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Diverse economy portfolios

image shows creative economy portfolios
What would students’ economic portfolios look like?
Image from

My last post explored how the COVID crisis might be used in pluralist economic teaching. In this post, I want to get a bit more practical and present another teaching activity: students creating personal diverse economy portfolios. The activity builds on Gibson-Graham’s groundbreaking work on diverse economies and the ontological changes this entails. Through their portfolios, students research and analyze their own economic activities, in order to recognize their diversity and social character and to ultimately realize themselves as interdependent and ethical economic subjects. The activity aims to shift students’ attention from, in GG’s words, ‘the paralyzing question of what is to be done’ to the more productive one of ‘what is already being done,’ with a focus on what students themselves are already doing. It is divided into 4 steps: 1) diary, 2) inventory, 3) questions and 4) iceberg, and could be conducted in an economics-focused social science class as an independent project over the course of a term or as a two-week more intensive exercise.

  1. Economic diaries

The activity begins with students keeping an economic diary over the course of a week to become more aware of their economic lives. In the diary they record all of their economic transactions and exchanges, where they took place, whom they involved, whether money was exchanged etc. Students then start to classify these activities into capitalist, alternative and non-capitalist, by drawing on relevant theoretical readings and class discussions.

2. Economic Inventories

The next step involves translating the diary into an inventory, using a template adapted from the Diverse Economies Framework that consists of three sub-inventories: transactional exchanges, economic organizations and labor practices.

image shows a diverse economy table to categorize economic activities
The inventory template from the Diverse Economies Framework
  • Transactional exchanges are likely to comprise capitalist market transactions, but also alternative ones such as students swapping things with each other or buying a vegetable box from a local farmer, as well as non-market transactions such as sharing household labor, free-cycling, gifting or community gardening.
  • Economic organizations register the diverse economic institutions students deal with, beginning with capitalist firms such as supermarkets or department stores, but quickly expanding to alternative capitalist enterprises such as op-shops, fair trade stores, non-profits, cooperative and community enterprises, food waste apps and shared ownership schemes. Non-capitalist organizations could encompass communal and household groups or independent businesses that might be supported by friends, children or other family members giving their labor for free.
  • Labor practices begin with standard wage work that many students have to engage in to make ends meet. Then there are alternatively paid labor activities such as under-the-table tutoring or baby sitting, self-employed gig work or maybe swapping childcare with other student parents or final thesis drafts with fellow students. Unpaid labor includes housework, household or family physical and emotional care, and maybe volunteer work or self-provisioning through gardening. 

3) Social and ethical questions

The next part of the activity involves students reflecting on two overarching questions: on what basis am I making economic decisions and what kind of social relationships am I entering or creating through my economic activities? The first question is likely to show multiple reasonings, including affordability, convenience and ethical concerns such as fair trade, animal treatment or food miles. Recognizing the plurality of their choices and calculations shows students the limited application of neoclassical theories of self-interested, utility-maximizing individuals and reveals (most) students as ethical consumers who complement their financial calculations with non-financial questions about how their economic activities might be impacting other human beings, animals or the wider environment. Establishing this awareness includes folding the economic into the ethical and and can potentially move students towards an ‘economy of generosity’.

image shows the HISBE supermarket in Brighton
Many Sussex students shop at the alternative HISBE supermarket in Brighton

The second question about social relationships goes to the heart of resocializing economic relations, as it makes students aware of the diversity of relationships on which their economic activities are based. These can range from a standard consumer relationship to parent/child or other kin connections, friend, neighbor, flat mate or mentor. Realizing how socially interconnected and interdependent economic activities are also undermines orthodox notions of autonomous, self-centered individuals and shows the economy as embedded within social systems.

4) Drawing the Iceberg

The last step of the activity involves students creating a visual representation of their diverse economy portfolios in the form of an iceberg or other creative, potentially multimedia, formats. The iceberg is a pedagogical tool developed by Gibson-Graham and colleagues to show that what is usually regarded as ‘the economy’ is but the tip of a huge amount of economic activities that are often invisible, sidelined or ignored. But they constitute the majority of people’s, and students,’ economic lives. The intention of this final part of the activity is therefore to make personal diverse economies visible and to move students from the linearity of writing to experimenting with more creative forms of imagining and expressing themselves as diverse economic subjects.

The aim of the personal diverse economy portfolio activity is for students to learn that capitalism is not as all-encompassing as is usually assumed, or, to use Gibson-Graham’s words, to decenter capitalocentric discourses that naturalize capitalism and assign positive value to capitalist economic activities, while devaluing all others. The activity brings together theoretical texts focusing on diverse, social and solidarity economies with experiential learning based on students’ already existing economic activities. It goes further by inviting students to imagine themselves as more diverse economic subjects and to create future alternative economic actions. Here, the new forms of sociality and mutuality that have emerged under COVID, such as shopping at the local corner store, buying food for those who are self-isolating or sharing with others in need, might provide important openings.

image shows Gibson-Graham's economic iceberg
The iceberg, image from Take Back the Economy

Queuing in the time of COVID-19

The queue at our local supermarket brings back memories of East Germany (minus the mobile phones)

The panic buying at the beginning of the COVID pandemic has long since given way to much more orderly and calm queuing to get into supermarkets, at an appropriate social distance. For me, having grown up in East Germany where there often was scarcity of all kinds of stuff and waiting in line was common practice, especially for special things such as bananas or oranges that were actually orange rather than green (the latter were the so-called Kuba Orangen named after their place of origin), this brings back memories. It also ties in well with the writing I have done over the last month on the economics chapter of my book, in which I explore how to teach social science students about economic alternatives (a summary will come shortly.) In the chapter, I use economic responses to the COVID crisis to show the shortcomings of neoclassical economic theories, and how this might inform critical-creative teaching. In this post, which is the second in my COVID reflections, following the first one on care, I will share some of my theoretical insights, drawing on recent think pieces and publications by various economists and social scientists.

