Seeing things differently

July 15th, 2014 by Katerina Alexiou in Community-led Design Research | no comments

The first time I visited Goldsmiths Community Centre (GCC) I had trouble finding it. This is odd for a building that has several pretty sizable rooms, including a big hall that can accommodate up to 160 people, a sports cage, several rooms for pre-school learning, a computer suite, and a garden and outdoor play area! I had to look behind the imposing fence to find the building; and I had to look beyond the building to learn about the potential of creative citizenship in an established community centre such as this.

In this blog I would like to give a brief overview of our team’s engagement with Goldsmiths and our emerging understanding of a type of creative citizenship, which consists in ‘seeing things differently’.

How it all started

GCC is a not for profit organisation in Catford, London Borough of Lewisham. It was first established in 1939 and has a long history providing services to the local community. The building is located in the North Downham estate and shares a border with Excalibur, a post-war prefabricated housing estate of historical significance, which is currently being demolished.

We were looking for community projects with a place-making element combined with an aspiration to use digital media to share information and to engage people. We were introduced to Goldsmiths through The Glass-House Community Led Design (our valued partner and advisor in this project). The Glass-house had previously worked with GCC assisting them to formulate and develop an action plan and an initial strategy for a new community café within the building.

We joined the community in a challenging time when loss of public funds meant they needed to restructure and reorganise their services and to think creatively about the role of the centre and its connection to people in the locality.

Our first visit was combined with a focus group looking at the different types of media they used to share information and engage with local people. We also sought to explore the group’s skills, needs and aspirations and how we could help address some of them through the project. From this first meeting, a strong focus emerged around health and wellbeing, food and connection with green spaces, which became the focus of our co-creation process.

image from focus group   Image from focus group 

The co-creation process

We took an active, constructive, approach to research, using design as a way to understand the issues at hand (Lawson, 2002). We worked with people in the community to develop ideas, propose solutions, try them out, re-frame and test them again, to experiment, and by doing this we gained a first hand understanding of the issues, the challenges and the opportunities involved.

At the start of our involvement, and in the line with the methodology adopted by our strand, we carried out an asset mapping workshop with various stakeholders. The focus of the exercise was to unearth assets that are important for the centre, and can be developed to help promote its role in the area and to deliver new projects.

goldsmiths asset map       goldsmiths asset map

The asset mapping revealed the importance and value of individuals (community workers, volunteers and social entrepreneurs) who are central to their activities and who provide links with different groups. Other assets included of course the centre itself, its big rooms, its garden and green spaces around it. Websites associated with the centre [GCC, and Downham Interagency] and other social media [twitter, and facebook] were also found to be valuable assets for connecting people with the centre and with each other. The asset mapping workshop brought to light concerns with the maintenance and use of the space, but also exciting opportunities for using the centre’s assets in order to engage people of all ages in activities promoting health and wellbeing.

Following this workshop we facilitated a brainstorming session where participants generated ideas for media tools and processes by finding ways to combine individual assets randomly drawn from the asset map. The various ideas were then clustered and prioritized.

image from brainstorming session     image from brainstorming session

We finally synthesized the different ideas and converged into one overarching theme, that of connecting people and places through health and wellbeing initiatives. A series of events were organised, to test technologies, to engage local people and to share stories.

See community development professional Jane Hearn’s blogs about some of our activities together:

Connecting people and placeshttp://goldcatcafe.blogspot.co.uk/2013/07/connecting-people-places-and-green.html

Wonderland cafehttp://goldcatcafe.blogspot.co.uk/2014/03/wonderland-cafe-at-goldsmiths-community.html

What have we learned

Our journey was exciting but not always easy. Despite having key people committed to the project and its aims, the nature of the network of people involved was volatile. For example, a few individuals who had been involved in the first workshop later lost their jobs or moved to other places; and availability and commitment of different stakeholders was variable. These are fundamental issues that all research projects involving communities face. Another defining factor of our relationship and collaboration was that although the activities had a common underlying theme, the ‘design problem’ we sought to address was exceptionally open ended (in contrast for example to WCC who is driven by a very specific shared focus and cause). This, combined with our team’s commitment to carrying out activities that are of direct benefit (and tailored) to participants, meant that the target of our engagement shifted continuously.

However, the project had a positive impact on those involved. Through the events, participants were encouraged to look at their environment, their skills and their available materials and resources under a different light. The events inspired local groups to think creatively and run their own activities around the themes we have explored. In effect, the output of our co-design was not the creation of a single tool, a website, a film or a space, but the creation of the conditions for seeing (and doing) things differently.

image from community activity IMG_4928

Cascading creative citizenship

We published a booklet to share our journey with Goldsmiths and the methods used. Each story/event has an accompanying tool that can be used to facilitate similar activities. We hope the booklet can provide a resource from which other communities can learn and become inspired to design and develop their own projects.

You can download the online version of the Seeing things differently booklet here.

GCC Booklet

 

The OU team involved in this work were Katerina Alexiou, Theodore Zamenopoulos and Giota Alevizou. Valuable support was also offered by Alan Outten and Cristina Gorzanelli (based at the RCA). For further information please contact the author of this blog post Katerina Alexiou (katerina.alexiou at open.ac.uk).

Images of the banner courtesy of Jane Hearn.

References

Bryan Lawson (2002). The subject that won’t go away But perhaps we are ahead of the game. Design as research. Architectural Research Quarterly, 6, pp 109-114. doi:10.1017/S1359135502001574.

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