TEDxLondon 2011: Education Revolution

TEDxLondon: Education Revolution

Here we are again, one year later at another TEDx London event. This time the topic moved from the Millenium Goals to another no less ambitious: Education. To begin with the choice of venue couldn’t have been more appropriate considering the frequency with which the theme had been discussed in relation to creativity, engagement, experience and so on. The organizers competently transformed the Roundhouse in a (surprisingly comfy) auditorium hosting an audience of nearly a thousand people who came to witness what the speakers had to say about a supposed educational revolution, and specially in relation to Sir Ken Robinson’s views – him, a creative expert who led the British government’s 1998 advisory committee on creativity and cultural education who, back then, coordinated a comprehensive inquiry into the significance of creativity in the educational system and the economy.

In his introduction note Sir Robinson called for a thorough rethink of the educational system in the UK and beyond. He highlighted the necessity to transform the processes through which kids are taught in schools based not on a mechanic approach but one that is, according to him, personalized, creative, inspiring and which, above all, meets the community needs in the context of 21st century ‘modern economies’. So, the panel comprised of 17 speakers was, to a considerable measure, assembled to support this particular view. One that is useful as it helps to establish a clear line of sight separating the old paradigms from new alternative routes. To which extent these talks and the ideas they bring about offer effective alternatives or, at least, point to new possibilities is something that needs to be further examined.

Sir Ken Robinson calls for an overhaul of the education system in the UK

Let’s see for example the coalition government’s new policy in relation to educational reform in the UK. This month 24 new free schools set up by teachers, charities, education experts and parents will start operating in the country under a state-funded plan. The education secretary Michael Gove maintains that by handing power to the community to manage their children’s schools they are offering an opportunity to improve the level of education in areas where the current system is failing. The curricula is collectively agreed and built by all stakeholders and decisions concerning the budget are made independently from local governments. He also claims that prior to the set up of free schools, a very rigorous assessment process is put in place to ensure that the community have the necessary capabilities and resources to run them efficiently and with tangible gains over the current system. Despite Sir Robinson’s calls on educational reform bearing some semantic similarities to the Tory’s policy they pose several problems in my opinion: the first one is the availability of expertise to run the schools – remember the socio-economic divide between the north and south of England, for example. One cannot assume that adequate human resources are evenly distributed across the country, which would only exacerbate the problem and ultimately see schools closing down and as a result students would be left with fewer or no options available.

Head Teacher Mike Foley on an interview for BBC Radio4 demonstrated his preoccupation with the tendency of free schools to increase skewed intakes of students. According to him some catchments could attract a high number of privileged pupils whereas others would become pockets of underperforming students. “Motivation drops, and aspiration drops as well. In the end that will have an effect on results and it’s a downward spiral,” Mr Mike claims. Furthermore, the rhetoric employed by the government where words  such as ‘competition’ and ‘choice’ are extensively used is a clear indication that they are unashamedly pushing their neoliberal agenda in a dangerously haphazardly way. The fear is also that the privatisation of education would become only one step away since more deregulation and state withdrawal would be very likely to follow in the future should the government continue to pursue its current programme.

The other problem is the basis on which these special curricula will be designed. If on the one hand parents and students have more freedom to decide what they want to learn on the other governments loose the capacity to coordinate policies that, in theory, should aim at reducing inequality and offer stimuli in areas that are critical to socio-economic development. This assumption is based on the incapacity (or unwillingness) of free markets to self-regulate, contrary to what Friedmanite doctrine advocates. Another motive for worry is the religious affiliation of some communities and how that would filter through children’s education creating further polarization between social groups and communities as it currently happens in many parts of the United States.