The embedded economy

According to Sanjay Reddy, ‘the pandemic underlines the necessity for a rethinking of our received ideas about economics,’ foremost among them the interdependencies between economics and all other areas of life, the relationship between individual and collective rationality and the importance of public deliberations about the differential impact of the virus on different groups and the trade-offs this calls for. Economic responses to the pandemic have also highlighted the usually more hidden value judgements made by economic policy makers, for example in prioritizing public over economic health concerns. All of this connects to calls to ‘see the big picture’ of economics, which means changing the perspective from a self-contained, efficient market as the mainstay of the economy to embedding the economy in society and nature. For Kate Raworth, for whom seeing the big picture is part of reinventing economics for the 21st century, such a move calls for ‘the creation of new narratives – about the power of the market, the partnership of the state, the core role of the household, and the creativity of the commons.’ The COVID pandemic has indeed resulted in calls for new social contracts between governments, citizens and corporations.

Finally, a breakthrough alternative to growth economics – the ...
A representation of the embedded economy. Source: Kate Raworth and Marcia Mihotich

Let’s start with governments, many of whom have taken measures in response to the pandemic that have the potential to address existing economic inequities, if they can transition from emergency stop-gap interventions to more far-reaching structural reforms. This would follow historical precedent, modern welfare state emerged from the Great Depression and WWII. Today, governments in many countries are providing unprecedented support for workers, such as income guarantees, self-employed worker and small business support schemes. It is important to point out that many gaps remain in their coverage and their effects, just as the effects of the virus itself, are highly uneven. Nevertheless, some of these government schemes approximate, and in some places such as Spain are being developed as spring boards to, universal basic income (UBI) schemes which guarantee all citizens of a country a base amount of money to cover basic needs. Calls for UBI, such as the one made by over 500 political figures and academics, recognize and reaffirm the responsibility of governments to guarantee the basic material well-being of residents, displacing the primacy of market-based interventions.

The lines between corporations and governments have also become more blurred, as seen in the requisitioning of private resources for public (health) interest to ensure sufficient hospital spaces, make protective equipment and develop a vaccine. This can lead to the transformation of businesses into more humane institutions and to a decentering of market logics from the many areas of human existence they have infiltrated. To sustain these initiatives and help them transition to a ‘new normal,’ citizens will need to mobilize and press their demands in the face of calls to resume business as usual. This raises the question of the commons.

Revaluing the commons and households

A second element of the big economy picture is revaluing the commons, seen in calls to adequately support public health systems often ravaged by years of austerity and cutbacks. Once again, history can be a guide, since the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic helped create national health services in many European countries. An important part is recognizing who contributes to the common good as essential workers and re-valuing their key contributions to society, including financially. Others argue for a reclaiming of the knowledge commons to ensure that reliable information can lead to an informed debate that takes local values, priorities and needs into account. Against dominant claims to ‘the’ science driving government decisions, it is clear that difficult ethical decisions need to be made by policy makers and that an informed public needs to be involved in these deliberations. For starters, government committees such as the UK’s SAGE committee should include not only behavioral economists, disease experts and modellers, epidemiologists and medics, but also social scientists and humanities scholars such as philosophers, historians of science, theologians and jurists, as is happening in Germany.

Embedding the economy also means recognizing the core role of households, something that has been demanded by feminist economists and their ground-breaking studies of the care economy for many years.  Following the lockdown policies implemented by most countries to stop the virus spreading, households have been reconfirmed as the centres of family lives, as studying and working from home complement daily interactions and family members have to find new ways of co-existing in often confined spaces. A new ethics is emerging where care, albeit a version that is delinked from problematic gendered notions, becomes the basis for connections.

Our assortment of face masks

Interdependent economic subjects

This relates to another 21st century economics principles of ‘nurturing human nature’ by recognizing that individuals are not the calculating, maximizing and self-interested individuals posited by neoclassical economics. Instead, the collective crisis of COVID is showing that humans are interdependent, reciprocating and ethical beings, and is highlighting alternative ways of co-existence based on mutuality and conviviality. The ‘thick, tangled skein of sociality’ is revealed in the shielding of vulnerable family members, the wearing of face masks mainly to protect others and the keeping of spatial distancing. Citizens’ overall compliance with lock down measures that diminish individual freedoms in the name of the social good shows the inadequacy of individual rational choice theories and requires a more expansive view that recognizes that individuals take others into account when making decisions and can align their own choices with collective requirements. The self-organizing neighborhood groups that have sprung up in many cities operate on principles of mutual aid to help those who need to self-isolate or are struggling in other ways. These initiatives show that economic systems are at their heart social systems embedded within interpersonal relations.

Thus, the COVID pandemic is clearly showing that the economy is an integral part of social, political and environmental systems. Some of the current responses to the pandemic can be used to teach students the shortcomings of orthodox economics and the relevance of pluralist ideas within and without the university. It can also encourage them to use their learning to imagine and work towards the alternative futures that can be glimpsed among the bleakness of life under COVID.

