Subtitle: Imagination taking power

Jason Roberts on imagination: “I like this idea of new ways of thinking”

Jason Roberts is founding Director at Better Block.  I met him a few years ago in the US, and did a fascinating interview with him then.  His work is amazing.  He brings people together to not just reimagine their place, but to also gather and to do something about it.  His work, inspiring communities to do make-overs of their least-loved corners, is a great example of imagination

“We started at Better Block really as this guerrilla, bottom-up place making initiative in our neighbourhood, and then started getting a lot of traction when people saw the work and then developed these open source how-to guides so people could develop their own Better Block projects and we could learn from each other.

We set up several projects around the world and then last year we formed a non-profit organisation, because before that it was open-source, like a club if you will.  We had a for-profit consulting agency that was going in and doing work as well, but then we realised there was a point where we needed to be able to support this broader community engagement process that everybody uses for anything related to city initiatives.

We’re trying to ask the question “How do you change the way people come together to address problems, and how do we work more rapidly, and how do you work with momentum and how do you create invitations that make people want to take part and want to continue taking part?”  It felt to us and to me like the processes we have in place currently are not compelling for people to want to continue to take part.

We see engagement drop around the world, and people feel like they can’t shape their built environments anymore which is an interesting thing because our grandparents and great-grandparents and ancestors before them, all felt like they could in some way bring together or join an organisation or something to help affect their environment.  At this point now there’s been this assumption that everything belongs to somebody else and I just can’t take part anymore because the hurdles are too high.

We started our non-profit in 2016.  We realised that a lot of our work we were having to rapidly fabricate elements to re-stitch the built environment, like fixing the public realm, new benches, new bus stops, planters, bollards and things like that.  So we started getting into digital fabrication, inspired by the work of WikiHouse, and actually there’s a guy at MIT that we worked with as well, named Larry Sass, and he actually did the work that started that idea of the WikiHouse.  He developed a house model himself, a New Orlean ‘shotgun’ house, using CNC processes.  Basically just taking wood, cutting it out into shapes and puzzle piecing it together basically.

We said, “Well if you can use that to build a house, why can’t you use that to build everything else in the public realm?”  Again, the benches, the bus stops, the café seating, all those things.  So we won a grant, we built a library which we have on our website called Wikiblock.   And anyone can go to a makerspace and download these files and start cutting out benches and things like that to start filling in the gaps in the built environment.

We started working closely with refugees in our work because in a lot of the cities we were going to there was depopulation.  We found that we actually had an opportunity to engage this community to help have them rebuild places.  We have a couple of houses now in Akron, Ohio and we’re working to turn them into Airbnbs with the community so that they can show how they can activate these houses again because they had excess housing.  They can help turn them into these destinations that have cultural centres in the bottom and the second floors have rooms to let.  That’s been another project, and then just developing Better Blocks all over the place as well.

How would you assess the state of health of our collective imagination in 2017?

It’s interesting when you talk about that.  I walked into a lot of non-profits where I was in my early 30s and I found out I was one of the youngest people in the room.  That was where I learnt that younger people aren’t taking part like they used to.

One of the things that this older generation would tell me when I’d go in the room was, “We love that you’re a visionary and we’re missing visionaries.  We are great at maintaining things, we’re great at keeping the existing processes in place but we are lacking visionaries.”  When you say about imagination, I think about visionaries.

It’s happening in our leadership roles really specifically, because people want leaders that have vision to take part and I see time again when I look at these public officials and these public offices, I am not seeing the people that are coming out presenting a new vision.  You know, if anything, like Donald Trump, he’s talking about an old vision.

My question is where’s the equivalent of the ‘Elon Musks’ of politics?  Or let’s try going to Mars.  Let’s reinvent the car.  We’ve always been a society that did that.  Maybe what it is, is we’ve created a society now where people are comfortable.  They probably think things are missing, and not to be too cynical about the age we’re in with social media and media in general, but it feels like we’re competing with a lot of things for people’s times and their off-time now.

Even when I ask people to take part in community meetings and things, they’re all like, “The game’s on, I’ve been watching the series” and again there’s a complacency I think.  Oftentimes what drives us to make change is that we’re upset with the way things are.  When people can’t tell what their passion is, well I say it’s often the thing that makes you upset the most about the world, that you wish there was a better way, and your passion is fixing that problem, right?  It seems like people are kind of upset but they have enough distractions.

Or even with social media in general, that hactivist culture we’ve develop where we can send this angry tirade out on line, but we’re not actually going to back that up with some actual getting on-the-ground, rolling up our sleeves and making change.  Especially because they’re getting likes, they’re getting this instant gratification, like, “People agree with me about this anger I have.”

