Contemplative Inquiry and Design Charrettes

The past 10 days I’ve been learning about two activities that are, at least at first glance, quite different, yet remarkably similar: Contemplative Inquiry and Design.

From August 4-6 I was learning the NCI Charrette System at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design. The system is based on a model of collaborative inquiry into the needs and constraints surrounding large community development projects. Although the primary driver of most charrettes is sustainable urban design, I believe the system has the potential to be used for developing social programs and responding to community needs.

The NCI Charrette model involves a multi-day gathering of stakeholders, a research team and the media to explore the research and issues pertaining to a particular project with the aim of developing a preliminary plan for moving a development forward. The entire process often takes place over months with the actual Charrette lasting between 4 and 9 days consecutively in most cases. It is very much akin to the Deep Dive process that design firm IDEO has developed to get into an issue and develop a design response that meets the needs of a client. NCI’s Bill Lennertz describes the Charrette as a:

[A charrette] is a little like a combination of a New England town meeting and a barn-raising.

What is key in the charrette process is focused engagement on a topic by a large group of concerned people who are seeking transformation of their community.

That exact experience was realized in a very different format in the Contemplative Mind Institute’s Summer Curriculum Development Program held 2 hours West in Northampton, MA from August 8-13. This five-day intensive retreat was designed to support post-secondary education faculty in developing or enhancing contemplative inquiry practice within their courses. The remarkable faculty combined with a well-designed curriculum and equally remarkable learners spent a week working together to examine what contemplative inquiry could offer the academy. I was struck by the overlap between the two events, particularly when presented with a history of architecture and its professional parallels with contemplative inquiry from Peter Schneider of the University of Colorado – Denver.

Design is the result of two things: reflection and invention — Vitruvius 1.2.2

The charrette process invokes a spirit of invention while focusing on the research produced to inform its products, while contemplative inquiry utilizes reflection as means of unlocking creativity. Both of these ‘systems’ require active, dynamic engagement between the individual (or group) and the content being considered. Charrettes are no more planning groups than contemplative inquiry is deep thinking. Both of them go beyond the surface towards something much deeper.

Where the two sit in stark contrast is the pace and cadence of activity. A charrette is a furious process that draws in and pushes out an enormous amount of information in a remarkably short period of time. Contemplative inquiry seeks to reduce information “noise” to achieve a level of clarity on a specific topic. It is quiet and is not beholden to man-made time constraints.

Yet I cannot help but consider how these two processes can work together in designing better systems for humans to live, work and play in. Imagine a process of contemplative inquiry where plans, renderings and ideas are not just discussed and modified collectively, but also thought about in a deeper way that gets beyond the content to the feelings and values that underlie them. Consider what might be accomplished if site tours and sketches or renderings were treated to the same type of contemplative beholding that art historian Joel Upton instructs his students to do. Could we do this with photos or videos to capture the lived experience of communities while offering opportunities to go beyond the content towards something more meaningful?

It seems to me that we can and, if we are to address issues of such complexity like health, social justice, environmental sustainability, and systems change overall, we might have to.

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