The panel of speakers: students, practitioners and thinkers

Considerations such as the above were not discussed during the TEDx event for the simple reason the organization tries to be as neutral and non-partisan as possible, even when discussing a topic that is so intrinsically political such as education. Instead, the speakers presented cases and initiatives connecting creativity and technology with new possibilities for modes of learning and, to a certain degree, a concern with an epistemological question of what the new generations can/should learn. The points presented during the event were certainly valid: children, specially in deprived areas (and not only in the UK) have been increasingly disengaged despite the efforts made by policymakers and teachers either because the methods used in the classroom are failing to capture students’ imagination or because they feel the subjects taught are unrelated to their everyday lives – one example being the importance of ICT in young people’s attitudes toward information and socialization.

Goldie's anthem Inner City Life: from drum'n bass to education

DJ, producer and Jungle/Drum’n Bass godfather Goldie explained how he had had “an education out of school”. It was only when he dropped formal education and had the time to pursue his vision, in this case artistic expression, that he fulfilled his potential as an individual. He went on saying that his ideal of a schooling model would be so outrageous but every kid would nonetheless want to study there. His point, i.e. the combination of creativity and exploration as fundamental components of learning, was recurrent in most of the speeches during the day. The experiential element in these processes was gracefully demonstrated by scientist and filmmaker Max Whitby in a fun experiment involving a tin foil box and a tank filled with invisible gas, which ended with him inhaling it and delivering his last lines in a rather cartoon-esque voice. Tim Exile, also a musician, delivers an on-flight performance followed by a quick talk on his artistic practice where he highlights the importance of spontaneity in the process of learning/creating. Finally, Jude Kelly, artistic director of the Southbank Centre, advocates the urgency in putting creativity into the heart of the learning experience and as a means of community-building through the involvement of its members in art-oriented activities.

Other discussions gravitated around issues like the decentralization of learning mechanisms and the transcendence of physical spaces (read schools) in favour of mobile, technology-supported platforms where knowledge can be simultaneously assessed and built. However, the talk that grabbed my attention the most was delivered by Ewan Mcintosh. He elegantly raised the question of a paradigmatic change based on not simply equipping students to be able to deliver solutions but, instead, to encourage them to interrogate what the problems that need solving are in the first place. In that he understatedly makes a call for establishing a new angle based on activities where individuals are, therefore, not problem solvers but  “problem finders” rather. I think he grasped the true nature of the challenge that awaits the future generations. That’s why, in my view, the ‘problem finders’ concept pretty much sums up the most relevant issues traversing education which, in turn, should lead to other critical, and even more urgent, debates which converge to ontological questions and the grand-narratives of the future, i.e. the long-term vision for genuinely sustainable economies at both national and global levels, and a viable, more equitable social contract that can promote truly functioning societies.

The educational revolution as discussed at TEDxLondon is relevant, but only insofar as it takes the opportunity provided by the severe shake-up of the  current economic foundations to ask fundamental questions about what kind of education we want and for what purposes? In other words, thinking of a future narrative that is progressive in a revolutionary way. The talks therefore provided a glimpse into a new scenario marked by technology, creativity and space for free-thinking. However, in the light of a chronic economic crisis battering developed countries new forms of education predicated on developing economies under more or less the same paradigms (e.g. factor-driven, efficiency enhancers and innovation-driven) will not suffice. There is an urgent need for truly radical-thinking at a cross-sectional level of societies involving educators, policymakers, economists, scientists and everyone else in between, to start an articulation (rather belatedly) of viable alternatives for a sustainable future.

Dan Roberts: "geeks will rule the world"

In that sense the proposed discussion about education revolution on TEDxLondon was perhaps overrated, considering the complexity of the issue and the sensitivities of stakeholders involved in this area. Nevertheless, we should probably bear in mind that the TED format is first and foremost an attempt to share knowledge and lead by example which is made possible by a group of dedicated volunteers. Even if it fell short of providing answers that some in the audience might have expected it is undoubtedly a step in the right direction.