Designing Back from the Future

Prototyping Brighton 2050

As I mentioned in my previous post, which is a summary of my book’s design chapter, scenarios – stories about possible futures – are an important tool in the design tool box. Scenarios have an interesting history, having been developed by Herman Kahn for the US RAND Corporation in the 1950s to support US military nuclear war planning. They have also been used by large corporations, foremost among them Shell, to explore possible energy scenarios. More radically, in 1995, the Global Scenario Group started developing multiple planetary scenarios, ranging from Conventional Worlds in which companies or governments continue the status quo, to Barbarization marked by breakdown or retreat to Great Transitions that present visionary alternatives focused on natural preservation, material sufficiency and social justice. Scenarios have also been used in teaching, and in the design chapter I write about an activity called Designing back from the Future, inspired by Anne-Marie Willis and conducted with students at Sussex’s School of Global Studies to imagine and prototype their preferable futures. For Willis, scenarios are the projection of likely futures, opening them up for reflection, including on actions that need to be taken to achieve the visions. The Sussex activity comprised two Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) design workshops ran by design Research Associate Paul Braund and student coordinators and a Big Build exercise I carried out as part of a third year undergraduate course on Urban Futures. In both activities, students explored what Brighton, where most Sussex students live, might look like in 2050.

Students at one of the SDG workshop

For both activities, the space was set up as an invitation for students to play, experiment, build and have fun. Tables for small groups were covered with thinking materials (sticky notes, marker pens, stickers, large sheets of paper, photos, quotes etc), building materials (crafty stuff, play-doh, pipe cleaners, foam sheets, pins, string, LEGO and wooden blocks etc) and of course snacks. In general, multi-use materials are preferable to single-use objects to provide students with base materials that can be manipulated to externalize ideas. To introduce an element of ambiguity, each table also had a random object, including a knight, a small plush animal and a Lego object, which needed to be incorporated into the prototype. Student were excited as they settled into the space and many of them quickly began to explore the materials with their hands, opening cans of Play Doh and often commenting how its distinct smell brought back childhood memories, or grabbing sticks of pipe cleaners and bending them into whimsical shapes. Such making ‘prompts physical, intellectual and emotional responses’ through a form of hand knowledge, where students’ hands become translators between words and materials. According to Tim Ingold, a leading design anthropologist, making involves deep situatedness, active participation and real-time connection, a coming together of mind, body and material that Ingold calls ‘animacy.’ While social science students might not experience this as intensely as art and design students, making can nevertheless open up cracks in which thinking can happen and learning can stick better. Alongside these materials there were questions, prompts and instruction sheets on the tables, as from experiences we knew that informal learning needs clear structures and guidelines to be successful.

Thinking and building materials invite students’ creativity

The overall question was ‘What do you want the world to look like in 2050?’ For the SDG workshop, which ran over 5 hours, the format was more open-ended and the first task was for groups to develop a concrete vision and action plan for their preferred future, which led to some intense negotiations as diverse group members agreed on a collective vision. Several starting questions were posed to help the students: What things will have been achieved? What new institutions, laws, norms and behaviors will have been created? Who would participate in the change project and who would be affected and how? To compensate for the lack of a research phase that usually accompanies scenario exercises to keep them from becoming fantasies (although students did look up some information on their laptops), students were encouraged to localize their scenarios in a place that was familiar to at least one participant in the group. The group working on SDG 11 on cities selected Brighton, which allowed all members to draw on their own experiences of living in or near Brighton. For the in-class Big Build, which was only 2 hours long, I had pre-developed the following scenario in the interest of time: ‘Brighton in 2050 is a self-sustaining, hospitable and generous city. Its environmental footprint is minimal, it is welcoming of diversity and provides all of its residents with a decent quality of life.’  Tables had been set up around three specific topics that corresponded to themes studied throughout the term:  sustainable infrastructures, deep governance and radical conviviality. Each group had their own brief, further specifying their vision through guiding what-if questions and providing examples as starting points for their scenario journey.

Once students had further developed their visions, they were prompted to think about concrete ways through which to realize it, beginning with a brainstorming session. In parallel students started building prototypes of their scenarios with the materials at hand. Their emerging visions included tried and tested ideas, such as taking Brighton’s well-known status as a sanctuary city as a point of departure to create spaces where refugees could obtain homes, food and skills and be integrated with fellow urban residents through living with them and working in cafes and shops. Environmental visions included solar panels, bike stands, community gardens and a public assembly place. More far-reaching proposals were to build a mega-greenhouse and a free tram line. Most radically, one group proposed to repurpose Brighton’s famous Royal Pavilion as a communal food hall. None of these ideas were blue-sky or totally new, but that was not the point of the activities. What was remarkable was how the students brought together different domains in their scenario creations: their own experiences as Brighton residents, theoretical knowledge gained in class discussions, inspirations from other initiatives they knew about as well as practical making. Collectively, they built plausible scenarios that were materializing alternative urban futures that were desirable to them, while considering the rights and needs of diverse groups.

Prototyping an urban alternative future (notice the knight 🙂

Although because of time restrictions the groups did not reach the final stage of the exercise, which would have involved thinking through the specific actors, institutions and measures involved in realizing their alternative futures, they clearly enjoyed the creativity of the workshops and learned from it. This was evident in their comments that were collected in questionnaires and some follow-up interviews. Students wrote about encountering ‘a new way to think (not just words),’ which speaks to ideas of whole-person learning and hand knowledge I am developing in the book. Comments such as ‘how to involve different backgrounds into development’ and ‘a more open way of thinking outside the modules’ showed how spaces for possible actions and connections were opened up. One student wrote that they realized ‘that there are 100 ways to work‘ and another commented that ‘the workshop highlighted the complexities of designing and implementing solutions and the contradictions and huge interlinked challenges,’ which shows that ideas about change itself had broadened. Many students also expressed how they enjoyed engaging with fellow students in a more practical, hands-on and fun way. And for some, the workshops had ‘reestablished hope and encouragement for the future [through] more hands-on learning, not just [learning about] theory not working.’ This comment speaks to the potential of creative learning that incorporates an open-ended, experimental approach based on asking questions, developing possible responses through collaborative learning and then prototyping visions for alternative futures.

