The Art of the Possible

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How people work together in a crisis or when they feel something is really, really important is always a good benchmark for the art of the possible in everyday life.

This is particularly noticeable on nationally significant building projects where diverse professionals are basically told to sort themselves out and make it happen – whether it’s a facility for an international event, or a critical piece of national infrastructure. In these contexts, the indulgence of consequence free decision making from fiercely protected professional fiefdoms is deservedly given short shrift. The sharing of creative thinking across conventional boundaries, the embrace of new ideas irrespective of where they came from, and the support of courageous individuals, all make great design more possible. But perhaps the biggest influence is a belief in a collective sense of purpose.

In discussing the difficult birth of a school design recently I had to remind myself that the only reason for the project was to help deliver a great place for learning – not merely to avoid or overcome the immediate issues and complex sensitivities, and not to pass the buck to another professional to resolve. Every design decision taken is ultimately a decision about the lives of children. It is neither naïve nor simplistic to remind ourselves of this – and to say it out loud when the going gets tough.

Perhaps it needs repeating – schools are really, really important. Their successful design requires many agencies and professions to work together for what used to be called ‘the common good’. The challenge therefore is to recognise every school design as a nationally significant building project. Does this mean reinventing the wheel? No. Whilst we rightly debate long term philosophical and pedagogical issues schools are being built – and, in the current context, lots of them. So, embracing profound change, certainly – but leavened by the responsibility to make today’s decisions count in today’s context for today’s children.

Working together, or joined-up working, is justly celebrated because it’s a tool for achieving the best use of resources, for integrating services and optimising benefits. That’s true. But it’s also about better outcomes for children. Why would we not do it? Is it too complex? Of course it is, but only from the viewpoint of grown-ups with job titles. At the simple heart of the matter are the lives of individual children demanding individual solutions.

I will work with anyone who will make it more rather than less likely that the places children learn in are designed with them in mind – irrespective of their age, or which agency is responsible for them, or which profession claims sovereignty.

I once heard collaboration defined as ‘the bringing together of diverse experiences for extraordinary outcomes’. That was said by a lawyer in the oil industry and reminds me that we should take good ideas not only from each other but from anywhere that offers hope.

Published in Children in Scotland Magazine, September 2009


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