The Love School Project went through its first, experimental and complex iteration of co-creation and relationship building. It was initiated on very short notice and without any funding support. The University refused access to the chair‘s budget for paying Antony, the project lead in Kenya, which eventually was covered by private donations. The project was executed solely via internet contact through Skype, Whatsapp and email, having limited access in Kenya due to costly data packages, which were also covered by the donations. These extreme constraints led to various restrictions in the work flow and demanded for constant adjustments within the structure and focus of the project, becoming subject to process design themselves. The participating students were mainly in their third semester, thus entering their first big design project and having little to no experience of how a design process should be carried out and how much time should be planned for each task. One could say the project was so unrealistically ambitious that it was doomed to fail – yet it didn‘t.
Despite all the confusion, communication problems, lost Internet connections and (apparently) wasted time, what stood out was the dedication of all the participants. Antony Karori proved to be highly motivated and reliable, giving his best to herd and instruct the children, getting them to interact and participate with the German students. The children worked comparably concentrated and focused, were curious and funny, yet rather shy in the calls, which led us to switch from bilateral exchange to more of a teacher/student approach.
The project itself was very open in terms of what to design and how to find inspiration. In the beginning, we started with the topic “Pi” simply because it is much easier to create concetric, circular shapes in both porcelain and metal, which were the main materials the project focused on. Through the first sessions with the kids and the first shared research results it became clear that the project didn‘t need the “Pi” constraint and it was dropped. For some students, the freedom and openness of the project felt overwhelming, which is a common reaction, coming out of more than a decade of being schooled with structured learning, repetition and following orders. Yet it is the most important challenge the design education offers: to discover personal interests, understand the individual way of working, being confronted with the ego, taking responsibility for one‘s actions, and presenting all of this publicly while learning to understand constructive criticism as feedback to the work but not take it personally. This is the basic skill set designers and artists are being equipped with once they enter the space of the unknown; that‘s where one meets oneself. It is basically the space of empowerment.
The students had to enter this space on several levels, as was introduced in the overall concept: in their own work and approach, in their relationship with children from a very different background, in their role as a reflective practitioner and instructor, within the team of students and in an entrepreneurial role concerning the project and its goal.
Of course, time is always an issue. There could always be more preparation, more time for research, more time for prototyping and so on. On the other hand, one of the strengths of design is iteration and testing and it is obvious, that a short semester project can never compete with a long term research and development project. However, the project offered all the design phases that are typical and necessary for a human centered, socially engaged and realistic project: research and interviews, ideation and prototyping, interaction and co-design, testing and iterations, production and distribution. Above all, the so called soft skills that are crucial for the success of a project with such a sensitive context, were natural to all participants, which is absolutely remarkable.
A very unique characteristic of this project was the double role the students were exposed to; going through a traditional design process with a saleable, low volume production on the one hand and a co-creation design process that takes into account the local access to materials and tools on the other hand, ideally coming up with an idea that is adjustable and works in both contexts. Some mastered the challenge, but more important than this was the reflection about it. Social transformation design projects are fuzzy, complex and often tackle “wicked problems” (Horst Rittel). This project introduced the way of thinking one needs to deal with such challenges.
It was discussed extensively within the group whether, and if, how a workshop in Kenya should be conducted. Trasformation design takes into account the Sustainable Development Goals, among them “Climate Action”. One of the most climate destructive human activities is the extensive use of airplanes. Additionally, the cost of 10 flights plus travelling expenses almost outran the amount we planned to collect for the Love School. Yet, it was not a charity project, but one of social interaction, cultural exchange and making.
Once there was a funding confirmation for workshop materials by the German Embassy in Kenya, and the prohibition by the University to travel due to assumed insecurity in Kenya (although there were no expicit travel warnings announced by the embassy), it was clear that only some of the students were able to finance the excursion privately. Others, due to the University‘s decision and therefore lack of funding, would not be able to go. This fact needs to stressed because it is inacceptable from the student‘s perspective to be denied such a unique and formative experience due to lack of private funding, which equals discrimination. The bureaucratic stasis this institution finds itself in is deeply irritating. A University of the Arts should always be a place of opportunities and support, be involved in avantgarde, innovative, courageous attempts to break boundaries and expand the human experience.
Seven of the ten students participated in the workshop that took place after the official completion of the University project. The goal of the workshop was to build a “House of Ideas”. An open showroom and place of inspiration, maker and community space in which all the objects and tools created throughout the workshop would be integrated. The initial plans for the house included two foldable walls to achieve a semi-open space, a working counter flagged with the clay tiles, upcycled furniture created with the kids and an attached pizza oven which would also serve for burning clay.
This overly ambitious plan for a two week workshop served mostly as a vision and basis of communication with the teachers prior to our arrival and had to be abandoned within the first day on site. One striking observation of the German participants was their gradual adaptation to the given conditions, letting go of their personal vision of accomplishing a certain goal and stepping into the collective experience. The initial intention of the house created a magical energy of flow and adjustment.
Because the Love School Center is based on a temporarily rented space, the structure of the house was planned accordingly. However, with the rocky and hard ground the foundation we had brought from Germany would not survive a re-assembly, thus the house was built at Kangemi Youth School, where the land belongs to the school.
This circumstance led to some confusion as to how and where the workshop should be conducted and to another important observation: we had started the workshop at Kangemi Youth School, inviting the Love School kids to come over. The workshop didn‘t really get momentum, motivation and participation was low, the work stations were spread out and the whole matter was lacking connection.
Once we announced to move the workshop to the Love School, the energy shifted. We were welcome by a cheering crowd of children, tables overflowing with collected waste material and big eyes full of expectation and curiousity. This was the beginning of a deeply touching week of co-working with the kids and staff of Love School. This fact proved our assumption right; for such a workshop to be successful it needs preparation, building relationships and trust. It was of quite some surprise that the children, and even Antony Karori, never really entertained the idea of understanding waste as a resource. After the workshop this understanding clearly had changed; we had successfully introduced the idea of analysing available resources in terms of how they could be upcycled and reanimated for a new purpose.
Reflecting on the potential impact the cooperation could have on a long term vision, what a succeeding workshop should integrate after our first visit impacted the daily challenges the Love School faces, it became clear very quickly that pursuing the goal of buying land was the wrong approach, especially from a design perspective. Instead, it seemed much more rewarding to integrate the fact of limitation and answer with mobility, which was actually already intended with the structure of the house.
When asking the children about a potential next workshop many of them answered… growing food. What a lucky coincidence that those where the plans all along!
-Susanne Stauch, March 2017