Evan Grant and his team of collaborators

[Education] Revolution = Radical Thinking

See you at TEDxLondon 2012

LONDON (ANTI) DESIGN FESTIVAL 2010: A SELF-DIRECTED CRITIQUE

Intriguing pieces

Last week was marked by another London Design Festival which swept the capital with events and exhibitions (allegedly) dedicated to design, in all its glory. Running since 2003, the event has grown from strength to strength, and established the city of London as one of the main design stages in the world along Milano, Köln and New York. It also points to the long course the design business in the UK has taken since the early eighties when the then Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, recognized the potential for value creation (and more tax revenue, of course) by publicly urging designers, and the concerned organizations, to promote themselves more vigorously.

Poster for The Anti Design Festival

During this period we witnessed the consolidation of fundamental cultural changes in Western societies originated mostly in the aftermath of WWII up until the late 70s. Besides the likes of civil-rights movement and feminism, another social transformation occurring at that time was the emergence of a new category of consumer citizens who fueled the economies in the West through a new, and often extravagant attitude towards material culture, also known as ‘conspicuous consumption’. It was in the same period that groups of intellectuals started interrogating these phenomena mostly affecting the middle-class strata, developing the well-known post-structuralist theories (Deleuze, Guattari, Baudrillard, etc) and influencing artistic movements such as the Situationist International, helping to form the culturally collapsed plasma of post-modernity in all its myriad of expressions.

Works presented at Londonewcastle project, part of LADF

Installation at Londonewcastle project

Wall installation at Londonewcastle project

It became clear however that during the last week the current (or old?) model based on continuous market and economic expansion has reached its point of utmost saturation in all senses. Firstly because the economic boom of the 90s and early 2000, which contributed to a massive surge in consumption, not only created a demand for increasingly distinctive design as a means of keeping abreast of competition but it consequently lured hordes of students into design schools since, creating a big imbalance and steep drop in relevant, meaningful creative output, paradoxically. Secondly, the ‘superficial coating’ strategy that the vast majority of companies tend to adopt, does nothing but lither our lives with dull products, bad solutions and even worse experiences. The result is that the side effects of conspicuous consumption is a beast that needs to be continuously fed and the social, environmental and above all, cultural costs are enormous.

Idea Generation Gallery artworks and installations

That is why, out of all the exhibitions/events I have seen during LDF, the ‘Anti Design Festival’ was perhaps the least obtuse as it tried to pull visitors from their ‘overly commercial spell’ by introducing the works of designers-turned-into-cultural-agitators to the public. Originally curated by Neville Brody (whose book ‘The Graphic Language of’ I am eternally indebted to) the event took several locations around Bethnal Green road, Hoxton and Liverpool St, displaying all sorts of artworks that, in one way or another, tried to raise questions about the critical state of contemporary material culture and cultural intermediation. The manifesto-style published on their website might sound a bit naïve in certain points but the overall message is simple: Western societies’ current system of values have reached breaking point. The meritocratic mentality pushed forward by America and its glorification of yuppie culture has done little to alleviate people’s anxieties where the equation money = consumption = happiness takes a manicheist dimension. Even worse, the impact of the ideal of success has not only contributed to create a constant state of frustration that can be miraculously treated by reification through consumption and status but also created a self-harming, suicidal ecosystem. The result we can attest by visiting design festivals such as the LDF: redundant variations on the same, exhausted themes, lack of critique, apathy and infinite dullness at the service of an over-complacent system whose sole objective is to increase profits.

Piece on display at KK Outlet

However, thanks to a minority of creatives there were a few examples of good, inquisitive thinking translated into products, solutions or just concepts and this is the attitude the organisers should be fostering by being more selective and rigorous in their criteria when choosing exhibitors. Truly lateral thinking and risk taking come at a price, we know, but it is certainly one worth paying.

Design that engages. Tent London and KK Outlet

Subversive rug by French subversive collective Bazooka

TEDxLONDON 2010: A DEBATE ON THE MILLENIUM DEVELOPMENT GOALS

Hans Roslin introducing the MDG stats to the audiences

Last Monday I had a rare opportunity to attend a conference organised by TED, one of the most forward thinking organisation of the moment, thanks to my good friend Rebecca Wright, who was part of the London team of organisers.

