...in the bottom drawer
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currently stashed in: Cheshire Street, London
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January 04, 2006 || 11:50 pm
New Year's reflections

It's been interesting reading over at WorldChanging about people's New Year's snapshots of their work. Today I particularly appreciated Zaid's honesty about the dilemmas his day job gives him.

We all, of course, have days where we wake up and wonder whether what we are doing has any importance at all in the scheme of the world. That is, those of us who don't do something really obviously necessary, like being a postman or a farmer (my personal pet fantasy). Zaid's dilemma about whether trying to achieve change in institutions and systems that are so huge and slow that it's like pushing the proverbial ocean liner is a worthwhile way to spend time or carbon dioxide rings true to me also, in some ways.

Admittedly, I don't deal with problems anywhere near the scale of 100 million children - but still, the effort we put into trying to work with people and institutions that are often so inimical to imagination, new ideas or even the acceptance of old truths sometimes feels like paddling against the tide. At the other end of the scale, I often find inspiration from, and sometimes carry out, small, quick projects that can have a real and satisfying impact - like building a very small house for a very poor woman, or even a tiny symposium that causes the mayor of one major city to say it changed his life. And of course some of the tiny ones turn into biggies - like the play and art strategy that turned into redesigning the whole public realm for one of London's most major developments - although even here, it will take years to find out whether all our hopeful ideas make the slightest bit of difference.

These experiments in 'making a difference' are all so long-term; it's a big leap of faith to retain one's belief that a handful of energetic people in a tiny office can really make better bits of city. As an office, we dither philosophically between a tactical mode of operation that's about targeted, often temporary interventions - publicity stunts even - that can trigger paradigm shifts and prompt debate, and the more embedded efforts at affecting the course of major public projects or institutions. At our strategy away-day next week, I'm sure this is the biggest issue that we will be talking about as we try to plan our way to becoming more successful both as a business and in 'doing good things'.

We all have our ways of rationalising these debates. When I get really stuck I like to re-read what the fantastic artist group Wochenklausur write about their work here, in response to a FAQ about whether their projects are "simply "Band-Aids" that fight the symptoms but do nothing to change the status quo".

This can be illustrated through the problems faced by a wheelchair user. If he cannot make it up the stairs because there is no lift, then he can be helped if two strong arms take up his cause. But this feeds the criticism that a general solution to the problem is being put off. The landlord sees that one can do without a lift after all and avoids an expenditure. Accordingly, it would be better to leave the wheelchair user on the stairs and start a political petition instead of helping him. Or one can help him and at the same time demand that a lift be installed.

The small actions matter; the big ones too. Phew - I can put off the existential crisis for another day. And when I really decide it's all useless, I'll become a farmer.



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