Deep Practice

BEFORE

How do you prepare for deep practice? I immerse myself in a space that is tantalisingly intricate in form and content, taking agile steps from the one to the other. I approach the challenge before me by mind-mapping trajectories through a field of tensions, drawing new connections and provoking new tensions logically, linguistically, creatively. I grasp for the structure that will set my thinking free; only an approach “that rigidly excludes the usual way of relating the parts of a proposition could achieve the goal of plasticity.”[1] This is a highly individual experience, and clearly a personal delight – and yet it’s not unfamiliar to you. You relate it warmly to your own highly idiosyncratic mode of writing and diagramming. You crave that reconciliation between your deep creative space, and the structures and requirements of your everyday practice. If I am to immerse alone, I have no need of a framework – “Ah, but only one is a wanderer. Two together are always going somewhere.”[2] The moment we wish to collaborate, we are compelled to map common ground, create sets of rules, design flexible structures. We must create our own conditions as we go; we must experience the tensions and grapple with what is at stake; we must plan unintended consequences. For two days we will navigate surface and depth with increasing alacrity, now emerging with bold treasures, now proclaiming the discovery of new species, now decrying the system and evoking the other. Our dialectical movement is a complex one. It is spatial: it describes a work place, a creative context, a physical environment. It is cultural: it makes value judgements, it prioritises sets of practices above others, it requires a language. It is political: it undoes fixed hierarchies, it questions existing work modes, it challenges economies and systems. In coming together, we affirm our commitment to the deep practice we will engage in together. We seek a space where deep practice can be conceptualised, and we make a space where deep practice can be achieved. “This is how space begins, with words only, signs traced on the blank page.”[3]

AFTER

And so we emerge. Immersed for two days with dozens of co-conspirators and potential collaborators, we found ourselves largely like-minded in spirit – yet divergent in disciplines and values. We marvelled at news of innovation and stories of explorative process; we were frustrated by current organisational, academic and funding models; we longed for the time, space and validation to pursue more deep practice of our own. We spoke articulately and passionately because each of us was drawing on a common experience: having to create the conditions for our practice as we go, experiencing and working through its inherent tensions and grappling creatively with what’s at stake. Each one of us – writers, architects, designers, academics, scientists, engineers, company directors – create and sustain the conditions from which we and our colleagues can plan unintended consequences. Each one of us as provocateurs and practitioners, thinkers and leaders.

Two role models in particular led by example – not merely throughout the two days, but importantly, throughout the preceding decades, as well as through the conditions that had premised our gathering. Mark Burry: deep practitioner. Terry Cutler: polymath facilitator. By virtue of our connections with Terry and Mark we had gathered, and yet this was no contingency. This was in no way incidental to the content or the success of the symposium. Indeed, it was pivotal – and remains pivotal. In brainstorming contemporary role models for deep practice, it was essential that we would negotiate the means for crossing disciplinary boundaries in order to communicate our role models to one another. In doing so, we experienced the emergence of a common language, a common approach to evaluating those disciplinary leaders who leapt with confidence outside of their disciplinary boundaries and communicated their findings with passion, relevance and urgency. As a group, we had not put forward the names of deep practitioners working remotely in sheds or mountain huts; instead, we had identified the need for more polymath practitioners to extend their deep expertise into inspiring and evidence-led leadership. This is what Mark and Terry have achieved in bringing us together. We are now the champions of deep practice. But what are we championing?

Design thinking and design leadership: our next steps must be to bring these two modes together. Our framing documents had playfully posited a manager-enemy of straw, too remote from the coalface to work creatively. The facilitative leader, on the other hand, creates hubs of innovation composed of multiple elements and flexible infrastructures. Like the producer model of the independent arts, the polymath facilitator is resourceful, responsive and well-respected. Both practitioners and champions are needed to push for frameworks and resources, as well as facilitating deep practice. Each one of us must combine them in our practice, even while we seek new ways to practice and new depths to accommodate. Breadth of practice, depth of engagement; deep practice, polymath facilitation. In having gathered, immersed and re-emerged, we reaffirm our commitment to the leadership we will develop together.

 

[1] Hegel, G W F. Phenomenology of Spirit (1807), trans. A. V. Miller, Oxford University Press 1977; §64
[2]Vertigo (1958). Director: Alfred Hitchcock. Screenplay: Alec Coppel, Samuel A. Taylor.
[3] Perec, G. Species of Spaces and Other Pieces (1974), trans. John Sturrock, Penguin 1999; p.13


Written for RMIT Design Research Institute Symposium II Deep Practice: deepening knowledge and innovation through design practice. March 25 and 26, 2011. Curated by Mark Burry and Terry Cutler. The first symposium in the series of three was entitled Designing solutions to wicked problems: a manifesto for transdisciplinary research and design. The third symposium is yet to come.