07 June 2017

Charrettes as Collective Mindfulness

Originally published on the National Charrette Institute Blog.
There is a lot of talk about mindfulness these days. Mindfulness is a practice of relaxing, becoming fully present in the current moment, and, in doing so, releasing tension to allow creative energy to flow. Mindfulness trainings can be found in organizations ranging from Fortune 500 companies to grade schools. In last month’s newsletter I talked about managing the flow of ideas, information and energy in charrettes. I have also witnessed a sort of collaborative or collective mindfulness taking place in charrettes. 
The central strategy of charrettes, as practiced in the art schools of the 19th century, calls for the student to singularly focus on a design project over an extended period of time. Master designers and artists describe the experience of creativity as becoming a channel, allowing the creativity to flow through when they “get out of the way.” To get to this point, one needs to focus and stay focused, or mindful, throughout the creative process. 
Members of the design team practice mindfulness in community planning charrettes as well. The uninterrupted immersion in a design effort that takes place in a charrette leads to creative, unexpected outcomes. But beyond the level of the individual or team, charrettes have the extraordinary ability to bring the power of mindfulness to the scale of an organization or community to create transformative solutions. While people don’t sit around and meditate together in a charrette, an alignment of energies does develop when people focus together over a number of days to develop a plan to realize a shared vision. 
In a charrette, community members and key stakeholders participate with the design team in at least three feedback meetings throughout the evolution of a design solution. Although their focus is not as continuous as the design team’s, the shortness of the gaps between reviews – no more than a couple of days – allows them to reengage while the ideas are still fresh in their minds. In a multiple-day charrette, all participants engage in a creative group process, experiencing the roller coaster of creativity in developing feasible, transformative solutions. As co-authors of these solutions, participants are more likely to become project champions, working on the implementation in the years to come.