The topics discussed by speakers revolved around the Millennium Development Goals program which is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, and were mostly focused on the improvement of people’s life conditions across the globe through insightful aid programmes as well as personal case studies promoting change.

Taking place in the truly inspiring location of London’s Science Museum the first half of the event was comprised of a series of multicasts simultaneously transmitted to 82 countries (our keen Australian antipodes, for example, being on blankets and pyjamas while watching) and an inspiring panel of speakers, among whom were Melinda French Gates from Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation; Graça Machel, Minister of Education of Mozambique and TED’s curator Chris Andersen directly from New York, joined by our London group with Amanda Horton-Mastin, Innovations Director of Comic Relief; Paul Hilder from OpenDemocracy and author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie from Nigeria. Jamie Oliver also made an appearance in the form of delicious snacks, fruits and canapés prepared by its ‘Jamie Oliver’s Fabulous Feasts’ catering service, which were served during the intervals to people’s utter joy.

But we attendees were not there only to eat and do networking, although both did take place with voracious intensity. We went to TED expecting to leave the event a bit changed somehow, trying to understand the global  challenges we are facing and the possibilities to change things; to improve the world we live in and the world that future generations will inherit from us. That’s why the organisers tried to bring a range of different expertises that could offer broader views on human calamities, such as HIV, Polio, famine, over-population and so on. More importantly though, rather than simply exposing the problems the participants were trying to shed light on these issues via alternative solutions that can effectively minimize or even eliminate the misfortunes experienced by a large part of the world’s population who have little or no assistance from their respective governments.

Interesting points were raised by Hans Rosling, for example, on the co-relation between decreasing child mortality rates, female education and sustainable economic growth and use of natural resources. The key was an accurate real-time data gathering process which was also discussed by Melinda Gates. To explain how certain communities who are geographically out-of-reach could benefit from different sorts of humanitarian assistance she turned to the one company with the most efficient system of logistics and distribution in the world. Coca-Cola. She then set off to investigate what made Coca-Cola’s presence possible in the most hidden corners of the world, concluding that the company promoted micro-economies by partnering small entrepreneurs who could distribute the drink where motorized vehicles wouldn’t/couldn’t go. It became clear that the combination of real-time data feedback loops with an engaged local community can work effectively to produce positive outcomes on many levels. An extremely successful engagement program was also put in place in Thailand to reduce HIV contamination through creative executions of informative and meaningful preventive campaigns. From school events through to merchandising Merchai Veradaya demonstrated how behavioural change can be achieved by really understanding what people want and what they need.

The examples and cases are aplenty I don’t intend to discuss one by one, but just as means of conclusion I think that programs which help eradication of hunger and diseases followed by education and individual’s empowerment are key to develop dynamic micro-economic environments through which communities will work their way up into more civilized, healthier and happier societies as many shown by many real-life stories we saw that night. The question now is, what is our own story?

For more information click on:

http://www.ted.com/

http://www.linktv.org/viewchange

Chris Andersen and Melinda Gates

LONDON OPEN-CITY 2010 (PART II) BALFRON TOWER: TRELLICK’S OLDER (AND POORER) SISTER

Balfron Tower, street level view

The second part of my Open House London runnaround was a visit to Balfron Tower in Poplar, East London. I was originally planning a viewing at Trellick Tower, on the opposite side of town in the affluent W10 postcode but it was obviously booked out the very minute reservations started to take place on the website. The alternative then was to go and check its predecessor in far less glamorous surroundings instead.

It is impossible to ignore the complex of building’s presence in contrast to other estates around it. Despite its derelict look the whole Brownfield Estate pays testimony to the poignancy of some architects who got involved in the rebuilding of East London during the decades following WWII. The complex, containing three buildings: Carradale House, Glenkerry House and Balfron Tower were conceived by Ernö Goldfinger, perhaps mostly known by his Bond’s namesake villain (it’s said that Ernö and Ian Flemming were disaffected neighbours which lead to the later indiscreetly teasing his friend with a such a honourable tribute).

