Sunday, 12 June 2011

X-School... Reflections on the path

I say never be complete, I say stop being perfect, I say let... let's evolve', Tyler Durden, Fight Club

Last month John Thackara ran his first 'X-Schoolat West Lexham in Norfolk to continue a conversation about what a 'school' for a new design paradigm should look like. Myself and a group of design minds got together in the countryside to thrash it out over a weekend of chat and activity.

Whenever we talked about what we thought 'X-School' could be, somewhere in my head I heard 'Fight Club', as in 'the first rule of Fight Club is you do not talk about Fight Club', except of course, we were there to talk about X-school, and... nobody got hurt.  We played some games, we built a flint path, we slept under the stars and swam in the river, we drank real ale and ate pizza and we talked about X-school.  It wasn't like a 'conference', or 'workshop', or even as John put it 'a country house weekend', it was something new.

Earlier this week I took part in an 'Improv for Designers' workshop with Alex Fredera  and Jude Claybourne.  Through playing games, and celebrating errors we found the road less travelled to creativity.  It was laugh out loud fun.   I remember taking part in some similar improv exercises at an event by Greengaged as part of the London Design Festival two years ago, feeling self conscious and wondering what on earth this had to do with design.  I was only taking baby steps away from my conventional design career back then and I hadn't quite figured out where else there was to go.  Two years down the line, I still haven't figured that out, but I have moved into a space where having answers and outcomes matters less than having conversations.  X-school spoke to this part of me, that there is enormous value in doing, there is enormous value in not defining your purpose, but most of all there is enormous value in sharing that experience with others.  

In the Improv workshop we were asked to leave our current design problem to one side whilst we did something completely different and utterly pointless.  This is the way to tackle the serious problems, with your subconscious, and you can activate it with movement, play, word games and drawing and probably with golf, gardening, crochet or dance.  

X-school initially wondered how to aid designers in the transition towards a more socially useful and sustainable paradigm.  That we are faced as a species with mounting social, economic and environmental crises is self evident to the aware.  That it will take a huge leap of imagination to adapt to meet these crises is for the majority of people today, less apparent.  This is where making room in our professional lives for experimentation, abstract thinking, and kinship is necessary.  These are the spaces where change can happen, and happen fast.  Perhaps by giving ourselves and others this freedom, we will begin to take the road less travelled towards designing the bigger solutions.   

The most precious thing I took with me from the first X-school weekend was a sense of community and friendship.  Through sharing, having fun and talking through our design ideas and dreams we reinforced our sense of purpose and supported one another beyond the oasis that is West Lexham.  The other thing I took was that I finally 'got' Improv.  I stopped feeling foolish and enjoyed being foolish and the sooner more of us do that, the sooner we can all start changing things for the better.

I've been away for a while. This is where I've been

Recently I've been blogging for the RSA Projects blog where I'm currently part of a new paid internship programme.  I've written about Asset Based Community Development, the future of architecture in a dematerialising age and how internship culture is limiting access to creative professions to people of all ages and backgrounds.

You can find all my posts here on RSA Projects blog

Tuesday, 29 March 2011

The Rebranding of Happiness

‘Happiness’ is a hot topic. This year the UK government will measure not just our nation’s economic output, but our quality of life and happiness through the ‘wellbeing index’.  It’s encouraging to imagine that how we feel really matters to the powers that be.  But in the face of our present economic, environmental and social crises do we really have reasons to be cheerful?  Or is the present fixation with ‘happiness’ just another distraction from us taking any real collective responsibility for what’s in plain sight?

Behavioural psychology attests that satisfying our subsistence needs depends on having food, shelter and work and where these are limited or absent so are the opportunities of any broader self actualisation (Max-Neef, 1991).   With this in mind I read an article by Stephen Moss in the Guardian recently about the planned demolition of the Heygate Estate in Elephant & Castle, London, a modernist social housing development of the era of post war reconstruction (Moss, 2011).  The brutalist slab concrete estate is now all but ‘decanted’ of its mostly local authority tenants and awaiting demolition and redevelopment into a more fashionable and profitable commercial residential development ‘peppered’ with 25%  ‘affordable’ housing.  The writer argued that the vogue for wholesale regeneration of social housing stock is a sop to gentrification and politically driven environmental determinism; and that accordingly the ‘failed’ spaces that speak of an age of long abandoned social idealism and architectural folly must be destroyed to make way for new commercial developments where people can once again ‘live happily’, according to contemporary mores.

