#StreetWisdom, territory and micro-ethnography in Soho Square

Lanterns above a Chinatown street

Self-organisation in Soho Square

Self-organisation and seating in Soho Square

I pretty much wrote this post on my way home from a fascinating afternoon in the glorious, baking heat of London. This Thursday was the first ‘official’ #BtWC activity to challenge and consider what the future of work could aspirationally be, hosted by @dds180, @ChrisKane55, @KateGL, @davidmicklem and @SimonHeath1. I was there with Bob Seddon (the newly appointed chair of the @BIFM_UK Workplace SIG), @ChrisMoriarty3 (surely the best surname in the country?!) and about 50 other intrigued participants, keen to learn what #StreetWisdom was all about.

If you haven’t heard of #BtWC yet then start here, catch up, and get involved. What would a better working life look like, and what are we going to do about it? What would make work great? What makes a great place to work? What role does space and place have in this conundrum? Join the movement. Join the LinkedIn group, keep your eyes peeled and ears pinned back for ways to engage. Better still, seed your own and make some noise about it.

But I digress. Because this post is about my own Street Wisdom experience. The methodology is deceptively simple. It’s about being present. Originally conceived by David Pearl and refined with these clever folks, offered as open source ‘freeware’ (with the courtesy of accreditation via #StreetWisdom and a reciprocal blog post), it’s all about making space to address a big question and using the ‘university of the street’ to help you answer it. The result? You’ll probably learn more in three hours than any recent afternoon you care to remember. Blue sky brainstorming think-tank, anyone? No. I thought not. And that’s being ruddy polite…

The question I settled on, given my ongoing workspace/place ruminations, was “is territory a good or a bad thing?” Once I’d been suitably ‘tuned’, I began my quest for an answer. I meandered northwards, beyond Trafalgar Square, skirting Leicester Square, then up through the back streets of Chinatown and into Soho. I observed that some (many?) indicators of territory are remarkably ugly, and create forced dichotomies laden with power dynamics and the potential for oppression: us/them, in/out, welcome/forbidden. I noticed that where orders are displayed, they are sometimes (often?) disrespected. I also noticed that without territory people might not have livelihoods, or a sense of difference, of identity. And when I saw the paper lanterns spanning buildings above the streets of Chinatown, I remembered just how captivating and beautiful identity can be. How often do we forget? (Tune up task #4: see the beauty in everything.)

Having already established (tune up task #1) that I am drawn to trees and the green bits of conurbations (it’s the country boy in me…) I sauntered toward Soho Square. I wanted to feel the flow of the space, rather than witness a snapshot. To conduct a micro-ethnography, if you like. I saw different folk. Individuals and groups. Social, solitary, lively, relaxed, even asleep! Seated, standing, lying. Business, casual, blue collar, white collar, children, old, young. On grass, on walls, on benches. What didn’t I see? Any rules or guidelines. No notices. No “this group belongs here”, or “that activity can only happen over there”. The people self-organised. A group of young lads shared a crate of beer together in the sun, next to a couple of girls catching up, near a chap pondering as he got his nicotine fix, behind a lady having lunch. Were they happy with their choices? Well, it certainly seemed so to me.

Many of the benches were split into three sections. Typically one of the end spaces became occupied first. Then the other end. Then, with nowhere else to go, the middle space, or maybe a less physically comfortable/more socially comfortable unoccupied wall instead, just far enough away?! I forced myself to take a middle seat, between two ladies. When, after a few minutes, I was the only one left, I didn’t move. Another lady approached and asked if the seat to my right was taken. After she had sat down, I plucked up the courage to ask (talking to a complete stranger: how very un-British and peculiar!) whether she’d have asked me the same question if I was sat at an end? Probably not, she replied. So by shifting a more typical behaviour/location, with a more comfortable (personal/cultural?) territorial expectation, I ended up in a new conversation. But I had to consciously become aware of, question, then challenge, my own preferences for the space to afford something socially new. But what did everyone have? Choice, autonomy, the ability to self organise and a desire to be there. Interesting workspace implications? For sure.