Maybe having polarising people in these places of power now, maybe that’s the thing that will actually get people connected, I don’t know.  But anyways, that’s my thing.  I think we’re lacking visionaries.

One of the things that always really interested me about your approach was that rather than say, “Oh this is bad and this is bad”, your approach is “Meet here next Saturday and we’re going to do something about it.”  How have you seen the work that you do, getting people together for a weekend to do an intersection makeover, how have you seen that impact on the imagination and the sense of what’s possible of the people who come?

There’s an interesting William White quote that says, “What it seems attracts people to places the most, is other people” and another one from Richard Florida which is very similar and it’s something to the effect of “Creative people like to be around other creative people.”

Creativity comes from this intersection of two disparate ideas that happen to cross, and that’s where you get these creative ideas come out, and solutions.  Ultimately we are social beings and we want to connect, we want to have connections.  I feel like what I see in these processes is first of all where we jokingly call it ‘speed dating for communities’.  People want to connect with each other anyways, so they’re getting a chance to do it and they’re getting to know all these resources and skillsets and people and there’s a lot of serendipity,  a lot of accidents.

I can tell you as a musician, some of the best stuff I’ve ever created has been bringing musicians into a room and it’s been accidents.  Any musician will tell you that’s what happens.  Somebody plays something that was wrong, like, that was a really cool direction, you went three quarter time and you went to a minor key and I wouldn’t have thought of that, and let’s go this direction for a little bit.

There’s this spontaneous interaction that allows for this bubbling up of ideas that people would not come up with on their own.  Maybe, “So-and-so’s a construction worker and I’ve always been interested in this, and now we’ve got this problem over here and we’re bringing these ideas together.”  I’ve seen what’s happened out of Better Blocks.  People have changed career paths.

I’ve seen people getting married because they’ve met people that they didn’t expect to run across.  I’ve seen political initiatives get started.  Like, “We want to start a bike movement now” and it’s created a culture behind these things.  You can’t understate the need to have people, especially people from different backgrounds, a) be interacting but b) interacting in some physical way that has a product at the end of it.

Like, “I didn’t know you and we did this thing together, and if we can do that, what else can we do?”  Again, when I talk about how we are trying to change the processes for engagement, it’s really about that.  It’s getting people to realise a) they can make change and b) if they just connect with resources and people in their communities, they’re going to come up with all of these things they’d never even dreamed of.  Which I think comes back to your imagination piece.  Imagination requires other people spontaneously having to rub shoulders.

What’s the importance and the value do you think of boundaries and constraints around that?

Whenever we don’t create constraints things are so open ended and we will spin with the possibilities.  There’s been lots of books that talk about choice, and having too much choice, and you’ve probably heard radio stories about this as well.

People when they buy an apple when there are 10 types to choose from, they’re not sure if they’ve bought the right one, and there’s regret and all these sorts of things.  If there are 2 or 3 choices, it’s easier, it’s quicker for them.  There are all kinds of things that come to bear.  Jack White the musician is pretty interesting on that as well.  He talks about the idea of constraints and only using a drummer and a guitar player.  He was saying I have to continue working in that format, for his band White Stripes, and it’s frustrating and drives him crazy but he keeps producing on it because he knows what those constraints look like.  He can only do these things within this.

I would have said if we don’t create those constraints we’ll spin out of control which I think fosters depression and all other kinds of things because we’re always like, “I should have done this instead, or I should have done this.”  Whenever somebody can create a constraint for you, then you’re like, “Oh cool, I have nothing that’s going to make me feel like there’s no boundaries here.”

If rather than Donald Trump being elected on a platform of “Make America Great Again”, Jason Roberts had been elected on a platform of “Make American Imaginative Again”, what would be the first few things you would do in your first 100 days in office?

That’s a good question!  Well I like the idea of these disruptive industries.  I like this idea of new ways of thinking.  Like I said, as I mentioned earlier, the Elon Musks of the world.  We have these institutions that have been created, like the car industry, and we say this is the way it is and the way it’s going to be and it’s too expensive and requires too much logistics to upend the way we do things now.

I would look at every industry itself and say “Why couldn’t we…”  I mean obviously energy’s the early one, why wouldn’t we change things?  We know we can create far more jobs by moving over to alternative energy sources as opposed to doing what we’re doing now, which is actually creating more harm and damage.  But using that as an analogy, there’s so many areas we could be going down.

We have conservatives in the US that are anti a lot of the public institutions and they’re trying to privatise everything and one of the arguments is that our school system is 150 years old, it was built for the industrial age.  But what I’m really hearing from that is they’re just looking for excuses to defund these things, privatise these things.  But I don’t disagree with their argument.