Designing Futures

How can we invite students’ creativity into university spaces?

Having just finished a draft of my design chapter, I thought it might be interestig to provide a brief summary here. The chapter argues that design’s future orientation and open-ended methods, together with its use of creative spaces and materials (inspired in part by a visit to the Stanford during which many of the images in this post were taken), are well-placed to inform a critical-creative pedagogy. They can help students to become more confident with experimentation, ambiguity and empathy in their learning, as I show through a detailed presentation of two learning activities that involve the building of future scenarios. The chapter draws mainly in the work of Tony Fry, Arturo Escobar, David Staley as well as Tim Ingold and other design anthropologists. In this post I outline the main arguments of the chapter while in the next one I present one of the learning activities.

In his groundbreaking book Designs for the Pluriverse, Escobar seeks to reclaim design, whose commercial version are often seen to contribute to unsustainable life styles and consumption habits, for the making of alternative worlds. Transition design in particular can help ‘embrace the vital normative questions of the day . . .  from out-of-box perspectives.’ In my chapter, I work with this concept of socially-conscious design, which has developed within the larger discipline since the 1960s and recognizes itself as a fundamentally ethical and political activity. I also conceive of a design as an innate human capability that incorporates both intellectual and material activities and results from our abilities to prefigure and imagine what we want to create. As Karl Marx famously wrote ‘a bee puts to shame many an architect in the construction of her cells. But what distinguishes the worst architect from the best of bees is this, that the architect raises his structure in imagination before he erects it in reality.” Design has also been codified and become a professional field of study and practice. Last but not least, design has been called the art of the possible because of its inherently optimistic orientation, and, like the generative theory I use in my book, ‘transcends the limits of deconstructive and discursive analysis by venturing into the positive project of how the world can be – and be understood – otherwise,’ according to Escobar.

A van stuffed with cushions and drawing materials in the entrance area of the Stanford dschool invites playfulness

So what can design bring to challenge-focused teaching in the social sciences? In the chapter, I show that its open-ended approach and iterative process of continuous testing and adjustment, the practice of prototyping to test assumptions and responses, the posing of what-if questions to disrupt taken-for-granted understandings and understanding the concept of wicked problems (which I already explored in relation to COVID) can make students more comfortable with experimentation, ambiguity and empathy.

  • Experimentation involves students being playful, taking risks and exploring boundaries, which can lead to unexpected outcomes and surprises. Experiments can fail, and reframing failure as learning opportunities involves iteration as a continuous process of reworking. Emphasizing the open-ended and emergent qualities of things can help students keep an open mind and explore different avenues before settling on a specific course of action. This goes together with the ability to use questions in an exploratory way, by wondering whether they are even asking the right question rather than knowing the answer before the question is even posed.
What if teaching embraced rapid experiments?
  • Ambiguity means being open to more than one possible meaning or interpretation. Judith Harding and Lynne Hale show how the ability be comfortable with ambiguity is one of the key markers of creative problem solving processes, when a problem is clarified and different responses are considered. Design methods can help students to embrace ambiguity by enabling them to look at various angles of a problem or situation, suspend judgement and not rush to a solution. Harding and Hale give the example of providing students with purposely puzzling instructions for a learning activity and then resisting demands for clarification, instead explaining that students’ experiences of discomfort or frustration are part of the learning experience.
What if students were encouraged to dwell in ambiguity?
  • Empathy, broadly defined as the ability to imagine other people’s feelings or to emotionally identify with another person – to put ourselves in their shoes – involves cognitive processes of understanding and affective processes of emotional and embodied labor. Steve New and Lucy Kimbell argue for ‘designerly’ rather than managerial empathy that involves taking a ‘creative leap into the experience of another’ through techniques such as visualization, the construction of personas, role-play and co-immersions. In teaching, engaging empathy needs to complemented with research to avoid empathy’s negative potentials. For example, asking students to put themselves into other people’s shoes without understanding their situations can lead to students projecting their own emotions or experiences unto others and to patronizing assumptions or misrecognition. On the other hand, empathy can connect to pedagogies of unlearning and decentering privilege by providing situations where students encounter, learn about and interact with difference. Empathy also connects to Bruno Latour’s writing about design’s humility, which I have written about in the context of COVID.

Another element that design brings to creative teaching is its future orientation. To better understand universities’ overall relationship with the future, Keri Facer’s work on modes of stewardship, modelling, experimentation and critique has been particularly instructive. In his book Design Futuring, Tony Fry argues that ‘design futures or defutures – it rides the line between bringing things into being that sustain the conditions upon which viable futures depend and taking the possibility of such futures away.’ To support the field’s futuring capacity, he proposes the practice of ‘prefigurative criticism,’ whereby emerging products or processes are associated with negative values, for example through placing them into undesirable contexts, which would decrease demand for them. Students could explore such a recoding of the value of things through creative alterations of brands, adverts or billboards, following the path-breaking work of organizations like Adbusters. They could also examine their own consumer habits and the values underlying them and then experiment with recoding.

