Built Environment : How to be a reflective practitioner


Changing practice: An abbreviated extract from Designing for Hope by Chrisna du Plessis and Dominique Hes (with permission).

The following six central lessons refer to how things should be done differently and what this means for how we engage in practice as designers, planners and developers.

Lesson 1: Take time to listen

In a world where time equals money, there is often resistance to taking the kind of time that is necessary for deep listening.

However, the right process of listening, asking the right questions, taking the time for a more thoughtful engagement, and working not with what people think, but what they value, does have benefits.

Once shared values have been brought to the surface, alignment between parties can happen quickly, rallying them around a common vision of how best to nurture and grow the potential of their Place through the project. This can avoid many years of fighting opposition to a project and the associated costs in professional and legal fees.

A further benefit is that regenerative interventions are not limited to the knowledge and experience of the professional team or the demands of the project brief, but can emerge in surprising ways from the conversation.

Lesson 2: It’s not about the building

To understand this fully, we have to rethink our understanding of what a building is. A building allows us to intervene in a web of interconnected dynamics. The way in which we intervene can disconnect these systems from their context or it can allow them to manifest their potential. If we are working from an ecological worldview, the objective is always to enable the manifestation of the full potential of the systems in which we are intervening. And sometimes that may mean that a building is not the right answer.

Thus the change is to think past how to make the most ‘sustainable’ object, to how the process of creating the object can become a catalyst for developing the potential of the larger system. And this brings its own benefit to the client.

Lesson 3: It is not about everything, but about what is important

One of the real challenges with working in the ecological worldview is the need for whole systems thinking. In trying to ‘see’ the whole system, one can easily get lost in vast amounts of data without ever really getting to know or understand the system within which you are working. Rather it is about being able to separate what is important from the background noise by looking for patterns. Understanding what is core, helps to identify the aspects and relationships of the system which are important and integral to the project.

Lesson 4: Collaborate to co-create new potential

Ecological values such as mutuality, fellowship and positive reciprocity are derived from the importance of reciprocal relationships to the healthy functioning of a system. Collaboration then becomes about developing reciprocal relationships that will maintain and grow the health and potential of the larger system; and that system includes not only the broader community, but the organisms and living systems of the place within which we work. The scope of collaboration depends on the kind of project. But irrespective of scale, aside from the professional team, the process should include the community and the natural systems with which the project will be in relationship, as well as the people who will be responsible for holding the vision into the future.

Lesson 5: Let go

Working with development and design processes in which the solutions are allowed to evolve from an understanding of the potential of place, one has to be prepared for unexpected things to emerge. There is often also a time delay, and the real magic only manifests long after the project team has departed. Developing the values of humility and non-attachment becomes critical for practitioner and client. The changes in how the design process unfolds and the role of the designer in this process have profound, if perhaps uncomfortable, implications for what it means to be a design practitioner.

Lesson 6: Don’t be a lazy thinker

Build some mental muscle! There are no easy recipes or ten-step plans, and most require skilful negotiation of vast amounts of data and many competing knowledge claims from which the practitioner has to extract nuanced meaning, without falling into the trap of reductionist thinking. You have to do the hard work of really studying and contemplating the theoretical basis of the tools you use, moving your engagement with the subject from knowledge to understanding and finally wisdom. But you also have to critically reflect on your own thinking, and extend this same critical reflection to the work of others.

Order the book Designing for Hope from www.proteaboekhuis.com or directly from the publisher at www.routledge.com/9781138800625

For the full profile on Chrisna du Plessis, see earthworks magazine issue 32 June-July 2016.