Climate breakdown – uncivil engineering questions

At the start of the summer I felt that the best contribution I could make to tackling the climate emergency was to offer my skills as a trainer and a facilitator to Extinction Rebellion (XR). In June, I joined the team that run induction sessions for new members of XR Bristol. The following words I’ve adapted from the script we use as the basis for the induction sessions.

‘The Government has an obligation to provide protection for the citizens it represents. This is the basis of the social contract upon which the citizens give the government the power to rule.

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Appreciating concrete in Marseille

One of the thing things that I like about Marseille is the quality of the concrete tower block design. I’ve been riding in taxis back and forth across the city with my father who is undergoing cancer treatment in various branches of the city’s healthcare system and appreciating the architectural tour I’m getting.

In the centre of town these blocks remind me of bookcases: two monolithic, slick sides between which span the concrete shelves, on which sit the apartments like colourful books. It’s fascinating to see the different ways that windows, balconies and staircases are articulated in these concrete buildings. I point out towering souring fin walls, beautifully articulated fire escapes, and how paint is used to express the different elements of the concrete structures.

The rocky hills that rise up behind Marseille keep the city hemmed in by the sea. Standing on the high ground platform of Notre Dame de la Gard in the middle of town, you can see clusters of distant tower blocks that seem to bravely climb the distant slopes of the edge of the city, like pilgrims. I’m used to seeing tower blocks standing imposingly against the flat, grey London sky, but here these structures are rendered tiny by the massive hills behind them.

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Transformative infrastructure goes both ways


In my previous post I was talking about the experience of distance, and how, when understood as an experience, distance is no longer a fixed entity.

That post was triggered by some lines from Proust in which the narrator is talking about how his perception of local distances alters when he switches from rail transport to motorcar. Some further thoughts on this topic.

I recall how the distances between various destinations, and therefore the shape of the city itself, appeared to change when the London Overground, an orbital railway in the inner suburbs, opened. All of a sudden areas of the city that seemed far away felt much closer: South-East London, previously impossibly far, was now a nearby neighbourhood to where I lived in the North-East.

Such a step-change in the experience of city living demonstrates the transformative power of civil engineering infrastructure. Linking, drawing together, connecting – this is what engineers have been doing for centuries.

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The experience of distance

A morning walk up the steep hill to the Basilica of Notre Dame de la Gard granted me panoramic views of the city of Marseille and the sea. I love the peaceful hum that can be extracted from high up of a limbering up for a day of activity.

I underlined these words yesterday in ‘In Search of Lost Time’. The narrator is talking about how his perception of distance was changed when, instead of travelling by rail, he starts to go by car.

‘We express the difficulty we have in getting to a place in a system of leagues and kilometres, which becomes false the moment that difficulty decreases. The art of distance, too, is modified, since a village that had seemed to be in a different world from some other village, becomes its neighbour in a landscape whose dimensions have altered.’

Proust, M. (1921). In Search of Lost Time, Vol 4. Sodom and Gomorrah. (C. Prendergast, Ed.) (Penguin Cl). Penguin Books.
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Microadventure #1: Garden Sleeping

For my birthday this week my partner Mary gave me Alistair Humphreys’s inspirational book  ‘Microadventures’. According to Humphreys, a microadventure is an adventure that is short, simple, local, cheap – yet still fun, exciting, challenging, refreshing and rewarding. Last night I undertook my first mission – to go and sleep under the stars in the garden. As adventures go this reads as really not very challenging at all, but I was surprised by how unorthodox it felt. 

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Superpowers for Creative Design – University of Bath

I’m on the road again, this time to the University of Bath where I have the pleasure of running a workshop with first-year students on creative thinking in support of their structural design projects. I’m using the Superpowers for Creative design resource I shared earlier this month – now updated, thanks to the help of my colleague Alexie Sommer, to be in the form of a fold-out zine. The image above is a teaser for what to expect!

I’ll posting a downloadable version of this resource soon.

Lesson notes to follow.

Superpowers for Creative Design

Superpowers for creative design - a diagram showing teaching content relating to how to have and share ideas

Superpowers for Creative Design is the name I gave to a one-page summary of my undergraduate creativity teaching at Imperial College. This is my first draft. I like the idea of creativity being a superpower. I am sure that people who can channel their creative thinking will have a great advantage in the future.

The diagram brings together material from other posts on this site. I describe the Kalideascope concept in ‘How to have ideas – guidance for engineers and other humans‘. And I wrote about the concept of a creative system in ‘9 Ways to Build Creativity in your Organisation‘.

Drawing this diagram I found a nice interrelationship between all this material. To have ideas we need to draw upon information. That information comes from the things we see, the books we read, the website we look at. But critically it also comes from talking to others. How we interact with one another has a big impact on the quality of thought exchange. With the right interaction, ideas can sparked off of one-another and can be transmitted to others, and form the basis of their ideas.

Underlying it all is behaviours, and within that self-discipline. Mastering that self-discpline is a great strength – a superpower!

Building creative culture in engineering companies

An illustration of WIlbur's Four Quadrant Model used to support a discussion about building creative culture in an engineering organisation

I am starting to shift my attention away from creative tools for engineers. Tools are still important. But I’ve realised that unless you need a creative culture for individual creativity to thrive.

Recently, I rediscovered in Laloux’s ‘Reinventing Organisations‘ the Wilbur four-quadrant model. The model descrives how culture, systems and worldviews interact. We can use this model to understand a phenomena in an organisations from four different perspectives:

  • How the phenomenon can be measured from the outside
  • How the phenomenon feels from the inside – intuiting how it feels
  • How the phenomenon appears to the individual
  • How the phenomenon appears to a group of people.

Like all engineer-friendly models, Wilbur’s is a two-by-two grid. The columns divide the grid into interior perspecitve and exterior perspective. The rows divide the grid into individual and collective perspective. According to Laloux

Wilbur’s insight, applied to organisations, means we should look at: 1) people’s mindsets and beliefs [individual interior perspective]; 2) people’s behaviour [indvidiual exterior perspective]; 3) organisational culture [collective interior perspective]; and, 4) organisational systems (structures, processes and practices) [collective exterior perspective]”

From Reinventing Organisations, Laloux (2016)

Applying the four quadrant model to organisational creativity

I’ve assembled some quick thoughts on how the four quadrant model might apply to understanding creativity in an organisation. I have written the statements for a fictional ideal case. This difference between this ideal case and reality can give us some suggestions for what we might need to do to build a more creative organisation. 

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Coventry Cathederal

Pen and ink sketch showing the nave of Coventry Cathederal

After a recent seminar in Coventry I had an hour to spare and so headed over to the famous cathederal. This sketch doesn’t come close to catching the finesse of the columns on this bold modern design but it serves to remind me of the textiures and feel of the place.

Notes from IStructE Academics’ Conference 2018

There was great energy at today’s IStructE Academics’ Conference, the theme of which was Creativity and Conceptual Design.
If you are visiting this site for the first time, it may have been thanks to Chris Wise’s kind recommendation in his keynote presentation – thanks so much Chris.
I presented a session on how to have ideas. Usually when I’m billed with this title, I run a workshop on idea generation, but I thought for once, I would stand up and say what I think about the subject. I’m glad I did because it seemed warmly received. It was also a chance to talk through themes that will be included in the chapter I am writing in a book on scheme design – more details to follow.

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