I want to conclude this post with reference to the ‘Future University’ proposed by David Staley as part of his utopian universities design speculations. Such a university would focus on both pure futuring, through a liberal-arts type education where students explore the future ‘as a possibility space,’ and applied futuring, through more vocationally-oriented teaching where students are ‘making the future happen.’ Teaching would encompass systems thinking, dystopian and utopian science fiction reading and writing, and the incubation of new social forms within universities that become a kind of living laboratory. It would also include the creation of design fictions through the making of prototypes that materialize students’ visions of the future. This future university is a great example of critical-creative learning that fosters students’ curiosity, introspection, imagination, situational awareness and humility. Elements of it already exist in many innovative university programs that have recognized the need to become incubators to foster collaborative learning and interdisciplinary problem solving to help students better address contemporary wicked problems.

What if this was the motto?

Care in the time of COVID-19

A sign in a neighbor’s garden offering help to those who have to self-isolate

I can’t believe that my last two blog posts from Germany were written only a month ago – it seems like a lifetime has passed and the world is a very different place to what it was in early March. As well as adjusting to working from a home and keeping up with feeding two teenage boys, I have been trying to come to grips with what the COVID crisis means for my book, which after all focuses on the contributions of creative teaching to better prepare students to address global challenges. After initially being overwhelmed by the huge amount of information available, I am slowly beginning to make some sense of some of it. In this, somewhat meandering, unfocused and tentative post in keeping with the general uncertainty of the situation, I explore what some aspects of design, particularly the concept of wicked problems and the emphasis on care and empathy, can contribute to an understanding of COVID-19. This draws on the design chapter of my book (which is building on longer-standing research on the role of design in development) I am currently writing. This is the first of several COVID reflection posts, with the second one focusing on economic implications.

Wicked problem were first defined by Horst Rittel as ‘social system problems which are ill-formulated, where the information is confusing, where there are many clients and decision-makers with conflicting values, and where the ramifications in the whole system are thoroughly confusing’ (as quoted in Richard Buchanan’s useful overview article of design). In contrast to clearly delimited problems that follow linear processes to a precise solutions, wicked problems are indeterminate because they have no clearly defined limits and more than one possible explanation and are symptomatic of higher-level problems. Many contemporary challenges are wicked problems because of their complexity and interconnectedness, and the COVID crisis is no exception. While medical at its core, it affects many other areas of social, economic and political life. Wicked problems call for different disciplines to work together to understand them and formulate responses; for COVID-19 that has encompassed medical (treatment and public health campaigns), economic (eg. various government wage and business support schemes), social (spatial distancing) and political (closing of borders) responses. According to Buchanan, design as an inherently integrative discipline can enable this cross-cutting approach because it offers an expanded imagination that is not directed towards quick, technological fixes but ‘toward new integrations of signs, things, actions and environments that address the concrete needs and values of human beings in diverse circumstances.’

The Estonian government’s proposal to hack the wicked problem of COVID-19

Another relevant concept is that of care, which is by no means unique to design; Ana Agostino, a Uruguayan feminist academic has written here about the importance of re-asserting care for each other in this collective crisis. In making the design connection, I draw on Bruno Latour’s keynote address to the 2008 International Conference of the UK’s Design History Society. For Latour, ‘designing is an antidote to hubris and to the search for absolute certainty, absolute beginnings and radical departures.’ Design is more humble, modest and cautious because its practitioners realize the complexities of current challenges and the unintended consequences of possible solutions. Design turns objects into matters of concern and care, as the fragility and interconnectedness of humans and the world in which they are entangled become urgently apparent. Latour draws on German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk and his notion of spheres into which humans are enveloped from birth to death, on a personal and collective scale. References to life support systems seems especially pertinent when juxtaposed to images of Corona patients on ventilators and the latters’ global scarcity (but also the grassroots innovations resulting from necessity being the mother of invention). Here breathing – the most basic of human activities – needs intense medical intervention. In the context of the COVID-crisis, Latour has developed an exercise of taking stock of activities that have now been suspended to see which ones we would like to reanimate after the lock down and which ones we would like to abandon for good. Exploring our reasons for these choices will yield insights into personal values and having conversations with others about what choices they would make might open up opportunities for political changes.

While the role of technology in this crisis is a much larger discussion, I do want to finish with a digital initiative I like, which is #BlossomWatch. This is a campaign by the UK’s National Trust to emulate Hanami, the Japanese tradition of celebrating cherry and other spring blossoms and the promises they hold. The idea of #BlossomWatch, which invites people to share their photos, is to allow people who cannot currently go outside to enjoy this wonder of spring. This then brings me to empathy (as practiced by designers, care professionals and many others), as the ability to imagine other people’s situations and feelings. Following calls for spatial distancing, which might be a more apt word for what we are being asked to do and the resulting new forms of sociality, is presented as needing to protect vulnerable groups and the NHS, in the case of the UK. It is also about trying to imagine what it might feel like to self-isolate, to have lost one’s source of income, to have to work from home and care for toddlers or home school at the same time. There have been so many amazing responses to these challenges that manifest our collective capacity to empathize with and care for each other, however small the contribution might be. In the spirit of humble interventions, here is a photo from the splendid blossoms outside our house. Stay well!

