By Aleksandra Lella and Daniel Ramos
Summer months in the world of academia are usually filled with events and celebrations in recognition of students’ efforts and the completion of degrees.
A crucial element for creative arts universities is the opportunity to showcase work at inspiring degree shows. During this time, universities see thousands of people in attendance, from industry experts looking for fresh and creative perspectives to prospective students looking for their next steps in their career. At such shows, attendees encounter innovative and boundary breaking work that challenges existing discourses and also leads to networking possibilities. While the majority display individual projects, the MA Innovation Management show at Central Saint Martins challenges this approach by including a collaborative student led project curated over several months.
The MA Innovation Management degree show is an opportunity to share processes, theories, experiences and knowledge gathered throughout the two years of the course. This MA is one of the first innovation management degrees taught at an arts and design college, and a degree show of such an intangible and complex practice is difficult to imagine and even more complicated to deliver. As the co-project managers of this show we would like to share the journey of creating a degree show in a year that, as one would agree, has challenged our processes and ways of working.
Maybe sooner than we anticipated, the cohort had to put to practice what we’ve learned about uncertainty, experimentation and risk taking. All of our expectations started to crumble within the last weeks of spring term in March 2020 due to Covid-19 in the UK. We now had the ultimate test to face an absolute unknown unknown.
On the last day before spring holidays we thought there would still be an opportunity to return to the CSM building in Granary Square before the end of the 2020 academic year. Instead, returning to university for summer term was coming back to 100% uncertainty. We came up against what Brasset and O’Reilly (2018, p.73) would refer to as collision: a “deviation from uniformity and equilibrium”. Our mental model of the long awaited physical degree show faced a high impact collision with the unprecedented challenge of working on a show with an indistinguishable shape. Neither the researchers of our cohort, nor the teaching staff could envisage at that point what the finish line would look like.
However, Brasset and O’Reilly (ibid.) also talk about the swerve: a movement by which things can come together in new ways. The global pandemic brought feelings of frustration and nostalgia about what our degree show could have been, but it was time to face our inevitable collision mental model and swerve towards the opportunities this new landscape could offer us.
The global pandemic brought feelings of frustration and nostalgia about what our degree show could have been, but it was time to face our inevitable collision mental model and swerve towards the opportunities this new landscape could offer us.
The main swerve was moving into the virtual world. It was not only going to be the new format for our degree show, but also the medium in which we had to plan and design it. Long meetings and time zone puzzles formed the basis of our new CSM campus. There is no doubt that frequent swerving within a project can be unnerving, but by keeping in touch and checking in on a regular basis we maintained a continuous co-working practice.
After some time we learned and understood the new ways of navigating the virtual environment changed by Covid-19. For instance, the most important aspect in keeping motivated was the supportive network of committed people behind this new working environment. We noticed how the human presence traverses online communications and continues after we press “End Call”. By testing and using different collaborative platforms, the five project-teams continued sharing ideas and experimenting. As Toivonen and Hackshaw write, “a genuine, sustainable community exists only insofar as members continue to interact and make things with one another” (2020).
Across the Design, Marketing, Partnerships, Events and Editorial teams, a variety of responsibilities required frequent idea sharing and joint decision making. Despite recurring meetings and other forms of virtual collaboration, several communication challenges surfaced. As each team developed their own innovative processes and interesting approaches, it became essential to establish a centralised language across the project. For instance, the decision of naming internal projects within the Partnerships team created accountability and an understanding of which individuals were responsible for specific tasks. Each team could then refer to these named projects leading to immediate recognition of tasks, continuous impact and feasibility assessments and thus better communication overall.
In such an uncertain environment, decision making of any form required not only frequent communication but also a high level of risk awareness and trust. It was tempting to wait until we had more answers to make decisions but the reality was that nobody had those answers at the right time. Nevertheless, the project teams kept the process moving forward every week with the information at hand and built up confidence in taking risks. For instance, the Events team developed a detailed virtual experience with the understanding that possibly some of its components, or potentially the whole plan, might not work on the intended platform, which only became certain towards the end of the process. As a result, we acknowledged risk taking as a form of reducing uncertainty and swerving as a form of moving creatively to the next challenges that emerged through our innovation process.
This point in time marks the beginning of maneuvering through new possibilities that lie ahead.
Six months of ongoing planning from the 2020 cohort culminated in an engaging and thought provoking online forum with 16 invited industry speakers and a total of 140 guests. Alongside the forum, our personal projects had a global reach on the UAL Graduate Showcase website. Throughout this project we had an incredible opportunity to connect and speak with individuals and organisations around the globe as well as foster the connection to our alumni network. This experience brought to light the opportunities that could be explored when we embrace the encountered collisions and swerve to new directions.
This point in time marks the beginning of maneuvering through new possibilities that lie ahead. The virtual world showed us flexibility in teamwork, global networking opportunities and the outreach of students’ creative projects to brand new audiences. However, it also showed us the need for immersive experiences, intimate conversations and in-person participation within the vibrant atmosphere of art showcases. Future degree shows could possibly become a blend of the physical and online platforms where students can take advantage of both scenarios. By having a more strategic approach to planning the blended experience covering the previous considerations, students can secure an impactful event for themselves and for those in attendance.
About the authors:
Aleksandra Lella and Daniel Ramos were the co-project managers of the MA Innovation Management 2020 degree show. Aleksandra’s background lies in multidisciplinary design and strategy. Daniel integrates service design with visual thinking principles in his practice. Both are currently based in London.
Brassett, J. & O’Reilly, J. (2018) ‘Collisions, Design and The Swerve’, in P. Vermaas & S. Vial (eds.), Advancements in Philosophy of Design. Series: Design Research Foundations. Berlin: Springer, pp. 71-98.
Toivonen T and Hackshaw L (2020) Members Clubs and Coworking Spaces, can Your Members Rely on You in this Time of Crisis? Time to Vitalise Your most Precious Asset. Available at: https://firstname.lastname@example.org/members-clubs-and-coworking-spaces-can-your-members-rely-on-you-in-this-time-of-crisis-1d97fc21a455.