that brought me to design. Design, and specifically co-design, complimented by a sociological mindset and the values of community development is where I began to see a space for intentionality, for creativity. It seemed to give me the opportunity to break out of the limitations of just observing or reacting, which is what I was seeing in community development. 

Pritpal: So, what happened when you broke out of those limitations?  

Lauren: Looking back, I now realize that I saw a universal pattern – the inherent ingenuity of people. For instance, in Nigeria I saw the entrepreneurial spirit of seamstresses who carry their sewing machines around so they can work wherever they need to. In Bangkok, I saw how people balanced all sorts of things on their bikes, seemingly defying the laws of physics, to make the most of their transportation asset – a bike. In Australia, Indigenous communities reminded me that they have been innovating, problem-solving, and creating for both functionality and beauty for over 60,000 years; contemporary designers are definitely not the first people to be coming up with great ideas. People are fundamentally creative beings and problem solvers. Sitting with that idea made me want to create space to amplify people’s own solutions. 

Pritpal: Nice. But aren’t these solutions just another form of reacting to dysfunctional systems? 

Lauren: Often, yes. That’s why the space I’m talking about is not just about amplifying the solutions per se but connecting people who might be experiencing a form of oppression by a policy with the people who have the power to change that policy, and to question if there is a better, more just, way to approach inequity – one that goes beyond the obvious attempts we’ve been trying for decades. I’ve used design as a process to help people come together around a difficult social issue. I’ve used design as a platform to deeply listen to people who haven’t always felt heard, and support the process of turning their ideas into reality. 

Pritpal: This, I think, brings us to the idea of co-production. Tell me about your doubts. 

One of the scenarios in Powerplay (photo: Simon De Smet)

Lauren: Firstly, I want to clarify that co-production, which co-design is a part of, is the very best way to design. My doubts are around activities that are labeled as co-design but don’t create the environment for genuine co-participation.

Pritpal: OK, so it’s more about participation.

Lauren: Yes. All too often teams invite one person with lived experience into a workshop and wonder why this person was quiet or only validated the ideas that the design team presented. I think that power is playing an enormous role in whether that person feels safe to offer their perspective. People who hold a lot of privilege tend not to realize how their power is being interpreted by a person who doesn’t have as much power in that particular setting. The person with less power might not feel safe being honest, especially when that honesty might mean that they lose something. For instance, someone might not want to tell you what’s broken in their rural clinic because they might be afraid that they’ll lose the only health care they have. Or, someone might not want to explain that a dismissive receptionist was the reason why they didn’t show up for an appointment just in case it gets back to the receptionist. You have to create a safe space for a person to feel comfortable sharing that kind of information with you.

Pritpal: And, what do you define as power or privilege in this scenario? 

Lauren: Often gender, whiteness, financial position, association with a large agency, institution or government department play a role in the perception of power. Often people who carry around a lot of power and privilege don’t always realize what it’s like to walk around in a place that’s not made to operate in their favor. 

Pritpal: That’s quite a contention. So, what do you think is the impact of this on co-production?

Lauren: Well in addition to impacting the physical and psychological safety for a participant, it creates a big risk to the project. The relevance and value of the data you gather in co-production is intimately linked to what questions are being asked, who’s asking them, and what the context is. The value of the design solution depends on how relevant and truthful the data is. If people hold back what they really want to say, the solutions that are co-produced – whether products or policies – are developed based on what people thought designers wanted to hear, making them far less useful and desirable to the people the solutions were meant to benefit.

A player considering their power assets/card (photo: Simon De Smet)

Pritpal: Well, that’s troubling. So, how are you trying to deal with this in your practice? 

Lauren: Well, first of all I try to be aware of the particular body I’m in and how that may be perceived by others. Second, I try to be conscious of the fact that I am a consultant and so enter these conversations representing big organizations, big governments, and big money. Given both of those things, I try to ‘remove’ myself wherever possible. When I can’t do that, I try to be deeply aware of how my power inventory could be affecting someone else’s agency. 

Pritpal: Power inventory? 

Lauren: Yeah, that’s the term I use for the list of power assets someone might have. Power asset are things like being part of a majority group, financial stability, inherited privilege, effective communication skills, wellbeing, all of the things that people can tap into, whether consciously or unconsciously, to help them navigate a problem or influence an outcome. I think of each of those as a power asset, and, collectively, they comprise an individual’s power inventory. 

Pritpal: Why did you coin that term? 

Lauren: I realized through my work that I had some sort of literacy around these things through sociology and community development, and that not every discipline did. That lack of power literacy – and consciousness – was getting in the way of genuine collaboration between designers and communities.

Pritpal: So, how are you trying to raise “power consciousness”?

Lauren: Wow that’s a big question. I wouldn’t claim to be doing that. If anything, I’m trying to talk about it, model it, learn from others, challenge my assumptions, and have conversations on this topic with as many people as I can. In service of that, I have created a game called Powerplay. 

Powerplay in play (photo: Simon De Smet)

Pritpal: Tell us about that. 

Lauren: The game has 10 cards, one for a power asset that’s prominent in Western societies. Some of these assets can be created or earned, others are inherited. Players are randomly dealt an inventory at the start to help people empathize with different types of power inventories than they personally might be accustomed to. Throughout the game players are presented with different scenarios. For example, you’re in a store and the shop owner believes you’ve stolen something and you have no way to prove otherwise. Or, you’re interested in changing your career in your mid 40’s because you want to do something more meaningful. You have to decide which power assets you will use to get out of the situation. 