Spring blossoms outside our house

Bauhaus Teil II

Haus am Horn in Weimar

This post chronicles further ideas and inspirations from my current visit to the new Bauhaus museums in Germany. I am here to find out what the Bauhaus, as a radical educational experiment aiming to realize a vision of a better future at times of great economic, political and social turmoil, might offer creative teaching for today’s global challenges. In my first post I wrote about the context in which the Bauhaus was formed and its general teaching methods, and in this post I reflect how its attitude towards technology and the role of women at the Bauhaus might be relevant.

In 1923, as one of the conditions for continued funding from the regional government, the Bauhaus organized a major exhibition that brought its achievements to international attention. Its motto – Art and Technology: A New Unity – reflected the relationship that the Bauhaus wanted to establish between new technologies, the arts and crafts and industrial production. The school’s founder, Walter Gropius, had fought at the Somme during WWI and seen first-hand the devastation that technological innovation can bring. He returned with a belief in radical social reform in which creative people played a direct role. Rather than rejecting technology altogether, he and teachers like Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, aimed to bring the art, crafts and industry, machines and humans, together in new ways. At the beginning of the 20th century, increasing industrialization, mass production and standardization raised important questions about the role of the individual, crafts people and artistic elements and about the connections between society and technology more general. I see the same questions being asked today in relation to new digital and bio-technologies and artificial intelligence and their remaking of human life, social relations and capitalist models. (For an insightful but frightening picture, Shoshana Zuboff’s recent take on surveillance capitalism is a good but hefty read). 

One of the main attractions of the Bauhaus exhibit was Das Haus am Horn, a model house that was built on the outskirts of Weimar. Designed by the Bauhaus Masters and furnished entirely by students, including textiles, high fittings and wall paintings, the house gave material form to many of the modern ideas of the school. It showed that the Bauhaus was not only about educating students but about reeducating the public to live more economically and functionally. The use of new materials, open space and room divisions, such as a separate bedrooms for spouses, revealed radical ideas and changing social norms. According to the exhibit, the house stood out like a sore thumb among the villas that adorned the road and critics called it a ‘house for martians.’

The modern kitchen as shown in a catalogue of the time

The house’s modern character was especially evident in the kitchen and its new domestic technologies. Showcasing Germany’s first fitted kitchen, furniture was arranged ergonomically in the taylorism-inspired sequence of cooking tasks to get rid of unnecessary movement, time and energy expenditure. The kitchen containers were in specific logical order and easy to access and clean. The oven and roaster ran on gas, cooking vegetables that were grown behind the house. (The gardens are where the Bauhaus students themselves grew vegetables for the communal canteen). An advertisement video in the main Bauhaus museum had compared more traditional kitchens and their laborious and unhygienic ways to the new kitchen, in which a woman dressed in a 1920s flapper outfit was happily working away. It was the woman though doing the housework, just as open doors to the children and living room enabled her to supervise the children more easily.

This speaks to an interesting tension about the role of women at the Bauhaus, about which many good books have been written. While Gropius welcomed female students, who initially outnumbered men, the master teachers were predominantly male with the exception of women teaching rhythmic dance and weaving. Similarly, female students were initially only allowed to apprentice in the weaving workshop (which incidentally was the only one making commercially viable products that provided a much needed source of income for the school), as it was thought that work in wood, metal or theatre workshops might be too physically demanding for them. Women like Gunda Stoelzl, Annie Albers and Marianna Brandt, who was the first woman allowed in the metal workshop and later became its master, went on to make names for themselves as successful designers but are still much less known than famous male Bauhaus masters and alumni.

In 1924, the Weimar Bauhaus lost political and financial support when a new right-wing nationalist government came to power in Thuringia. It moved to Dessau in 1925 and then to Berlin, where, branded as Bolshevik and degenerate, it was closed in 1933, in one of the first acts after the Nazis came to power. While some of its students were imprisoned, others collaborated with the Nazis in the design of concentration camps, including Buchenwald. Tomorrow I will travel to Dessau to learn more about the continuation of the experiment that was the Bauhaus.

Bauhaus Teil I

A photo in the entrance hall of the Weimar Bauhaus museum captures some of the school’s spirit

I am writing this post from Germany, where I am currently conducting research at the new Bauhaus museums that opened last year in Weimar, where the Bauhaus was established in 1919 by Walter Gropius, and in Dessau, where it moved in 1925. Both museums were opened last year to celebrate the Bauhaus’ 100th anniversary. (While I am here I am also spending some time with my parents; as I wrote in one of my first posts, I grew up in a small town close to Weimar in former East Germany. Since my parents still live there I have had many occasions to visit and see the changes that have happened since 1989, some good, some not so good – most recently Thueringen, the state where Weimar is located, made worldwide headlines when a premier was elected with the help of the far-right AFD party, in the process breaching one of Germany’s political taboos. Comparisons to pictures of Hitler and Bismarck show the worrying historical parallels).

Having been interested in the Bauhaus and in the role of design for development for a while, I always felt that there might be some kind of a connection, also to creative teaching, and this visit is definitely confirming this. The Bauhaus was a fascinating educational experiment with many parallels to today and I am trying to figure out what we might learn from it about creativity, education and the search for alternatives. The information below come from museum displays and a number of informative books about the Bauhaus (Whitford 1984, Forgasc 1991, Dorste 2019); there are also fascinating novels and films in English and German).

