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Holly DoronAssociate | Architect
Two months of exploring and absorbing with my 11 Learning Marathon peers and I have: 1) delved into the world of system thinking, 2) had what I suspect was a life-changing conversation about building platforms of trust with the CoLab Dudley team, 3) interviewed a global developer on their community engagement strategies, and 4) been interviewed about the architect’s role in community engagement by two masters students from Birmingham and Sheffield.

Along the way, there have been several discoveries that have resulted in a transformation of my Learning Question:

‘How might early and meaningful community engagement and empowerment become the norm for the built and unbuilt environment, and be sustainable?’

‘How might community participation and empowerment become the norm for creating spaces and places?’


A significant amount of the following insights came out of my afternoon with Jo Orchard-Webb, Lorna Prescott and Nick Booth from CoLab Dudley at Gather Dudley CIC. This isn’t surprising: I went to a talk of theirs at Impact Hub Birmingham in April which heavily influenced my approach to what my Learning Question would explore.


CoLab Dudley’s own Detectorism Insights research led me to the Illustrated Guide to a Participatory City. It’s packed with beautiful drawings and inspiring research into how ‘participation in practical everyday activities transforms peoples lives and neighbourhoods’, in terms of both mental wellbeing and their physical environment. As a result, my Question has moved from engagement to participation, and there’s so much more I need to explore on this.


There’s a natural tendency for architects (and everyone?) to feel there’s a need for a solution or a product. Products come laden with power dynamics (thank you Lorna Prescott). What if the emphasis was on the process, and the ‘byprocesses’ that come out of this?


Relationships are all important (thank you Nick Booth). In order to build relationships, we need time. Participation and empowerment is a long-term affair. It would be difficult to achieve these just at planning stage, or during the first half of a project in the briefing and design stages. We have an opportunity to challenge the short-term nature of our profession. We can be so much more than a service provider who disappears once a building is delivered. There’s potential for every stage to contribute to participatory cultures, and create a sense of urban belonging (thank you Naomi) so I’ve started looking into how Participatory City’s ‘8 reasons why projects and ideas die’ can be addressed at each RIBA Work Stage, including when buildings are in use, and how this can feed back into other projects. To be continued in the Develop phase…

The incredible thing is that this is a project I’ve been wanting to do for three years, and the amount I’ve done in the last two months puts those three years of attempts to shame. I have completely transformed my approach to lifelong learning. It’s baffling, because I already have to keep learning all the time for my role as an architect and educator. However, there’s a significant difference between learning for a job, learning for a qualification, and simply learning with a focus that is completely free of a finite output e.g. a CPD tick box, or a module requirement with pre-set learning outcomes. It’s been refreshing being able to explore without the worry of having an academic approach that is too vague, and simply being able to stretch out the learning tendrils, powered by a magnificently radical model of peer learning.

In the past two months I’ve participated in system mapping with an embodied learning coach, and peer-led workshops in network mapping, collecting and using qualitative data, talking about death, and appreciative enquiry.


In between these workshops, I’ve been meeting up with my Learning Buddy for the first half of the Marathon. My Buddy is exploring how note-taking and journalling can help people in life. Our buddy meet ups have been pivotal in my learning journey, from curious cafe chats and modelling our thoughts in lego to reflective musings on a 4 mile canal walk.


As I progress into the Develop Phase of the Learning Marathon, I’ll be delving further into the theories behind participation, continuing to dissect the architectural process and hopefully identifying ways in can help to contribute to participatory cultures at each stage (and geeking out on the peer learning process of this process).

This blog is part 2 of a series on Holly’s Learning Marathon, a 6 month peer-led radical learning model facilitated by social enterprise, Enrol Yourself.