Making Everybody a Designer through the Collaborative Space of the Design Charrette with Patrick Condon

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As you can guess, I’m fascinated with what happens when you bring a diverse group of people together to solve problems. Think of the model of the work party, the barn raising, the “talkoot”, and apply it to deliberative democratic practice–whether at work or in your community. Working Together is all about this kind of creative group problem solving.

But what happens when you combine this barn-raising sensibility with art and design? Not just the ideas and concepts of art and design, but with actual doodling and drawing?

You get a Design Charrette.

So, in the 11th episode of the Working Together Podcast, I have a conversation with Patrick Condon who has over 25 years of experience in sustainable urban design: first as a professional city planner and then as a teacher and researcher. And who also happens to have written an excellent book on the subject called Design Charrettes for Sustainable Communities.

On the first page of that book he defines what a Design Charrette is: “a time-limited, multi-party design event organized to generate a collaboratively produced plan for a sustainable community.” He goes on later to say that:

“To be worthy of the name, a design charrette must elevate the contradictions inherent in the divergent questions confronted in our drive toward a more sustainable city to a level higher than “logic” or “proof”–it must create an atmosphere in which contradictions can be resolved not by proofs, but by empathy, intuition, understanding, and compassion. Elevating and resolving these contradictions through the agency of empathy, understanding, and compassion is not something you do alone. You do this with others.” (p. 12)

Some Big Ideas Exchanged: Moving Past “Linear Methodologies”, Perfect Answers and Cartoon Images, Design Charrettes, and “Policy Piles” among other things!

When I asked Patrick what a Design Charrette is, he gave me a pretty funny (accurate) definition…

“When you ask a bunch of people who don’t really like each other very much to work on an impossibly complex problem, and to do it all in a ridiculously short amount of time.”

It’s not possible to just use data, pure reason, professional expertise, and so on to deal with wicked problems. You need to move past “linear methodologies” and “one at a time problems” and bring people together to develop a collective answer…

“We admit that we’re not going to be able to come up with a perfect answer, but we suspect that by all of us working together we’ll come up with a good answer. An answer that’s better than these supposed answers from these speciality areas that have been proven not work. We expect that by working at this table for awhile, we can come up with a better answer than that. It operates on the faith in human capacity–partly informed by the intuitive dynamic of collaboration–to come up with a good solution. And it’s not going to a be a solution that you are able to prove is perfect. But the consensus conclusion that it’s a good conclusion and that we should move forward, is what a Charrette produces…”

Everyone has a stake in their neighbourhood. Some people are more interested than others in their stake. What becomes important for Charrette participants, is to see past the “cartoon image” of their fellow participants. To see the human beneath the caricature:

“People come to the table seeing each other, not as actual human beings, but rather as cartoon representations of their stake–whether it’s the fire chief, or the developer, or the politician, or the neighbour, or the guy who really loves to fish in the stream…”

Talk. Doodle. Draw. The three stages of the Design Charrette. For Patrick, the doodle stage is the most important stage in the process, as its where the non-designer participant gets to make his or her mark of political and personal efficacy…

“Everybody has to design, and if you fail in this mission of making everybody a designer, there’s going to be a distance between the stakeholders and the designers at the end of it. Their commitment to [the design] will only be partial. You really have to legitimately inculcate in them the feeling, through their experience, that they are designers. That’s why it’s critical that you hand the pen over to them and say “do you mean here?” And everybody has to scribble… and its really an ugly drawing, and its the most beautiful drawing in the whole Charrette process, because its the mark of their participation.”

Before the actual Charrette comes months and months of analysis, the necessary policy and context research required to prepare the design brief–which is really a series of constraints upon the Charrette process itself…

“[The Charrette] is like an iceberg, only a small part of it shows up above the surface of the water. There’s tons of time putting together the coalition, assembling the database… we spend a lot of time distilling what we call “the policy pile” down into a few pages. Any urban area that we work with has a ton of policy constraints, engineering constraints, legal constraints that influence what happens on the site. You can’t ignore that. If you just go in with a blank page, or a blue sky thing… that’s a recipe for failure.”


References, allusions, and mentions implied:

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