Bringing Design Thinking into Primary Schools: Recognising The Power of Imagination

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Project 45' Prototype: St Vincent’s school boat with an adjusted educational curriculum giving students more time to explore the nature along the canal.

In 2019 I was approached by the 5 Lamps Arts Festival in Dublin’s north inner city to design a solution to foster collective ownership over challenging local issues such as dereliction and safety.

I decided to focus my attention on children, a large social group that are rarely encouraged to engage in civic and political life and together with 5 Lamps Arts Festival, Royal Canal Amenity Group, Fighting Words and St. Vincent’s GNS William Street North I designed and facilitated a Design Thinking programme for local school children called Project 45’.

The local school, St Vincents, sits adjacent to the Royal Canal, a well known local amenity that many believe has enormous future potential. As it happened, 2019 was the 45th anniversary since the Royal Canal Amenity Group began restoring and reimagining its future after it had fallen into disuse in the 70s.

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The Royal Canal — Lock 1 in the 1980’s.

2019, halfway between when the first restorations began back and an imagined future, Project 45' asked children to present visions of The Royal Canal over the next 45 years, centred around the themes of sustainability, climate change and community development.

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The Royal Canal — Lock 1, 2019.

It was a fascinating and rewarding experience. I found that children are aware of the complex challenges society is facing, and if given the opportunity they can bring imaginative ideas, fresh perspectives, and the energy and fearlessness necessary to generate positive social change in their local communities and beyond.

So what did I learn? A lot! But I know you’re busy, so I’ll keep it brief. Below are 5 thoughts, concentrating primarily on the power of imagination.

1 From The Future to Futures
There is not one single future destination, rather many possible futures. Now, living through multiple complex challenges at both local and global scales communicating the future as unwritten and open can be liberating and empowering.

2 Recognising the Power of Imagination
Realising alternative futures firstly depends upon our ability to imagine alternative futures; followed by an actionable pathway towards getting there. But the act of imagining has long been sidelined, often regarded as a trivial exercise carried out by children. We need to revalue imagination and recognise it for the powerful tool it has always been, allowing us to develop and adapt to our surroundings and to create new possibilities for change and innovation.

3 Rediscovering our Capacity to Imagine
We are all born with the capacity to imagine, in fact, as far as we know, imagination is what makes us distinctively human. At some point, probably during our education, we became rather disconnected from this capacity. Sir Ken Robinson describes this well. The good news is, using our imagination is a skill, and the more we practice, the better we get. So, a critical question for the 21st century is ‘how might we harness the capacity to imagine that lies within us all?’ From my experience facilitating Project 45', allocating time and creating a safe space to imagine, and building a collaborative culture are fundamental.

4 Allocating Time and Creating a Safe Space to Imagine
The act of imagining is a skill that requires practice, and practice requires time. The trouble here is that time is a privilege and not accessible to everyone. Why not allocate time to imagine in our educational programmes and work places? This coupled with engaging spaces, where people can take risks, experiment, fail, think critically, broaden perspectives and frame problems as opportunities, could be a good start.

5 Building a Collaborative Culture
Silos thinking — the absence of systems thinking and an overall understanding of a problem — is one of the main barriers to change. Realising alternative futures in an increasingly complex world therefore requires a shared understanding and a unified vision among a diverse group of stakeholders. Creating the conditions for effective collaboration can be difficult. It not only involves including a diverse group of stakeholders and enabling them to develop skills such as listening and conflict resolution, but also building an atmosphere of trust, openness, mutual support and sharing. As I saw first hand during Project 45' when collaboration is successful it can allow groups to share skills and knowledge, transcend differences, and arrive at unexpected and thorough outcomes, beyond the scope of any individual mind.

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Project 45' Prototype: Royal Canal annual birthday party & festival for everyone in the local community.

I could go on about how I believe limitations can be liberating, why empowering children is an investment, and why ‘innovation’ is over-rated, but I’ll leave that for another day.

I would love to hear from you, if you have any feedback or if you have been involved in similar projects. Comment here or catch me over on twitter @flynnflynner

Written by

UX and Transition Designer for social impact. Twitter: @flynnflynner Contact:

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