Co-Innovating at Speed: The Shaking Hans Project

N.I.C.E. is the Network for Innovation in Culture and Creativity in Europe and at the Forum d´Avignon Ruhr on the 27th and 28th June 2013, held at the famous rejuvenated Zeche Zollverien in Essen, it instigated an imaginative experiment to create a speed co-innovation competition. The aim was to see if anything worthwhile could come out of it and my lessons are summarized at the end.

The innovation process:

There were four teams of 10 people from company founders to researchers – all selected because of their experience in cultural projects spilling over into such fields as climate, urbanism or new work/innovation. They did not know each other and came from different age groups, different countries and backgrounds. The groups were mixed with participants from the Ruhr and Europe.

The teams were each given a topic to consider that had been developed through a three-month consultation process with activists and experts, who understood spillover impacts, in the Ruhr area a few months earlier. They were chosen for being innovative in relation to the economy, the environment, intercultural issues and urban space. Each team had 5-hours to think through an idea and within that time to create a physical manifestation of the project. They also had an international expert to guide this artistic design process with the help of a facilitator. The teams gathered at the end of the day in a room full of materials to create something out of pieces of wood and metal, Styrofoam, string, wool, paints, cartons, paper, chairs, pallets, the odd wheel and general garbage.

The following day each team had to present their project in any way they wished ranging from a simple description to a play. Shaking Hans, a project about urban space presented its idea involving all the participants and got the most votes so won the award of 20,000 euros from a mixed audience of 220+ people made up of public officials, creative economy and other professionals and social activists.

The Shaking Hans team was led by Charles Landry and the team comprised amongst others::Danijel (Gigo)Brekalo, Wände Südost Interventionen Essen, Jan Bunse und Vilim Brezina, Urbanisten Dortmund, Anne Kleiner, „Dezentrale für forschende Stadterprobung“, Ringlokschuppen Mülheim, Susa Pop, Public Art Lab, Berlin, Janjaap Ruijssenaars Universe Architecture, Amsterdam, Andrius Ciplijauskas, Beepart , Lithuania and Philipp Olsmeyer, „Trädgård på Spåret: Ideell förening“, a guerrilla gardener from Sweden.

The idea of Shaking Hans:

The urban space team concentrated on a question: ‘How can we increase the recognition by the public and decision makers of the value of creative projects and processes’. The challenge for the group was to create an idea that could be interesting enough to influence people to appreciate the positive impacts of imaginative projects for urban development and community building.

To begin the process of imagining someone in public space we created a stereotype. This was Hans (it could have been a woman too).  Hans tends to be inward looking, he is somewhat sceptical about connecting, he tends to be a bit prejudiced, he is slightly self-satisfied and complacent. He is a big consumer and is a part of that culture of entitlement.  He expects others to provide for him. He is not a shaper, maker or co-creator of his evolving city. Crucially there is a Hans in all of us.

How we found the idea:

The challenge we set ourselves was to convince our Hans to be less sceptical about getting involved in urban life and engaging with his community in order to increase his trust and confidence in other people to the benefit of all. In addition the idea needed to be catalytic, replicable, scalable, flexible and relatively easy to do.

Then the team had really got going and ideas started flowing. On large scale sheets there were ideas, slogans and phrases and what shone out was the notion of bringing Hans out of himself and this formed the core of the project encapsulated in the slogan ‘From the familiar to the unfamiliar’.  His favourite room at home would be transferred, as a longer term art installation, to a public space. It might start with his sitting room or bedroom and then the installation might grow to incorporate his kitchen.

To launch the project our Hans (cajoled and persuaded to take part) would be there interacting with the public for a weekend and then other Hans stereotypes might take over.  With a kitchen this transferred domestic space could become a temporary café. There could be associated events, from the humorous to the serious, small workshops, shared music performances and more to discuss the power and potential of the public realm.  The core idea can developed in numerous ways including inviting the general public could be invited to shape

We left the room to physically build our project idea and someone said this a ‘celebrating sceptics’ project and then another shouted its ‘Shaking Hans’. That was it, this was the title with its implied double meaning of both shaking Hans into having a consciousness about the importance of public space and then too that interacting in the public realm is about a minimum of two people symbolically shaking hands.

One key point – the Shaking Hans title – was said quietly in passing, by someone who had hardly said a word up to that point, but for us it was the essence, but to see its importance involved some understanding of what the public realm is about.

The physical model was centred on two chairs stuck together on a wooden pallet representing the inward looking and the transformed Hans as well as large ball of wool roughly 200 metres long. In the performance in a dialogue the old Hans described why he as he is – inward-looking and uninterested – and the new Hans described his transformation process as a more engaged citizen triggered by the interest of the public in him. As this dialogue is going on the wool slowly goes around the auditorium connecting the project group and each member to each other symbolically representing the notion of shared public space.

Lessons learnt:

The main lesson was that it is in principle possible to invent projects at speed, but probably it is not the best way if there is no follow up, otherwise it is merely a game. It is definitely fun and a way to trigger a longer term creative process. All that is possible initially is a core concept and fighting over 20,000 euros is helpful, if not crucial, since it makes the project real or gives it a kick-start. Speed can mean some ideas remain vague or not the right one that maximizes potential as you do not have time to adjust and readjust and apply thoughtfulness.

In terms of process the first challenge is to rapidly get an idea of who your team is and what they are like. There are many techniques for doing this and most feel a bit embarrassing at first, but it is a necessary hurdle to overcome. Second, there needs to be an engine driving the process given time constraints and the need to present a tangible result. In our case it was a facilitator who drew out questions and got people going. The danger is that they do not know the subject deeply enough to get the most out of an idea given their knowledge about the dynamics of cities. It then tends to be more about process than content.

Once a wide range of thoughts and ideas had been mentioned these needed encapsulating and interpreting and driving forward. At that point I tended to lead and the facilitator became the helper and this worked well for both of us trying to apply all the good lessons of joint work such as ensuring the silent but wise are heard. – just as our key point of the title “shaking hans”.In co-innovating with an unknown group there is a further danger that too many ideas are flying around and not drawn together as nobody dares to take the lead. Thus giving me some legitimacy as the external ‘expert’ to act as a producer for the group was helpful. It also helped create some balance in the group to evolve together a reasonably imaginative, relevant and achievable project.

What was noticeable for our team was that in physically representing the idea those who were silent before tended to come to the fore. So on balance everyone felt they had a part. It was important too in my view to get everyone involved in the public presentation with a role to play since when the project is being implemented you would want committed people to back your project.

Reviewing this unusual speed innovation project we felt “Shaking Hans” notion had relevance far beyond the Ruhr – it addresses a common concern.

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