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Holly DoronAssociate Director | Architect

In our work with social labs, CoLab Dudley and Wolverhampton for Everyone, the APEC Architects team has been learning the value of having principles that guide and inspire our everyday actions and learning. Inspired by our social lab friends, we have been prototyping principles that we are now ready to share and celebrate as we head into 2022.

Why do we need principles?

Our social lab friends and learning partners are crafting deep-rooted work in complex and connected challenges:

  • Wolverhampton for Everyone — co-creating a platform for a people-powered city
  • CoLab Dudley — co-creating conditions for local folk to create cultural change and nurture a kinder, more connected and creative Dudley High Street

There are aspects of social labs that APEC also identifies with through our work with communities across the Midlands and England:

Social — we need a constellation of different talents and minds to work together on social challenges

Experimental — working with complexity requires us to have an iterative approach through experimenting and we need lots of people to help build and test and reflect upon the results from those experiments.

Systemic — we try to go beyond the symptoms or part of an issue. We try to see the whole and respond to root causes. As part of this we think about how experiments link together and what patterns they reveal about the wider context.

To help navigate the uncertainty and complexity we work in, CoLab and WE use a form of developmental evaluation called Principles-Focused Evaluation (PFE), which is fairly new to the UK. It’s a method developed by Michael Quinn Patton that invites people to develop a set of GUIDEing Principles that inform our everyday actions, and help us to identify and understand the effects of these actions.

  • G — Guiding — they provide advice and guidance, with active verb wording, “Do this…”, to encourage action
  • U — Useful — they point towards our goals, support making choices and decisions, they’re doable and feasible
  • I — Inspiring — they’re ethically grounded, meaningful and evoke a sense of purpose
  • D — Developmental — they’re sensitive to context, adaptable to changing contexts, and enduring (not time-bound)
  • E — Evaluable — they help us learn from our actions and determine whether they are taking us where we want to go.

Evaluation is typically limited to not-for-profit organisations that need to demonstrate their impact to their funders. As a limited company, APEC doesn’t have this obligation, but we see ourselves as not-just-for-profit; our roots in collaborating and learning with communities began with our founding partners in 1969. We already have underlying ethical principles that inform our decisions in who we work with, the types of projects we get involved in, how we treat people and the planet. These principles were not yet fully articulated but they have guided us away from pursuing projects that ‘just don’t feel right’.

At the beginning of 2021, the APEC team dusted off our mission statement, which sat in a file on our server that we rarely opened. It felt like a time capsule of our behaviours and intentions. We decided to experiment with PFE and create principles that are more embedded in our everyday actions, as tools to actively inform our decision making and learning.

Co-creating our principles

The APEC team gathered together over miro to reflect on our previous mission statement, and find out what was important to each of us in the way we practise. It became clear that there are specific values guiding our actions around architecture, communities, climate, heritage, and the various people and relationships needed to make projects happen.

We used Patton’s GUIDEing framework to draft our principles and counter principles, referencing and building on some of the principle wording and reflections from Wolverhampton for Everyone and CoLab Dudley.

We sat with our draft principles, experimented with them in our projects, and chewed on the wording. They were particularly useful for designing engagement workshops throughout the year, encouraging us to root our activities regenerative design: creating conditions for long-term thinking and equipping collaborators with tools to lead network and trust building with their communities.

At the beginning of December, the APEC team reflected on the draft principles together and refined the wording so they feel comfortable and easy for everyone to tap into on a daily basis. We used these refined principles (at the end of this note) to help us reflect on our year and identify where we need to shift to changing contexts or in response to what we’ve been learning.

The CoLab and WE teams had discovered that it is really helpful to visual icons for principle to aid embedding and communicating them; for example when we are planning something on miro, we would ‘drop’ the relevant principles we want to uphold in our designs, building them into our everyday practice.

CoLab Dudley’s principles
Wolverhampton for Everyone’s principles

The APEC team were inspired by BlackSpace Urbanist Collective’s diagrammatic manifesto, and wanted a way to represent our principles without images that could carry other connotations.

We wanted our principle icons to encourage us to not think about them in isolation, so we have experimented with icons that can be overlaid when multiple principles apply to one situation. Like the wording of the principles themselves, these icons are the first prototype and are developmental.

Our principles

We envision that our 5 principles will change over time the more we learn with them. We welcome conversations with people who are interested in this approach, or are drawn to our principles.

  • We advocate for and act with care for our planet and future generations.
  • We make responsible use of existing resources and unlock value that has been overlooked.
  • We embrace and share regenerative practice; always thinking long-term, strategically and systemically.

We avoid:

  • Thinking only in the short-term or rushing to quick solutions.
  • Acting without gaining a deep understanding of the context of people and place.
  • Wasteful use of resources
  • We cultivate generous, caring, respectful, reciprocal, and trusting relationships and collaborations.
  • We seek connections between places, ideas, activities and people.
  • We co-create conditions to connect people and resources within our network with intentional invitations.

We avoid:

  • Transactional and extractive behaviour.
  • Being closed or seeing things in isolation.
  • Thinking we are too small to make a difference.
  • We co-create conditions for imagination and collaboration to flourish.
  • We identify, lift and celebrate everybody’s gifts and talents.
  • We embrace creativity and learning, learning from what does and doesn’t work.

We avoid:

  • Accepting limited mindsets and barriers.
  • Being discouraging.
  • Complacency.
  • We co-create accessible and inclusive experiences and places.
  • We proactively look after each other and everyone’s wellbeing.
  • We co-create and champion conditions that enable people to share their voice and feel a sense of belonging.

We avoid:

  • Being a voice for people.
  • Being silent around the diminishment of people’s value.
  • Not being empathetic to experiences.
  • We listen to, value, respect, and learn from others.
  • We encourage cooperation and collaboration.
  • We share our learning openly, generously and with humility.

We avoid:

  • Keeping what we are learning to ourselves, from both successes and failures.
  • Being closed to other people’s ideas and opinions.
  • Inaction from the learning that comes from doing.

We envision that our 5 principles will change over time the more we learn with them. We welcome conversations with people who are interested in this approach, or are drawn to our principles.