If the modernist social housing revolution of the 1960’s and 70’s was as we are led to believe a design failure on a monumental scale, leading to wholesale increased criminality and social deprivation, I wonder why is it that  ex-council flats in Erno Goldfinger’s brutalist concrete Trellick Towers in London W10 (pictured) are currently changing hands for in excess of £450,000?  And how is it possible that the same brutalist style developments in former East Berlin are able to be imaginatively reinvented through renovation and landscaping to successfully house a wide social mix if it is the essential design, not cultural and political perception of it that is askew?

Today the 'happiness' machine is gathering momentum.  Mindfulness meditation is endorsed in schools, ‘happiness apps’ are available for our phones, books on positive thinking fill the shelves and surveys published in popular dailies tell us it is the power of our thoughts not our wealth that determines our sense of personal satisfaction.  Our appetite for understanding and improving our individual wellbeing is growing exponentially.  Noticeably at the same time community wide access to the essentials for self actualisation (affordable housing, gainful employment, quality food, access to education and healthcare, environmental sustainability, economic security, and political stability) are diminishing at varying speeds on a local, national and global scale.  Is this a coincidence?  Or, is the ‘pursuit of happiness’ a convenient pacifier in the face of crises and part of a wider movement nudging us towards greater individualism when we really need to think much bigger?

The Heygate story provides a useful allegory of the muddy confluence of design intentions, cultural perceptions, commercial interests and political fashions set against real social need.  As designers today, embedded in such a confluence of conflicting interests and perceptions, it can be difficult to clearly see when we are operating with full awareness of our world's present needs and likely future scenarios and when we are enthral to the marketeering of a comfortable and positive vision in the now.  One potential effect of  mindfulness is improved clarity of perception, the ability to dissociate with conditioned thought and see reality more objectively.  Design has the potential to revolutionise inter-societal dialogue and engagement and create new models for building a better future.  Hope and happiness for all is central to that brief and central to our ability to execute it is the ability to be dispassionate in the face of the zeitgeist and act exceptionally amongst change.

Max-Neef M A, 1991, ‘Human Scale Development, Conception, Application and Further Reflections’, Apex Press, London
Moss S, 2011, 'Homes under the hammer' , The Guardian, 4th March 2011, available at
Trellick Tower image © Copyright R Sones and licensed for reuse under Creative Commons License 

Thursday, 17 March 2011

Participatory Design and the Art of Baking Fairy Cakes

There was a lot of talk at the recent Design Council/Dott Cornwall Intersections conference about breaking down hierarchies and finding new ways to co-create and support social innovation.  I wholeheartedly agree with that idea, but I wasn’t the only observer to notice that for all the inspirational talk of doing things differently, a line up of overwhelmingly male, visually slick and resolutely assertive presenters appeared a little too familiar.   We all know that we can’t solve our problems with the same thinking that created them, so, if design for social innovation really is about change from the bottom up  is now a good time to mention the ‘F’ word, and I don’t mean fairy cakes?

I love the idea that designers can be catalysts for communities to support themselves in new and imaginative ways and that it is the end users that get to be the co-producers of those innovations.  One word I heard several times at Intersections was ‘permission’; that design led social innovations created a platform where end users felt allowed to participate confidently.  Yet, if we are striving for parity in the co-design of services, why do our co-creators need ‘permission’ to effect change within their own communities; and if we begin to operate without a hierarchy, does anybody have the right to give it?

As designers in a collaborative process with end users, ours is ultimately a service role, to encourage the conditions for the creativity of others to take centre stage.  To facilitate effectively is to step back, listen sensitively and nurture others ideas and input.  These are traditionally feminine attributes.  Talking through my own experiences of co-design techniques with a new friend at Intersections I realised that one of the most effective tools I had utilised in breaking down the hierarchical dynamic at workshops were home baked fairy cakes.  Initially I brought them as an extra incentive, but found that giving people a homemade cake said more than I could about how important I felt their presence and input was and created the conditions for positive engagement.

My concern with the development of design for social innovation as I see it presented is whether whilst understanding the need for parity between designers and end users, it is unconsciously adopting the very hierarchies it seeks to dismantle.  Feminism has devoted much attention to understanding how and why traditional organizational structures develop, questioning the validity of a system that allows elitist hierarchies to assume ascendancy.  Half a century after the first wave of feminism it still feels risky to question the status quo, even from the inside of a milieu purportedly questioning the status quo.  Yet, elevating the feminine aspect in current design evolution, from face to face engagement, to wider systemic reorganisation may be the key to breaking down hierarchy at every level, and in the face of an ever more competitive and stratified society could offer an alternative starting point where parity and fairness are intrinsic qualities, not aspirations.