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Design Territories: Discovering Opportunities for Design Initiatives

Learn about barriers and approaches that enable communities to become impassioned to drive design initiatives.

One of the key obstacles community groups face is that they are burdened by a wide range of complex and pressing challenges. In historic places of worship, this may the deterioration of the building’s fabric, the lack of time or volunteers to look after or run activities in the building, financial limitations, inadequate heating, or lack of facilities that would allow them to serve their faith community or other people in need.

In the Empowering Design Practices project, the team encountered situations where although a building was used, or had a potential to be used for a variety of activities, the religious leader and congregation decided to close it and sell it, for lack of incentive or capacity to take a design project on. In other places, custodians reported a state of fatigue or stagnation due to the difficulty of moving conversations forward or making sense of what is needed to be acted upon and in what way.

Many places were asking for support to develop their community-based initiatives. They needed someone to facilitate the sharing, communication and prioritisation of such challenges.

The response

In response to the above situation, the research team together with places of worship across the UK worked on the hypothesis that people are driven by developing a sense of opportunity that has a direct link with what they value and are able to practically do and achieve. These opportunities may come as responses to perceived challenges, but may also be linked to ‘assets’, that is elements of a place – in terms of people and practices, built or natural characteristics, stories and histories of a place – that are considered to hold value.

Based on this premise, the role of the enabler is to help create spaces for a community to reflect, experience and re-imagine their place in new ways, by moving beyond challenges to discover what they value and what opportunities they can embrace.

Practically, this is about providing the time and the space for people to explore and discover connections between different views of challenges and assets, to create the opportunities. It is about creating what we call a ‘design territory’.

In the case of St Martin’s Church in Bilborough, this territory was created around the discovery of the mural. This discovery was a catalyst for unearthing connections of people with the building, their memories and history of the place. It was these connections that generated a sense of opportunity and an impetus for action.

Every design territory has a ‘valued epicentre’. In St Martin’s church this was the mural. In other places it was the idea of a ‘chill-out room’ for young people, a gardening activity for people with mental health issues, the idea of a “safe haven” for an ethnic community group. These epicentres inspire and trigger the imagination of people, but also crucially to motivate them to connect to one another and to take initiative (i.e. develop leadership). As one community member put it: “it opened our eyes to the possibilities”.

How it can be done

Opportunities, and the formation of a design territory, can be a random discovery or can be uncovered and generated through a structured process such as a workshop. Below is a general approach that has been used across many places. It resembles a board game that can be carried out in the form of a workshop (or series of workshops).

The intention/purpose of the game is to discover and outline territories of design work using three sets of cards: ‘challenge cards’, ‘asset cards’ and ‘opportunity cards’.

The challenge cards:

People can use ‘challenge cards’ to capture something they personally perceive as a challenge that compromises something of value for them. Each player, needs to share their challenge with the group and connect their challenges in relation to other challenges (either ones they identified or that someone else has put forward). This will create a tapestry of connected challenges as you seen in the image below. As a group, it is important to discuss and identify challenges that appear to be the roots of other challenges. So for instance, financial challenges may be thought to be the result of lack of expertise in fundraising, or lack of time to seek for funding. The lack of facilities such as toilets or a kitchen area may relate to other spatial challenges such as lack of space, or limitations relating to the heritage listing of the building. Note: Some challenges are clearly about the limitations of the place while others about the limitations in changing a place.

The asset cards:

People can use ‘asset cards’ to record elements of a place that they value, or that have the potential to create something of value. This can be people, practices, spaces, histories, elements of the built or natural environment. Again, it is important to describe the assets and connect them to other assets.

The opportunity cards:

‘Opportunity cards’ can be used to capture ideas on how to achieve something of value by connecting, mobilising and developing assets to respond to challenges. Each opportunity card is therefore connected to a set of challenges and assets. This set describes an area of design work (i.e. a design territory) with capabilities to achieve something of value.

Here are some examples of challenges, assets and opportunities maps (the red colour is used for challenges, green for assets and blue for opportunities):

Example of challenges, assets and opportunities map 1

Example of challenges, assets and opportunities map 2

Overall, it may be useful to think and organise this discovery activity in relation to other practices, events or experiences. This could be for instance through walks or storytelling sessions. It can be combined with the use of ‘postcards’ sent to people you’d like to engage (e.g. a neighbour, funder, policy maker) inviting them to describe their connection to the place and what they value in it.

Reflect on challenges, assets and opportunities

  • Can you list some examples of tangible and intangible assets that you can find in a place?
  • Can the same thing be a challenge and an asset? Can you give an example?
  • An opportunity can be an idea for action, or a principle for action. Can you think of some examples?
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Enabling Community-Based Leadership in Design: Sustainable Development of Historic Faith Buildings

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