Between the edges…lies innovation

(written for Nasser, N., Connections: 12 approaches to relationship-based placemaking, 2016)

“What do you do?”  is a question that prompts a deep breath from me.  

I’d always longed to give my answer in one word such as ‘music’ or ‘architecture’ so that people get a quick idea of my skills and experience, but I’ve never managed to.  I typically say:  

“I cross the disciplines of art and urban design, working in the contexts of placemaking, wellbeing and community development.  My background is in fine art but I don’t practice as an artist.  I am an urban designer, arts director, community facilitator and I’m also a PhD researcher…..” .

After the first few seconds of my explanation, I get the feeling my questioner is deciding what to have for lunch.  To make matters worse, after I enthusiastically list the different disciplines and contexts, I haven’t said what I actually do. That would involve further explanation and, quite frankly, I often worry too much about his or her will to live to continue. However, I’m learning that having an eclectic mix of different discipline’s is a good thing and there is a word for it: interdisciplinarian. It’s not a description I can use when people ask me that dreaded question, but it makes me happy nonetheless. 

Interdisciplinary is an approach that integrates the knowledge and skills of the discrete disciplines and makes sense of them in a holistic way, thereby giving a more 360 degrees view.  It is this integration that creates innovation.  The benefits equally apply to an interdisciplinary team (involving people from different disciplines) but I am reflecting on my own experience as an individual interdisciplinarian; how a synergy has evolved and why being between the boundaries of disciplines creates innovation. 

The ‘interdisciplinarian club’ has an impressive history. The renaissance period saw the development of some of Europe’s enduringly loved places, such as Florence, Venice and Bruges. At that time there weren’t the linear pathways through chosen professions. Indeed, the term ‘renaissance man’ refers to a person with varied knowledge or training. Pathways into different disciplines relating to the built environment all overlapped (Crinson. M, Lubbock.J, 1994). Examples of names most associated with that period include Michelangelo (1475 – 1564) who was a painter, sculptor, poet, engineer and theologian; Leonardo da Vinci (1452 – 1519) a painter, sculptor, scientist, musician, mathematician, engineer and astronomist and Filippo Brunelleschi (1377 – 1446) was a ship designer, sculptor, mathematician, engineer and architect.  

The way of working in renaissance times is a long way away from traditional career progressions today, where the accepted trajectory is to specialise in one discipline and progress up each rung of the chosen discipline’s ‘career ladder’. However, things are starting to change.  Certainly in academia, interdisciplinary practice is recognised as an approach to bring innovation in research. Prof. Richard Coles terms this as ‘Hybrid vigour’, comparing the crossing of disciplines to the increased vigour, or other superior qualities, resulting when different plants are crossed together. (Coles, 2015) 

In my experience of built environment projects, the working process isn’t integrated. Although the nature of the work often requires people from many disciplines involved in achieving a particular output, I have found teams work in a multidisciplinary way, rather than interdisciplinary. There may be a shared goal, such as aiming to contribute towards a successful place, but the processes and structures to achieve that are limited to each discipline working within their defined boundaries. There is no space for cross fertilisation of ideas, theories or processes, so how do new ways of doing things emerge?  Every place is unique and so the opportunities, problems and issues are different every time.  An interdisciplinary approach lends itself to being more responsive, and therefore, more effective.  

Recently I took part in a life mapping activity led by Sandra Hall at Friction Arts. On a large sheet of paper I marked out significant events and changes that happened and the people who have influenced those changes, from my earliest memories to the present time. While talking through the map with Sandra, I could see clearly for the first time that the seemingly disparate experiences are inter-connected, and have contributed to what I have found to be a colourful and diverse journey full of inspirational people and experiences.  Most importantly, it was possible to see that everything contributed to where I am now. The exercise wasn’t just focused on education and work; it considered anything that was significant to me.  

My map began with me sitting in a tree. I spent so much of my childhood imagining and dreaming, possibly to the detriment of school homework and exam revision. Memories are of me either sitting in a tree, or playfully exploring the fields around me. I would contemplate the world, relax and be happy; not skills normally considered at school or in the workplace, although they should be. I hadn’t previously thought about how my life outside formal education or work has shaped the career choices I’ve made, but those skills have set the foundations for my learning and way of connecting with the world.  The hunger for formal learning came later and twenty years on that hunger hasn’t yet been satisfied.  

Another early memory was my passion for drawing and painting. When I wasn’t outside sitting in trees, talking to cows, or making dens with my friends, I spent hours drawing. This made me better at drawing than most of my peers, so when I attended secondary school my ability was recognised as gifted. It gave me the confidence to build the foundations for a life long love and a career in the arts.

My late teens were a continuation of playing, contemplating and drawing, however, I wanted to stretch my legs a bit further, so my explorations reached New York where I worked on summer camps and I had a brief spell working in Italy teaching (I use the word loosely) English as a foreign language. I hopped from one experience to the next without any sort of plan for the future. I knew I was supposed to settle down and start being a grown up, however, it was the arrival of my daughter Leonie that generated that desire. Director of Tate Art Museums and Galleries, Maria Balshaw, describes herself after having her first child as being part of the ‘Paula Radcliffe school of women who go faster after they have had children” (Balshaw, 2015).  I, as a single parent, became focused and tenacious. My daughter brought with her the beginning of a fulfilling and purposeful working as well as personal life, the opposite of the career-ending event that was the popular view of the media and government at the time.