The outside of the museum, in modernist style and adjacent to one of Weimar’s more classical buildings

The new museum in Weimar is pretty stunning. It is housed in new building by the German architect Heike Hanada, occupying a square with significant historical interconnections. Throughout its history, Weimar has been home to a great number of progressive artists and thinkers (such as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Friedrich Schiller, Johan Sebastian Bach, Rudolf Steiner and Friedrich Nietzche). However, one can also see the Glockenturm of the former Nazi concentration camp of Buchenwald from one of the museum’s windows. The Bauhaus itself was founded during a time of great social, political and economic upheaval. After WWI, decommissioned German soldiers and sailors returned, many of them deeply scared but also harbouring visions of a different, alternative future. The November 1918 revolution that overthrew the monarchy led to radical left groups, inspired by the Russian revolution, battled with reactionary vigilante groups in the streets of Berlin and other mayor cities. That is one of the reasons why Weimar, a quieter and at the time progressive town, was chosen as the birthplace of Germany’s first democracy, leading to the Weimar Republic. Ongoing conflicts led to hyperinflation, worsened by the 1929 Great Depression and ultimately the rise of Hitler. The increasing polarisation between left and right and the violence that comes with it, the rise of populist rhetoric and leaders and the corresponding rejection of foreign ideas and people have strong resonances to today.

The Bauhaus opened in 1919 through the merging of two already existing schools of Fine Arts and the Art and Crafts. Gropius named it Bauhaus in a modern take on the medieval guilds of craftspeople called Bauhuetten, and the school was marked by a the clash of old and new, tradition and radicalism, from the beginning. At its heart was a utopian vision of the role of education in creating a new society, in which art, design and technology would play central roles. To get things going, Gropius wrote the Bauhaus Manifesto, in which, according to the museum, he developed a vision of ‘a promising future . . . one that invited young people to become part of a community that was unafraid to address the urgent challenges of the time.’ The Manifesto was sent around the world to attract students, who came in the hundreds to join this radical experiment. They were taught by the most avantgarde artists of the time: Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky, Lyonel Feininger, Oskar Schlemmer, George Muche and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy. The latter’s motto, that ‘every person is gifted,’ echoes the ideas of everyday creativity I wrote about in previous post. In addition, they had to pass a rigorous Vorkurs initially taught by Johannes Itten, who incorporated bodily and sensorial exercises to awaken the students’ holistic experiences of colours, shapes and materials. This course is the predecessor of today’s foundation courses that often reshape how art and design students perceive the world.

Amongst much material hardship, Bauhaus students also experimented with new form of communal living, including growing their own food and a community canteen, living together in communal quarters and celebrating student life (the Bauhaus parties were famous and ultimately pushed Weimar’s deeply conservative burghers, who saw the Bauhaus as alien, un-German and Bolshevik, over the edge). Early on, they formed a cooperative and started plans to build their own Bauhaus settlement. Even though the settlement did not materialise for financial reasons, the questions the students asked – how should we dwell and how should we live together in new ways – are as if not more relevant today. The Bauhaus was therefore a living academic and social experiment, aiming to awaken students’ free creativity and collective efforts to build a better future. Most students embraced the Bauhaus ideals, enthusiastically participating in creating a utopian community after the ravages of war that many of them had experienced.

One of the inner halls of the museum, with the famous Bauhaus cradle in the front

Here are some student quotes I have found in a good book by Boris Friedwald that attest to students’ awareness of being part of a history-making educational experiment:

  • we do not want to become artists, but human beings, and intensify our looking, experiencing and sensing’ (Gunta Stoelzl)
  • for me the value is not in what is taught but in how it is taught, that one first trains and educates people who think and act for themselves before one conveys the necessary knowledge to them’ (Vera Meyer-Waldeck)
  • most people come with the genuinely serious intention of entering a community which differs fundamentally from the contradictory world around them, where they can develop new points of view for the systematic creation of a new society’ (Albert Mentzel)

Although the Bauhaus was an art and design school, with artistic creativity at its heart, I do believe that in it social aims and the ways in which it was trying to realize these aims in times of great challenges it can provide ideas and inspiration for creative teaching today. There is still a Bauhaus University in Weimar, in the building where the original teaching took place and which is a UNESCO World Heritage site. I was going to visit its Open Day, but that was unfortunately postponed because of the corona virus. So now I am off to visit the model house that was built for the 1923 exhibit.

Universities – there is another way

At this time of year, these ubiquitous clusters of yellow remind me not only to be optimistic that spring will come but also of the power of re-emergence

One of the joys of this project has been to find the work of other academics and practitioners who are working in the creative and alternative education space. I just discovered the research of Keri Facer, who has the fascinating title of Professor of Educational and Social Futures at Bristol University. In this post from her own blog, Educated Optimism, Facer writes about several alternative educational initiatives, ranging from Unitierra, an autonomous university in Oaxaca, Mexico, to the Red Crow College in Canada, that are showing how universities could be transformed. Although having grown up in East Germany I slightly disagree with her about the alternatives provided by the Soviet Union, the initiatives she writes about are important sources of inspiration. I would also add the Enlivened Learning project, where two former academics working in anthropology and international development, my home disciplines, spent a year traveling the world to learn about alternative higher education initiatives and places. I hope you enjoy reading these kindred posts as much as I do.

Educated Optimism

Growing up in the UK in the 80s under Thatcherism, an era of strikes, hostility, growing inequality and racism – not to mention stone washed denim and dodgy perms – the Soviet Union played an important role in the imagination. It was a land where things were different, it was a whole chunk of the world where society, economy, culture were organised in a completely different way.  It opened up an imaginative space, a little crack in the perception of the world that encouraged you to think that what you were living with wasn’t necessarily what you were stuck with.

We need that crack in the imagination today in relation to our universities. We need to know that there are other foundations upon which education can be built, and other forms that it might take. Such a crack exists and is growing.

