Dancing with systems

Systems thinking underpins our approach to working with our community building homes and thriving neighbourhoods. The problems facing people and places — the housing crisis, climate emergency, loneliness, rapid technological changes etc — are all part of a complex and dynamic system. But systems have leverage points, where a small shift in one thing can produce big changes in others. These leverage points are where finely tuned, strategic interventions can create lasting change with ripple effects that spread far and wide. Donella Meadows — environmentalist, educator and systems thinker writes:

“We can’t control systems or figure them out. But we can dance with them”

This was the departure point for a workshop idea that WeCanMake pitched to run as part of the Open Living Lab Days (OLLD) in Barcelona this September. OLLD is the annual event of the European Network of Living Labs (ENoLL), which Knowle West Media Centre (KWMC) is part of as Bristol Living Lab. Bristol Living Lab is a community of citizens, artists, technologists, researchers, business, and public-sector organisations who come together to create and test new ideas, tools and technologies to address the local and global challenges we face.

The 4-day event was an opportunity for WeCanMake and KWMC to share our ideas, tools and methods with an international audience, to inspire and explore opportunities for collaboration. And so, in mid-September, we hopped on a train from Bristol to Barcelona to encourage OLLD attendees to dance with the systems in a workshop that explored our approach to making regenerative neighbourhoods.

Facilitated by myself (WeCanMake Communications Lead) and Martha King (Head of Arts, KWMC), the workshop invited participants to have an embodied experience of what it feels like to work competitively versus collaboratively, and explore key qualities of a regenerative neighbourhood through moving together and individually. The use of movement in this workshop was inspired by dance-maker and senior advisor at Oxfam, Sandra Sotelo Reyes.

Stepping into the conference space on Barcelona’s glitzy harbour, we wondered how the movement and arts-inspired practices we were going to be utilising in our workshop would chime with some of the OLLD attendees from more data-driven, science and tech Living Labs. Would they be silent when invited to share? Rigid when invited to move? Or raise an eyebrow at our use of pasta as a warm up facilitation tool?

Embodied experience

After creating a contract of care (a tool the KWMCollective often use to ground a workshop in co-created principles that we all agree to uphold throughout the session) and a brief warm up game to get people to experience working competitively vs collectively, we dug into a bit of systems thinking and how we use it to create regenerative neighbourhoods with arts, tech and care. For WeCanMake, this means not to think of housing delivery in isolation, but instead to think about homes as part of the wider fabric of the neighbourhood, and to co-create ways to support communities to thrive.

After screening the WeCanMake documentary, we invited everyone to dream about their own neighbourhoods and reflect on the qualities they’d like to see and feel in a regenerative neighbourhood of the future. Sharing their canvases in small groups, we surfaced a few key ingredients and qualities that make up a regenerative neighbourhood of the future, including: connected, just, green, collaborative, friendly, understanding and inclusive. We also drew upon Leyla Acaroglu’s six fundamental concepts of a systems thinker, to consider how we might shift from the business as usual approach.

“I was touched by the impact of words on your body, and the importance of acknowledging and processing them”

Placing these quality words on the floor, we walked around the room and began to think about how each quality made us feel at an emotional and physical level. Participants created an individual movement for the quality they felt resonated, and began to move independently, and then connected — maybe joining hands, or lightly touching an elbow — to experience this element as part of a system.

“Just start, just move”

“Something that struck me is that we don’t need to wait for the government or NGOs… this starts from people, and we just need to begin. Just start, just move” — workshop participant.

Home is the first infrastructure of everyday life. Home is shelter, safety, stability. The majority of workshop participants might not work in a neighbourhood context like ours, but they all live in a home in some sort of neighbourhood with some sort of community around them.

They had experiences to draw from, which enabled each person to connect with and have an embodied experience of what a regenerative neighbourhood of the future might look like. While everyone in the room was likely aware of the concept of systems thinking, they reflected on the importance of really feeling this at an embodied level.

We thoroughly enjoyed moving with and learning from participants with such different neighbourhood contexts, and to experience these through dancing with the systems, and look forward to continuing working with ENoLL.

“We came here with different ideas, but together we created a common vision that enabled us to grow from disconnected to interconnected” — workshop participant.

Athlyn Cathcart-Keays is the Communications Lead at WeCanMake.