The flat I visited was on the 24th floor with amazing views of, errr, Canary Wharf. Like 20 or so other artists, the flat was allocated to a painter who benefitted from Bow Arts Trust initiative to fill the empty premises with creatives aiming at, (1) helping these individuals continue their art practice by offering living-work spaces at a very low rent, (2) preventing the infiltration of rogue elements and particularly squatters. I must say, the view of Canary Warf was breathtaking, not to mention the amount of light filling the living room. It was a smart move by the local authorities I thought, one that promotes the reinvigoration of areas lacking in productive activities and contribute to positive change in poor, disenfranchised neighbourhoods. However, this can also mean a first step towards gentrification, I sensed. According to Open-City organisers, Tower Hamlets Council is planning a total refurbishment of the building meaning, relocating artists and, pushing the vast majority of residents out. It is clear that the architectural value of the complex along with their proximity to the financial district of Canary Warf make for an extremely profitable opportunity. For better or worse that’s the London way.

The funny thing though was the perplexed gazes we, visitors, received from residents walking in and out of the building. It is a fact that a lot of people in the city don’t actually like (or comprehend) this concept of architecture. Modernism, frequently dubbed ‘brutalist’ in the UK, is a far-fetched ideal for most of the people, be it at an aesthetic or functional levels. Thus the odd look fired at us while we were waiting to enter the premises. Just to prove my point, as I was resuming my visit with a few more shots of the facade a local resident on her mid-forties, along with her sturdy English bulldog, approached me and in a puzzled tone of voice asked: ‘why arh ye lads so fascina-ed by thiz buil-ings? Ta’in pi-tchas en aw. I think they arh pree-ey f***ing ugly, mate!!’

Ah, the joys of East London…

LONDON OPEN-CITY 2010 (PART I) LLOYDS OF LONDON: NEITHER A BANK NOR A CHEMIST (LET ALONE A DESIGN AGENCY)

The atrium inside the Lloyds Building in the City of Lonodn

I was eagerly awaiting for the London Open House (now rebranded as Open-City) that took place last weekend to have the chance to look inside some of those outstanding examples of architecture that we sometimes admire in awe when walking around town.

No doubt my first option was a private flat at Lauderdale House, in the magnanimous Barbican state, which, for my disappointment, was unexpectedly cancelled by the organisers… Notwithstanding, I was keen on catching up with something as there were plenty of other interesting places to see such as the world-renowned Lloyds building, which fit the bill very well.

It’s impossible not to draw references to Archigram when looking at the Lloyds’ façade, for example.  In fact, that is precisely the type of construction they would have pursued should any of their freaking crazy concepts have come to fruition. Instead, Richard Rogers took from where Archigram left and created a memorable piece of space-age architecture. What strikes me most is the fact that Lloyds started out in a mere coffee house on Tower Street in 1688, and over its 322 year history it has become the largest insurance market in the world. Originally dedicated to insuring risks for Maritime enterprises of all kinds (and yes, slavery trade too, regretfully) it grew to a structure of £2bn worth in assets. So, the bigger the numbers the bigger the need for accountability, right? The impression the building left on me was that besides its sheer dimensions there’s sense of openness that Rogers tried to create by means of vast open plans, and the use of certain materials such as glass in its interiors. It is almost as if the building’s structure, with its apparent pipes and ducts (80km of it, to be precise), open plans, glassed walls and a massive atrium work as statement about transparency and foresight. It’s like exposing the engine of this complex mammoth that is insurance business.

However unappealing the idea of working side by side with brokers and the like day after day I could not help but think how damn cool it would be to have an office in that place. If only creative industries were capable of generating similar amounts of revenue then maybe we would see something like a Pompidou-esque building being erected by the Thames to house the ‘creative syndicates’ operating in the ‘visual communications market’ or, the economies of the future.

For now though, not much we can do other than make the most of the premises in one of the famously converted warehouses/wharfs pinpointing Shoreditch and Clerkenwell. Right, I shall concede it holds its charm too.