Pritpal: Then what?

Lauren: Each player puts down the cards (assets) that they want to use and explains why they feel it is the most strategic choice. Ultimately, the game reveals ‘the right’ assets needed to win that round and the player with those assets wins and takes all of the cards that were put down by all of the players. The idea is to demonstrate one law of power – that it accumulates. Over the course of the game, people with more power have more choice about which asset to play for different scenarios. This demonstrates another law of power – when it is unequal it imbalances who has the agency to act.

Pritpal: Power accumulates and unbalances who has the agency to act. Nice. 

Lauren: Well, not nice but real. People with a more diverse range of power assets can be more selective about which assets they use when. People with fewer assets have fewer options and less agency to influence the outcomes in their favor.

Pritpal: OK. But that just plays out the status quo. How do you model change?

Lauren: Thankfully, there is a third law of power – that it can be transferred or transformed. Indeed, there are practices that have been successfully used to achieve this, such as ensuring people with lived experience are part of decision-making processes, paying such people for their wisdom, time and expertise, and open-sourcing information to level the knowledge playing field.

Pritpal: Nice. But why did you think a game would be the best way to get people to think about power? 

Lauren: People in positions of power are rarely asked to reflect on and confront their own power and yet this is precisely what social innovation needs if it’s to work on issues like equity, agency and self-determination. We need to make the ‘power elephant’ in some rooms more explicit but not alienate or shame people who’ve never been asked to consider their own power before. I thought the game would be a light way to do this. And I should mention that I don’t see this game as a panacea or an independent solution for power-unconsciousness. I developed this as an experiment and it surprised me how much it took off.

Pritpal: So, tell me about that take off. 

Lauren: Beyond my own facilitation of the game, there have been two events where international practitioners have introduced Powerplay to public audiences: one in Melbourne, Australia, and one in Edmonton, Canada. I hear that, overall, people engage with the game and were energized by the new-found concreteness of something that can often veer into abstract language. One participant in Melbourne said: “Having something tangible to do and hold while talking about an often-intangible subject was clever.” One person in Canada explained that the game gave them a sense of what a power imbalance feels like and how it manifests in daily life. Another said it helped them “check their own privilege” and realize “how much privilege [they] might have but don’t use properly.”

Powerplay (photo: Lauren Weinstein)

Pritpal: Oh, interesting point. 

Lauren: Yes. And people who have played it multiple times say that each experience unlocks new realizations for them depending on who they’re playing with. Interestingly people in Melbourne also noted that good health can be a significant power asset that is often overlooked in the common discussions of power.

Pritpal: Good point. Other than the fact that it’s taken off, what else has surprised you? 

Lauren: I’ve been surprised about the choices people make when they have power and how they add rules to the game. In one instance a person with nearly all the power cards redistributed the cards to the other players. I love that when confronted with inequity that person chose to share, chose to change the inequity. I’ve also heard that the game unlocks a curiosity amongst players to explore, more deeply, the topic of power and their own role in shifting imbalances. That shift in interest, that emergent acknowledgement of the issue, is an enormous behavioural change outcome. It’s the contemplation stage. That kind of shift through a card game is remarkable to me.

Pritpal: That’s awesome work. I love it. So, what’s next for you? 

Lauren: As a social designer, project work takes most of my time. In terms of Powerplay, it’s really an initial prototype. I’ve put it out into the world (see my post on Medium) hoping it would be helpful to people and that a global community will help contribute to making it more useful. I’m curious to know what people think, gather feedback and perhaps revise, improve and release a second edition. I’m open to suggestions, especially as there appears to be interest in the game, far beyond what I ever could have imagined. 

Pritpal: Well, it caught my eye so thanks for creating it, writing about it, and sharing it with us today. 

Lauren: Thanks so much for the opportunity; it’s been a pleasure. 

Power assets. Power inventory. Power consciousness. Although health care is burdened by impenetrable jargon, these new terms – new, at least, to me – are very much welcomed. Their simplicity, and the ‘light’ nature of PowerPlay, help to make visible something that is either hidden or just plain awkward to discuss. I applaud Lauren’s attempt to make power a more approachable topic, and, in so doing, make it easier to question and improve the ‘co’ of co-producing. 

The photo behind the title is by Simon De Smet

Lauren Weinstein

Co-Founder at

Lauren Weinstein is a multidisciplinary designer passionate about the intersection of social innovation and social justice. Lauren formerly developed and led the disrupting disadvantage and self–determination portfolios at The Australian Centre for Social Innovation and is now the co-founder of The Residency, a change design practical learning collective. Lauren’s work takes a particular focus on using sociology and design to improve the outcomes and accountability of public services and systems across projects that foster equity through community-led innovation. Lauren holds an M.A. in Social Design and a B.A. in Sociology. Her writing about design for social change has been featured in Design and Culture, GOOD.is, Fast.co.exist, and the books, Developing Citizen Designers and The Social Design Reader.

Pritpal S Tamber

Independent Writer, Researcher & Consultant | pritpal@pstamber.com

I'm an independent writer, researcher and consultant focussing on community health and medical information. I'm a former physician, medical editor and medical publisher, and also the former Physician Editor of TEDMED. I began my career at The BMJ. For more information, see the About page.

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