The ‘career ladder’ was something I thought I was supposed to climb but each time I moved up a rung or two I deviated off course.  My first grown up job after my daughter was born was an interior design assistant. I was let-loose designing interior schemes for people’s houses and it was great fun, however, I felt the pull towards academic study. It would have been sensible to choose Interior Design as a degree subject, but I chose Fine Art.  Would I encourage my younger self against the idea of studying Fine Art knowing I needed a regular income?  I like to hope I wouldn’t and credit to my parents, they didn’t either.  Luckily the regular income came, and from an area I didn’t know existed when I selected my degree choice: arts development.   

The following ten or so years were a steady progression within arts development, which led to me specialising in public art at Arts Council England. It was public art that brought me to many discussions with property developers, architects, urban designers, landscape architects and local authority officers. I was lucky to have some inspirational people guide me along the way, especially the artist David Patten.  I learned from him how transformational collaborations with artists and designers could be, providing the ‘collaborators’ collaborated with an open and creative mind. I was inspired to learn more about placemaking, which drew me into urban design.  I completed a Masters course and worked as an urban designer in an architects practice.  The change from public sector work to private sector was a culture shock, but an invaluable insight into procurement processes, developer’s expectations and the limited power designers have to approach things differently.  I expected to fit into the role of an urban designer and finally have a title I was comfortable with, but I didn’t.  It was at the time of the financial crash so contracts were scarce and commissioners became more risk averse.  Fundamentally though, I entered urban design to make a positive difference to places for the people who lived or worked there, but we weren’t connecting to those people in a meaningful way. I had been working in the arts for many years and experienced the deep and profound impact the arts can have on people’s perception of themselves and the world around them. For me, this was the missing link in urban design:  the contribution from the people with the local expertise and an understanding, from their perspective, of a place’s identity.  How could designers make changes to a place without understanding what it’s like to live there?   

The majority of the last decade has involved working in different sectors and contexts including urban design; public health and wellbeing; community cohesion and artists’ development, all through working in partnership with artists in some way. I have gradually come to terms with the impossibility of naming what I do. However, it all plays a part in my fundamental interest: that of bringing people together to help improve their locality and quality of life.  

A pivotal moment came when, as part of Creative Health CIC, I directed a creative consultation project commissioned by Sandwell Public Health called Bostin Chats. We were asked to find out what local assets people valued in Sandwell and how it contributed to their wellbeing. The conversations were prompted through arts activity led by artists Justin Wiggan, Karina Thompson, Jamila Walker and Heather Wastie. Most groups mentioned a number of places such as local parks, neighbours and local shops as places they felt safe, relaxed or felt they belonged. However, a group of newly arrived families spoke of their families; faith; inner strength and generosity as their assets.  Some talked of environments from their homeland fondly but their present environment was either not mentioned, or perceived as unsafe and a threat.  The families described what geographer Edward Relph terms as ‘existential outsidedness’, a sense of alienation from their environment and of not belonging.  It was obvious to me that they had the skills and attitudes to make a huge contribution to where they lived, but their profound lack of emotional attachment would make that difficult. I felt compelled to learn more about how a sense of belonging, or lack of, influences how people interact in their everyday environments and what factors can promote feelings of attachment. I then stumbled upon the idea of doctoral research. Now a PhD researcher I am exploring how arts practice can be applied to understand more about emotional connections to a lived place.  It is precisely because I straddle different disciplines that I have the potential to generate new knowledge and make an important contribution to the creation of successful places.  The PhD has also led me to make a step which has taken the most courage: I now practice as an artist. So, I am an artist, urbanist, researcher and, most importantly, a human being who still allows time to daydream. 

Things I have learned from my undulating journey:

  • Serendipity and a freedom to go ‘off track’ can lead to unexpected treasures. My early teens, a period I described earlier as unfocused and playful, gifted me life-shaping experiences. 
  • My personal experience of ‘existential insidedness’ occurred in those early days playing in fields and sitting in trees.  I remember a profound connection to my environment and have not experienced that level of attachment to my place of home since, so it is no coincidence my doctoral study is focused around sense of belonging. 
  • I have embraced the phenomenon of ‘not fitting in’ as a quality I am very comfortable with.  I am no longer trying to find the discipline that will give me a one-word explanation of what I do. 
  • Paradoxically, it is through the quality of not fitting in that I fit into a PhD research environment where innovation and new learning is required.

Balshaw, M. (2015) ‘Job Ladder’, Arts Professional (8 Apr 2016), Available:

M.Crinson. J. Lubbock, (1994) Architecture, Art or Profession? Manchester University Press

Nassani, M. 1997, The Social Science Journal, vol 34, p201-216, Jai Press inc.

Relph, E, (2008) Place and Placelessness, 3rd Ed, Sage