I want to talk about experiencing context. I want to investigate what it means to experience something that is really going on rather than what is supposed to be going on. I want to see what happens in practice as distinct to what the theory might suppose.
I am reading the classic book on urban planning by Jane Jacobs, called The death and life of great American cities. As a lapsed economic geographer, I am always drawn to the intersection between economics and space and how in practice these two dimensions work. The first observation, certainly if you are from Sydney as I am originally, is that there is a dark nexus between property developers and urban development. Much has been made about the power of developer influence on government planning, for instance.
In fact, I recall one big developer wanting to concrete over the beautiful Kuring-gai Chase National Park in the north of Sydney to build more multi-dwelling housing! The worst part, of course, is that besides giving the developer more profit and more power, the architecture of said multidwelling housing leaves a lot to be desired with their prefab look and feel.
In the introduction to Jane Jacob’s book, she cites an example of a so-called slum in Boston (in the 1950s) called the North End. To much of Boston, and certainly the city planners, North End was a major slum. Yet when Jane Jacobs visited the place before a future-planned “redevelopment”, she was amazed by the life and vitality of the place. She rang a planning friend who confirmed he thought it was a slum, albeit a slum with pretty good health and socioeconomic statistics behind it. Moreover, her planner friend actually visited North End and found it to have a “wonderful, cheerful street life”, even better in summer.
Jacobs says: “Here was a curious thing. My friend’s instincts told him North End was a good place, and his social statistics confirmed it. But everything he had learned as a physical planner about what is good for people and good for the city neighbourhoods, everything that made him an expert, told him that the North End had to be a bad place” (page 15).
The story certainly tells me how important it is to experience the context. I doubt whether it will always be good enough to just look at the theory, or the statistics, or the expert opinion, without experiencing the context for oneself. More importantly, however, is the finding out about the experience from the people active within it.
It therefore comes as no surprise that in many areas of our professional lives where we have to make decisions, we often rely solely on past experience, our previous training, and the thinking that pervades ourselves and like-minded colleagues. This is quite insufficient. We need to explore other ideas and other people’s views, especially the views of the people involved – the real stakeholders. And if we can break these patterns, either through our own determination or allowing some disruptive thinking to break through from elsewhere, then we can at least look at the world in a different way.
If we can experience context, and include the contextual experiences of those involved, we can make more informed choices and decisions that reflect the real context as distinct from our personal-world-view context.