How can American Pragmatism support community led design?

Recently, as part of the AHRC Connected Communities Bridging the Gap research project, we participated in workshops at Keele University and the New Vic Theatre, exploring bridging the gap between academic theory and community reality and applying an American Pragmatist approach to do this.

What exactly is American Pragmatism?  In a nutshell, the complex philosophical movement explores ideas around obtaining knowledge through experience – the belief that ideas should not just to be reflected on but must be put in to action, evaluated and developed by experiencing things.

So, what has this got to do with design for the built environment and community led design?  How can this be tangible and what can communities draw from their experiences?

American pragmatists also discuss the importance of ‘human community’ in order to counterbalance ‘individualism’, including aesthetic experience, human behaviour and social value.

At the conference, a range of academic and community members shared their different perspectives on obtaining knowledge through experience, bridging the gap between people, and enabling academic knowledge to be relevant to communities, through addressing:

•    what enables or inhibits people sharing and networking (transferring knowledge, encouraging social interactions, approaching problems, and sharing understanding)?
•    creating spaces that enable a shared language and social hub environments as well as stimulate creativity and widen communication;
•    people creating stories about the place that they live in, with different ages and cultures coming together;
•    the role research can play in bridging the partnerships of NGOs and corporations in community involvement.

The afternoon ended with an interactive Design by Consensus workshop, run by Glass-House Chief Executive Sophia de Sousa, where participants explored different stakeholder roles in the design of a space.

Stakeholders communicated their priorities and needs, as well as negotiated with others, to create a vision for their space, which resulted in 3 very different outcomes: local services with a social focus; a vibrant space with a focus on solutions for intergenerational activities; and a community led focus informed by action research, a collective vision and stewardship.

Glass-House beneficiaries, Lois Muddiman and Helen Thompson, attended the workshops and provided a synopsis of how this exercise had helped them with their community led design project for Cutteslowe Community Centre in Oxford.