A couple of years ago, the Ecoversities network…

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Everyday radical creativity

This representation of the analytical (left) and creative (right) brain is common but things are much less clearcut.

With the title of my book being Creative Universities, what do I actually mean by creativity? A voluminous academic and popular literature exists that seeks to define this complex and context-specific phenomenon, with its intellectual, emotional, practical and ethical aspects. In spite of this multidimensionality, there are a few commonly-cited characteristics of creativity: originality, curiosity, playfulness, divergent thinking, risk-taking, open-ness to new experiences and an ability to tolerate ambiguity and accept uncertainty.

In education, many people agree that teaching and learning are inherently creative processes, even though they might not be recognized or acknowledged as such. There are instead increasing demands from policy makers to bring more creativity into education in general and into HE in particular. These demands are usually connected to education’s contribution to national growth and economic competitiveness, often in the context of the creative industries. Another aim of creativity in education is to fully develop students’ personal potentials and to prepare them for a rapidly changing workplace. For example, Jackson Norman, founder of the Creative Academic Network, argues that ‘an education system that does not commit to the development and recognition of learners as whole, imaginative and creative beings is not enabling them to prepare themselves for a future that none of us can imagine.’ In my book, I am not looking at these economic and individual aspects of creativity but at how a socially-oriented creativity in especially the social sciences can contribute to addressing global challenges. For this, I distinguish everyday and radical creativity from its elite and instrumentalist counterparts.

Elite definitions attribute creativity to either exceptionally gifted individuals or base it on exceptional outputs, achieved through a combination of hard work and the right context, that are recognized by experts. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is sometimes cited as a proponent of this circumscribed definition of creativity. By contrast, I work with a definition of everyday creativity that is latent in everyone, meaning that everybody has creative capacities that can be developed. Ruth Richards, for example, has shown that originality is found across diverse activities of everyday life, where individuals constantly have to adapt, innovate, be flexible and try out new ideas. What matters is both process and product. According to Ken Robinson, creativity can operate on several levels: from individual creativity expressed in practices that are new for an individual, to social creativity that results in novelty for a particular group of people, to historical creativity that takes humankind and history as its point of reference. It is the later version of creativity that most closely corresponds to elite conceptions, often found in artistic or scientific breakthroughs. Alongside these, everyday creativity celebrates the creative achievements of individuals in the context of their own lives. Correspondingly, Robinson defines creativity as ‘imaginative processes with outcomes that are original and of value.’

In education, everyday creativity is often connected to pioneers in alternative and child-centered education such as John Dewey, Rudolf Steiner and Johan Pestalozzi, who argued that education should draw out the inborn abilities of each child. In the context of adult education, Paolo Freire, whose critical pedagogy is significant for my own critical-creative pedagogy, showed the importance of education engaging people’s natural artistic and creative expressions and harnessing these for personal and social change. More recently, the Creative Academic initiative has identified being imaginative (moving beyond the immediate, obvious, conventional), original (adding to what already exists), exploratory (being open, experimental and flexible), analytical (thinking critically about new ideas) and communicative (often through story telling or visual means) as key aspects of pedagogical creativity. David Staley, in his proposal for ‘feasibly utopian universities,’ argues that creativity entails looking at things from multiple perspectives. This includes mashing up disparate ideas coming from different domains, making unusual and surprising connections across different areas or putting unrelated things together. Similarly, for Ken Robinson, it is about the transfer of knowledge from familiar to unfamiliar domains and the ‘ability to leap out of familiar habits into new idea spaces.’ Such domain bridging can be nurtured in students, all of whom have everyday creative capabilities, even though mainstream education often works against their development. It is important to make creative education inclusive and accessible to different learners, so as to enable all students to participate in creative activities.

Another common definition of creativity I am writing against is the instrumentalist version that connects it to economic competition and corporate growth. Rob Pope, in his far-reaching book on creativity, argues that this narrow conception of creativity emerged in a particular time and place – the mid 20th century West – as a modern response to problems associated with rapid social and technological change. Here creativity aims to bring about scientific discoveries and technological inventions in the service of capital; indeed Pope calls this instrumentalist creativity ‘one of the most prized commodities of capitalism.’ It has led to a human-resources view of creativity in universities, connected to employability, managerial and corporate agendas. Pope presents the 1999 publication The Creative Age: Knowledge and Skills for the New Economy by Kimberley Seltzer and Tom Bentley as a prime example of this approach. The report’s authors argue that ‘to realise the creative potential of all citizens and to boost competitiveness in the knowledge economy, we must make radical changes to the education system.’ Instrumentalist creativity in universities is therefore employment-oriented, economy-driven and governed by market logics, which connects it to current critiques of the neoliberalization of universities.

Against this instrumentalist notions of creativity I follow Sarah Amsler in arguing for radical creativity that works outside of mainstream growth agendas. It can be harnessed to imagine and work towards a number of alternatives I am exploring in the different chapters of my book, which are presenting more radical, heterodox proposals to address current social, economic and environmental challenges. I believe that nurturing students’ creativity and imagination is vital if they are to participate in realizing these proposals. As mathematician and philosopher Alfred Whitehead wrote almost 100 years ago:

A university is imaginative or it is nothing – at least nothing useful. . . . A university which fails to impart information imaginatively has no reason for existence. This atmosphere of excitement, arising from imaginative consideration, transforms knowledge. A fact is no longer a bare fact: it is invested with all its possibilities. It is no longer a burden on the memory: it is energising as the poet of our dreams, and as the architect of our purposes.

‘The Aims of Education’