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Imagination: powered by foot

15 July 2015

Some of us are kinetic thinkers, so our imaginations kick in when we start moving around. With that in mind, when we start projects we often suggest people take us on a walkabout in their area as it helps us understand a place from a very local perspective. However, usually, the act of asking people to tell us about and show us important places, services, points of interest and what is lacking in their neighbourhood supports them to see familiar features in new ways. When you are not in a place or looking at a particular feature we imagine it in the same way we always do and it is hard to see it through the eyes of a new visitor but when walking and explaining features our imaginations can begin to see things anew.

So much of what we do as practitioners is about understanding human nature and how humans respond to change. I can be just as resistant to change as the next person, even though I work in an industry predicated on change, so I know that being in a space, moving around it and explaining it to others is a good way to think about things in new ways. This is a familiar tool for teachers: by explaining things to others it can help us to shift and embed thinking, so real learning often involves the ‘doing’ of activities. Our philosophy is about meaningful local participation and it is hard for participation to be meaningful without there being shared information, knowledge and understanding – which we often like to be powered by foot.

We see this all the time when people tell us nothing needs to change and then when we walk around the area together they experience things as if for the first time and this can help shift perspective. We recently went on a walkabout on a project where people felt that the buildings in a particular area were all of the same style whereas as they took us on a tour of their neighbourhood they began to realise that there were many different styles and eras represented; there was some commonality in material but in fact it was the variety of styles that gave the area its special character. It was the act of walking and talking that allowed this new understanding and opportunity for something different to be imagined.

Now, it’s not that something always needs to change – it is just that as humans we are really good at adapting our behaviour to suit imperfect situations rather than imagining shifting something at a bigger scale. We have written before about the power of small change and I do wholeheartedly believe in small change but there needs to be a bigger aim or vision to which all the incremental steps are heading and setting a vision needs a paradigm shift. Firstly to imagine things that could be improved about an existing situation and then to imagine how these improvements can happen. This needs collaboration between local people and the ‘experts’ working on a project so by bringing people together for a shared activity of walking, exploring, learning about and understanding a neighbourhood we begin to build a platform from which this imagining can flourish.

– CG