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Holly DoronAssociate | Architect

The Learning Marathon has come to an end, but after 6 months of researching into community empowerment a surprise collaboration has emerged, so this is really just the beginning…

As part of the Learning Marathon, I’ve been exploring the Learning Question:


How might citizen empowerment form the basis of changes in the urban environment?


Part of this has involved developing an understanding of the current system of how things get built (or, as is more often the case, fail to get built) and seeking out people who are trying to change this system.


Developing an understanding of a complex system is, unsurprisingly, a complex undertaking. After months of research and interviewing people, I have amassed numerous enlightening nuggets of information and thoughts gathered in the form of notebooks, recordings, maps, infinite whiteboards and diagrams. I tried to rationalise all the narratives I gathered into a format that I could make sense of, but ended up with this unintelligible spreadsheet →

This left me with three questions:

  1. How do you even start to filter through this level of qualitative data and picture it in the wider system?
  2. How do you start to recognise how they interconnect?
  3. How can you make this information accessible and legible for other people so you can share it as a tool to generate conversations?

I’m fairly new to the term ‘systems thinking’, although I think this mode of exploration is naturally engrained into architectural education. One way we are trained to consider complexity is through diagrams, so my automatic response to making sense of all the information I had gathered so far was to attempt to visualise this data in relation to the traditional cycle of a project:


From the initial idea → fundraising → getting a design team together → designing it→ building it→ using it → maintaining it → recognising its decline, which ultimately leads to → the next project idea of how to restore, improve or replace it.


I also wanted to see how this cycle relates to the wider system; whether it’s about the individual, service or profession of architecture, the policies informing the professions, the politics informing the policies, the social need informing the politics, or the education informing people’s views and approaches.


My hopes were that once I could visualise the information in the wider system, I could then better understand the current system, and at which points this is being, or could be, disrupted. With this understanding, I could then identify gaps in my research, or areas I could delve further into. I decided last minute to take an early draft of this visualisation along with me to a Food for Thought hosted at Impact Hub Birmingham. This first attempt was a useful tool for talking through ideas, and people were excited about how this tool could help them in their own projects.

First draft of the narrative visualisation at Impact Hub Birmingham’s Food for Thought

It then dawned on me that this is what a fellow Learning Marathoner had been looking into. Romek Goj has been exploring how taking notes can help people in life. He has been developing Notebits, an app in which you can record and filter notes to better understand a situation. Rather than looking page by page, book by book, you can have the ability to sort through all these ideas and thoughts, recognise links, and where to go next or simply find peace through the process of doing this. Romek’s dream is for Notebits to be a reflection-provoking and flexible tool that evolves with the user’s growing understanding. In Romek’s words:


“The whole picture allows us to see what’s missing, then accept the imperfection, then adapt based on that.”

Romek and I realised we could team up on this: Romek exploring his Notebits ideas through creating an interactive visualisation of my research, while I developed a better understanding of the research I’d gathered and where to go next. Through a rich process of sketching, coding revelations, and ironing out bugs, together we developed an online interactive visualisation of all the research I had gathered so far. By categorising each research entry into elements of a system, which stage of projects it applies to, and whether it was about a current or disrupted system, we were able to create a tool that enables us to see all the qualitative research as a whole.

Holly & Romek’s process for creating the narrative visualisation

This tool, in a matter of minutes, gave me new perspectives, which was at first daunting, but then actually reassuring. There’s so much more research to be done to develop a better understanding of this, and developing a more robust methodology.


Romek and I shared our beta tool at the Learning Marathon Showcase, where everyone in the peer group shares elements of their Learning Questions. Showcasing a collaboration with someone else was the perfect end, and start, to an enlightening multidisciplinary learning journey. We are continuing to develop this tool, exploring how it can be used to map and link individual projects, which in turn will reveal ways in which we can create greater autonomy for others who could potentially use this. Watch this space…

Birmingham’s first Learning Marathon peer-learning group on their Showcase night.
From left to right, back row: Cassie Humphries-Massey, Andre-Donovan N. Reid, Rachel Donath, Thomas TyrrellMeg Lightheart, Romek GojVerity Milligan, Lisa Lucy G, Mikayla Jones, Anneka Deva, Nardie Hanson, Holly Doron

This blog is part 5 of a series on Holly’s Learning Marathon, a 6 month peer-led radical learning model facilitated by social enterprise, Enrol Yourself.