Keeping it Real in Te Atatu South

What sort of impact can 80 people have in a couple of hours, when deployed into the suburbs for ‘design research’? At this years Isthmus conference we set out to explore what ‘keeping it real’ means to us individually and collectively, and in our own backyard. All 80 of us sang a waiata and shared a personal thought about keeping it real means to us in our everyday lives; all 80 of us listened to Gael Surgenor form the Southern Initiative talk about real impact in South Auckland; and all 80 of us headed out to Te Atatu South to help the Heart of Te Atatu South (HOTAS) group figure out why the community is having trouble connecting. After 2 hours of intervention and observation around the hood, our ‘raw data’ was collected into a big pin-up session in the school hall, where we swapped stories with community leaders and school principals.

At the end of the day, nothing could be more important than healthy people supported by a healthy environment. It is what we really care about at Isthmus, embodied in Land, People, Culture. But when we put people first – things change, and things get real. We are instantly challenged about what we think we know about a place and its people. We are catapulted outside our comfort zone and forced to rely on our creative confidence to navigate human emotions and perspectives shaped by a myriad of cultural influences. ‘Keeping it real’ is largely about challenging our assumptions, and being open to the possibility that real impact in everyday situations could look different and manifest in different ways from one community to another. This is why design thinking is so helpful- it is fluid, iterative, and experimental. If we are curious enough, observe ‘with our hearts’, and collaborate with communities- then we can find local solutions to complex problems.

Running with this idea and just getting stuck in, we decided to work with our new friends in Te Atatu South who are working tirelessly to do good in their community. Their story is motivating and inspiring, and it shows what grassroots community initiative is all about- places to meet for playgroups and book shares, reasons to connect and have conversations with lonely people. But its exhausting doing this stuff day in and out, and sometimes its hard to see the big picture when you are changing lives one at a time. Big research projects are super important for understanding complex social issues, but design research can be quick-and-dirty, and effective too, especially when a catalyst for change is urgently needed. It sets up a ‘do-learn-do’ cycle of intervention and observation. Not scientific, but certainly perceptive –  and it builds a base understanding about public life that drives change from the inside- out.

Our ‘backpack challenge’ was designed to be a bit quirky and experimental – we didn’t really know what would happen. Teams of five or six were deployed into the neighbourhood with backpacks full of intervention and observation tools. Some random items were open to interpretation and could be used in inventive ways to complete the challenges  – bungy ropes, chalk, material, cones among other loose parts. Teams could also pick up large items from a ‘resource station’ van, parked in near the community centre and manned by HOTAS volunteers. Challenges were designed to put people out of their comfort zones and invite response from residents and passers-by. Each team was assigned one of three themes: ‘footloose’, ‘seriously fun’ and ‘beating heart’, closely related to issues HOTAS had described to us about lack of social cohesion, fun and support for families, and difficulty getting around the suburb.

Finding people in Te Atatu South is a challenge in itself. There is a population of around 15,000 people, but you don’t see many of these people on the streets. There are a lot of cars though, and we know that busy roads can divide communities. There are five schools, and potentially social networks that exist around those schools. We heard about people meeting in each others homes to cook food together or meet for playdates, and it challenged us to think about whether community needs to be visible to be functional. We noticed the small and simple things- like the impact of a pedestrian crossing, a seat and table or tree swing. We wrote on the footpath- things like ‘I wonder how many footsteps it will take to wear this away’. We noticed how much untapped potential there is, and the power of prompting people to slow down and think about it. Maybe the community needs to refocus back away from the busy ridgeline road to the land and the water to make this place a little bit special again.

It was a big day of little things, measured by smiles and tears- sometimes both at the same time. We sang together, we ate together, we made stuff together. And if thats not keeping it real, then what is?