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Rob’s letter – Grass roots with digital shoots

Maggie Kuhn, the elderly-rights activist, from the Grey Panthers, once said, “Speak your mind – even if your voice shakes.” So this is me, speaking my mind, in public for the first time. And you can probably expect a generous helping of shaky-voice, and maybe a bit of leg-wobbling too!

This letter is to anyone who aspires for an authentic life in society. That’s pretty much everyone then. And because the future is arriving faster and faster every day, this letter-to-the-future is set right now – in this room.

My vision is to use the power of participation to make global challenges more achievable, and more meaningful, in people’s daily lives. And I think there’s some truth in the anonymous quote, ‘To be incrementally better, compete. To be exponentially better, cooperate.’

I was going to present a comprehensive, philosophical journey; starting from the unforgiving and restrictive ‘perfectionism’, towards what I consider a more resilient and sustainable ‘pragmatic optimism’.

I was going to detail how pragmatism is not the same as pragmatic optimism. How ‘pragmatism working alone’ works well for effective and practical thinking. But less so when we want to do something new or something different.

I was going to describe how this led the faithful and philosophers-alike to essentialism’s theory: that we’re all born with an inherent purpose. And how we’re supposed to dedicate our whole lives adhering to it.

I was going to outline how nihilism’s belief in the ultimate meaninglessness of life developes into cynicism’s bad habit of never being surprised when things go wrong.

And how existentialism started cheering us up (by taking us on some negative path to happiness) with the question, “what if we exist first, with no purpose?

Because surely, if the world is to have any of the things that we value, we need to choose to find meaningful ways of putting them there ourselves. Or they just won’t exist.

I was going to talk about this. Then I realised it’s a letter to the future – not an ‘all-of-my-thoughts-ever’ to the future! Extended edition! Plus the outtakes! So instead, I’ll start at the end of the journey: with an aspiration to live life authentically and meaningfully – with the help of pragmatic optimism.

With that said, here’s what pragmatic optimism is not: It’s not wishful thinking, and it’s not a blind leap to faith. It’s scientific enquiry – not overconfidence. It’s taking back agency – not passive acceptance. And it’s a process – not an end-state.

When we idealise an end-state, we fall into the trap of perfectionism. But there’s a paradox: this trait makes us painfully aware that something will never be 100% complete, but at the same time, it’s perfectionism that tells us to strive for this thing that is, by definition, unattainable.

In a paper on education, Neville Scarfe says, “playing is the highest form of research”. When I drew and built things as a kid, I’d throw away countless incomplete attempts, because each and every single step in the process wasn’t perfect. Learning to embrace imperfection is like embracing uncertainty, which can be discouraging; how do we get passed this?

As a design student, I was taught that design is a process for achieving a solution; for products; for services. But today, more and more people are figuring out that the process-itself can be the solution.

This means that: if designers work with people to understand, prototype, test, and refine toolkits (for sense-making and problem-solving) rather than ‘pretty products’ and ‘slick services’, then we can put people in direct and active control of satisfying their own needs.

Today, I work as a designer at a cities consulting company. We get asked to answer questions that – to some extent – impact people’s lives.

I started with a pretty low opinion of consultants; swanning into various places; bestowing their bullshit (I mean valuable knowledge), upon suckers (I mean clients). Thankfully, there are some exceptions.

And it is here that contribute to developing a more people-centred approach to city engagement. What’s clear is that, when these workshops create the right social conditions for people to need each other (with their varied backgrounds and expertise), they can come up with comprehensive ways of tackling – not just individual issues – but the city’s truly shared challenges.

Sometimes though, we focus so much on climbing the mountain, that we forget to even turn around and look at the view.

Throughout our lives, we accumulate knowledge, we develop experience, and we formulate wisdom. But it’s only ever significant if we actually use it for something beyond ourselves. So what is it all for? While promoting the importance of personal agency, autonomy, and legacy, let’s also figure out how we distribute our knowledge, experience, and wisdom; for a collective legacy.

So what next? How can we connect people’s individual needs with global development goals? Participatory platforms for engagement? These are the kinds of questions that I struggled to answer on my own, with a website that I use to map patterns of participation. Although it started as a place to advocate other people’s ideas (after properly experiencing participation at my first LOPO Lab) I knew that my-little-digital-corner-of-the-world would see a lot more original ideas being formulated, based on what we actually do here. Together. Face-to-face. And that’s what I mean with, ‘grass roots with digital shoots’.

When we – as people – come together, we can start to build consensus. Or at the very least, we build resilience for difference.

And as we continue to develop our own patterns of participation, we can advocate and, perhaps even go as far as facilitate other people’s projects.

But, ultimately, we can start to directly and actively co-create, by using the power of participation, for making global challenges more achievable and more meaningful in our daily lives.