The funny thing is they’ll apply it to public school but they won’t apply it to energy.  The combustion engine has also been around for 150 years.  So I can agree, you know what, you’re right, education does need to be changed.  But they are far less sincere about what that looks like.  I would want to look at all these industries and be like, “What are the innovations?”  This is the interesting thing.

Especially in the US but probably elsewhere too – people are not looking in their local areas at ideas around the world.  You hear it talked about, “The Finns are doing great work with education”, and some cities will look at that.  You talk about imagination.  I’ll go to a local political event or talk to a local politician, and I’ll say something, like talking about education, “Have you seen what they’re doing in Finland right now?”  “No, we have haven’t really looked at that.”

We continue reinventing the wheel.  Homelessness is an issue here but there are places that have addressed homelessness and have figured several of the major root causes, and we keep applying these other ideas and these other fixes and we’re not saying, “Why don’t we just have a look at what they’re doing?”  I thought it was interesting.

I get asked a lot to present in places like Amsterdam, Vancouver, Melbourne, and these are cities that are always rated as high in liveability and innovative cities and creative cities, and I thought, well it’s interesting because I’m this guy from Dallas!  I am not living in the most innovative and creative city but then that shows you something.

The places like this, they’re willing to look all over the place, and they’re willing to bring in people from all over, that are doing new innovative ideas, to put them in front of people and to say like, “Maybe this is a possibility.”  That is not happening in Dallas, in my city.  I don’t know if it’s happening in your city, but that to me is part of that imagination piece.  It’s bringing new and interesting perspectives from around the globe together to excite and incite people on the ground to be like, “Oh wow, I heard about this group and they’re doing this amazing thing.  Why aren’t we trying this?”

I’ve been to so many presentations where people talk about gentrification.  And there’ll be this PhD that I’m speaking with that had this deep insight into gentrification.  I was in Melbourne, Australia when I heard this.  Then I went to this other group, in Wichita, Kansas, and they had this PhD, and I was like, “Are you guys…” They’re not trading notes!

I’m hearing different angles and different perspectives on these things, and like, “How many people are studying this thing?”  I mean, it’s an important thing to study but there’s probably thousands of people that are, “Oh yeah, I’m writing my thesis…”  Are we trading notes together on this, or are we finding best practice?  Because I’m sure there’s a little bit of that going on, but I’ve been surprised at how many people are building homeless shelters or disaster relief pavilions.

I see so many architecture firms making disaster relief pavilions.  Isn’t there like a common database that we should now be creating that’s telling us the best practices on these things?  And now even Ikea’s got one but I can tell you a couple of organisations in Texas that are building them, and I go to these conventions and I see people doing that.  We’re reinventing the wheel on these places and we’re not sharing knowledge nearly as much as well.

When you go in and do something, you go in as the inspiring, enabling people.  You take your imagination to it with ideas about what you’re going to do.  Where’s the balance between your imagination and what you think should happen there and the invitation and the enabling of other people’s?  How do you make that balance?

With our work, we typically go into a site and we’ll ask what’s wrong, what’s missing.  Here are a couple of things I’ve found.  First of all, people know something’s wrong.  They don’t necessarily know how to articulate though what the problem is.  I don’t even necessarily feel like I’m particularly out-of-the-box thinking.

I look at that world context.  I’m like, “Well I saw this group in Sweden that’s doing this, and this”, and I’m trying to figure out ways that we can replicate some of these things.  But I will say this, because we’ve built so many interventions, maybe two or three are ideas of things that I’ve had to address the area, but we’ll always build the interventions that they talk about as well, that they are realising are problems.

Really all we’re doing are a couple of things that help.  We’re working quickly and we have that deadline, right.  That’s one of the biggest things.  But the second thing I’m doing when I break it down, which is really simple, is I’m just giving people permission to do what they already want to do.  So what’s happening is, I’ll go to these meetings, “Well, we’ve always wanted this and this” and I’m like, “All right, you can do it.  Let’s go ahead and do it.  We’ll do it on this date.”

When you ask me is there some vision or is there imagination, they very much do.  They feel paralysed.  They feel like the obstacles are too high and it’s going to be too hard to do it.  But when somebody comes in, “Oh that’s what you want to do?  Cool, let’s do it on May 1st, and we’ll go ahead and get materials.”  They’re kind of astounded, “Well, like this is actually going to happen…”

This jolts me, and then that’s what gets them.  Once they do it, they’re like, “Oh how about that, and that wasn’t that hard.”  That was how it was for me, when I used to work in the theatre and saying, “If I can get that thing up and operating, well, what else?”  And that’s what turned into the streetcar project, and then that worked, so it was like, “If I can do that with the neighbourhood, what else…” And that made me realise that we had capacity in our own neighbourhoods to do everything we ever wanted to do.  We just weren’t aligning things in the right way to make them address the issues.


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© Rob Hopkins 2017