500 Words

Confessions of an Engineer

The following post was written by James Norman, a BILT Fellow and Programme Director for Civil Engineering.

About a year or so ago I was invited to give a very short talk at Knowle West Media Centre on divergent thinking as some food for thought at the start of a workshop. I proceeded to read to the audience the children’s books ‘Stuck’ by Oliver Jeffers and ‘Shhhh We Have a Plan’ by Chris Haughton (I can’t remember now if I did the voices I do when I read it to my children or not!). The idea was to challenge people to think divergently by using a divergent approach to giving a talk. The workshop that followed my talk, looking at the housing crisis in Knowle West, was interesting but felt distinctly non-divergent.

Following the talk, we were taken to a near by community centre where architect Craig White was building his solution to the housing problem in Knowle. It was a straw-bale house on wheels, designed specifically to sidestep planning laws and provide low-cost housing solutions to people who need it most. I was blown away. Craig discussed a number of practical solutions, none of them really relating to architecture but instead looking at micro-financing and making the houses affordable and accessible to people on very low incomes. I wanted to get involved. To be part of this amazing project. The only problem was, there was no engineering to be done. No concrete to specify, no steel to check for buckling. The engineering was so simple as to be trivial. I’ll be honest; I felt crest fallen. What can I possibly bring to a project like this I thought. I don’t understand finance, or local politics, or planning law. I am an engineer. I know how to make things stand up. Deflated, I went home and thought little more of it.

A straw bale house
A straw-bale house. Credit: White Design

But over the coming year or so my thoughts keep coming back to that project. I am challenged by Craig’s desire to tackle the problems that sit outside of his own discipline. To solve them with creative solutions. I am confronted with my own limitations. The fact that I am limited by my discipline. But what separates Craig and I is not a skill set, but his willingness to step beyond that. To see a problem and then learn and play until a workable solution exists. And yet, I would argue that engineering is not about solving maths equations or deriving formulas, it is, above all else, about pragmatically solving problems. And yet I have failed to grasp that in myself. I have become lazy in my thinking, limiting myself to problems that feel comfortable and within my skill set to solve. I am, as the boy in Oliver Jeffers’ book, stuck. I have fallen into the same trap as so many others, thinking convergently when only divergent thinking will do. Only now does the irony hit me, that those people in the workshop, who I secretly felt disappointed by, were me. That I was them. Convergent. Playing it safe.

But if education is really about life long learning then I should be willing to have another go. This moment of reflection shouldn’t stop at self pity, or self realisation. But should lead to action. To learning what is necessary to solve the problems ahead.

And so I plan to try again. To try and step beyond myself. To learn new things to solve problems. I’ll let you know how I get on.    

Notes:

For more info on the straw-bale house on wheels see: http://kwmc.org.uk/projects/wecanmake/

For good bed time reading to your children and deep philosophical challenge for yourself I can highly recommend both ‘Stuck’ and ‘Shhh We have a Plan’.

Intrigued to see what a lecture given in the medium of children’s books might look like? You can see James’s Best of Bristol lecture here: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=qWlFNt6b4Sw&feature=youtu.be

500 Words, News

Is There Any Link Between Design Thinking and Essays?

The following post was written by James Norman, a BILT Fellow and Senior Teaching Fellow in Civil Engineering. 

It’s strange how a number of unconnected events can form an idea in your mind.

This weekend I stayed with my sister and we watched the film ‘Blood Diamond’, a harrowing film made in the early noughties about the illegal diamond trade. We started discussing the role of the press and, at a more meta level, the film industry, who were indirectly profiting from the same trade through film profits. It reminded me of a magazine I read a few years back called ‘Colors Magazine’. Each issue focused on a specific concept and the one that came to mind was Issue #86, which is all about making the news. In it there is a page on war photography, which included a harrowing photo seen in many newspapers. The magazine presented it by covering most of the photo and leaving just the part of the image widely presented in the press visible. Turn the page and you see the whole photo; it is a different story. Gathered around the incident are dozens of journalists and photographers capturing the moment. It is a shocking moment.

Fast forward a couple of days and I had the pleasure of meeting Ann Padley. Ann is a teaching fellow who works on the new innovation programmes and specialises in design thinking. As a designer of buildings and a teacher of people who design buildings, I would like to think I know a thing or two about design thinking. But it turns out there is a lot more for me to learn. Over a rushed lunch we discussed problem solving, problem definition and redefinition. We discussed narrative as well as more empirical ways to come to design decisions. We talked about the importance of active listening in problem definition. And we talked about something I have been struggling with, how do we differentiate between outcome and process? Is it possible for a student to successfully go through a design process but come up with a less successful solution and probably more commonly a successful solution without going through a successful design process (or at least unable to articulate the design process- something I have struggled with as an engineer across my professional career because it is actually really hard to do and requires a lot of practice)? Ann described the methods they use to set and assess design problems which don’t just focus on outcome but focus on the successful implementation of design processes.

Later that same day I spent a very enjoyable hour talking to Zoe Backhouse, one of the BILT student fellows. Our conversation was wide-ranging but covered different forms of assessment. We discussed the essays that she had written, and it started to occur to me that what is presented in an essay, much like the photos in the newspaper I mentioned at the beginning, is the story that we choose to tell. But what happened to all the other stories? How do we know that we have presented the right one?

These thoughts linked me back to my conversation with Ann. I realised that design thinking is not just important for designers but for anyone who is given a problem (or title) and then has to deconstruct the problem and find what the real problem is before deciding on the solution (when there are many possible solutions). Maybe not just engineers, but all of us would benefit both from learning to articulate not just the solution, but how we got there. The narrative around the solution. The options we considered and discarded. And maybe not only would we benefit from articulating this but also from discussing it with our friends and tutors. To receive feedback (or more precisely feedforward) not just on the output but on the processes through which we have gone to arrive at the solution (or essay).

Ann Padley is a Teaching Fellow in Design Thinking 3 days a week and is an independent consultant on design thinking for her other work days.

Zoe Backhouse is a final year student on the four year masters degree in Liberal Arts, she is a BILT student fellow and a fledgling zine maker. Zoe would welcome any musings, poems, doodles or cartoons from students & staff about your experiences of assessment at Bristol Uni. If you’re a student, you’ll get a £25 Amazon voucher for whatever you contribute! Email zoe.backhouse@bristol.ac.uk for more details.

Colors Magazine Issue #86 ‘Making the News’ published April 2013.