So, back to my initial question: is territory a good or bad thing? Well, I suspect it is part of human being, whether we want it to be or not. Where did my cheekly little daughter, stood at the threshold of her bedroom at barely two years old, saying “Daddy, no come in!”, with a serious frown and hand held up to emphasise the barrier, come from? At some point in a few years she’ll probably stick a carefully hand-drawn “Violet’s room: keep out!” sign on her door and find refuge behind it. I certainly did, and I still can’t appreciate any genuine reason why, other than sometimes it is, just, well, necessary. Learnt or innate behaviour? Intertwined both? Seriously, who honestly knows…? Then of course there are all the desperate, bitter, tragic wars in this world, if ever there was a topic to make us feel utterly helpless, with our first-world problems like whether we have our own desk or not. No, the irony is not lost on me…

Come on: we couldn’t eradicate the need for territory if we tried. Which, steering it cunningly around to modern workplaces, where we certainly are trying to do just that, worries the crap out of me as more and more organisations sign up to clear desk, non-territorial solutions with a cost-saving core. It just isn’t as simple as mine/yours, or allocated/shared. Such perspectives are myopic and frankly rather facile. @PerryTimms, also at the event, reflected on colourful, diverse, vibrant workplaces versus staid grey ones. The fundamental difference, he thought? The life-force of organisations: the people. So if I want a picture of my daughter to remind me of my human being, who has any legitimate right to say no? Don’t give me rules, dear seniors. Enable and trust me to be me. I’ll be more all the more valuable to you for it.

I’ll be hosting and facilitating a #StreetWisdom in lovely, hilly Sheffield with some of the other #BtWC revolutionaries before the end of September. Come and get involved.

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7 thoughts on “#StreetWisdom, territory and micro-ethnography in Soho Square

  1. Freaking fascinating Ian, not to mention brilliantly written.

    We’ve been talking to @ChrisKane55 about doing one of these in Washington DC this Fall. Can’t wait to learn more about the experience.

  2. Thanks for your support David and Kate – really appreciated. And Kate, regarding DC, go for it. Not often something so simple makes such a nice impact. Well worth the energy and time invested. If I could be there with you I would be… Keep me posted 😉

  3. Pingback: Smart Spaces & Spaces » Taking to the Streets

  4. Great read Ian, and most certainly opened my eyes regarding workspace and the ‘Clear Desk Policy’ unfortunately like anything recently I could have done with this before going down the hard hitting route of a policy just weeks ago 😉 However, I feel (right or wrong) that space needs to have a set of rules otherwise people take advantage. What looked harmonious to you potentially looks scruffy to the client. I agree with “enable and trust me to be me” unfortunately in reality when you do this people do take advantage and the hidden costs slowly creep up on FM trying to maintain the mess and image that people leave. What’s the solution… Policy at this point. I’m not sure I believe that a “free to make your own choice space” necessarily benefits the colleague, team or business. It probably does improve efficiencies, but the harsh reality is the majority of people prefer the “bullshit baffles brains” approach (me included… And now I feel shallow after your blog above! Thanks mate) because with all the will in the world perception is first. In all fairness I would love to go down the route of colourful and diverse space, the real question is how do we get business to listen to the FM experts

    • Great comments and reflections Chris. Thanks for the support. Re ‘set of rules’, have you considered the difference between protocols, rules, guidelines and etiquette? Where do ‘adults’ need explicit rules, and where don’t they (and why)? The client/service provider interface is an interesting one which definitely needs further thought. I suspect there is something about power dynamics hidden behind other stuff there, amongst maybe other things. One for another day…!

      Oh, and perception isn’t first. Perception is everything. 😉

      • Thank you Ian, one for another day indeed 🙂 I will catch up with you in September, Time for me to understand why 😉

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