By Diane Jermyn, Globe and Mail, January 25, 2011
Zahra Ebrahim, principal and founder of archiTEXT, an architecture and design think tank, is big on the p-word. As in “play.” The word is often viewed as profanity in the business world, she says, but it’s part of the culture at her Toronto studio.
“Creativity, innovation and social innovation are the buzzwords that all big business is transitioning toward, but the idea of play as an activity is something they’re very scared of,” Ms. Ebrahim says. “It takes a while for people to warm up to it.”
Founded in 2006, archiTEXT’s mandate is to use architecture and design to help businesses engage a more diverse audience in their marketplace. The young staff, ranging in age from 21 to 32, includes people with backgrounds in economics, history, art, design and architecture.
“If we’re dealing with an established business, what’s challenging is to convince them to abandon this very safe structure and go to a new place where they’re not sure where it will take them,” Ms. Ebrahim says.
Ms. Ebrahim likes to get to “the why” of how a person thinks – why someone sells a particular product, why they care. This is not always exposed in the traditional business thinking process. “A lot of what we do is designed to be provocative and start conversations,” she says.
“Over the last decade there’s been a move from business thinking to design thinking,” Ms. Ebrahim says. “What we’re doing at archiTEXT is experimenting with it. The way that we come to any solution is we bring in dynamic thinkers because if you want a team of designers or architects, there are many other places you can go. But where we’ve really carved our niche is by bringing young thinkers into these dynamic groups.”
Born in Kenya, Ms. Ebrahim grew up in West Vancouver, then studied urban systems and architecture at McGill. For two years she served as innovator-in-residence at Canada's national design museum, the Design Exchange, and was the youngest professor at the Ontario College of Art & Design.
Her approach to design thinking is that it’s a messy process, unlike “clean business thinking,” which might include checklists.
With any luck, this is where the revolution is going to start. "What revolution?" you ask. The one that gets the establishment to think innovatively, creatively, without a flight plan, without a list of lists that require accomplishment every day, without a sterlity that infects business, politics, theology, and even social interractions.
Imagine the negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians, under the auspices of ArchiTEXT! Two thousand years of history would be looked at, framed, and bounced around from a variety of perspectives, none of which have been in "play" in all of the previous attempts to bring peace.
Imagine the negotiations between the Republicans and the Democrats over debt and deficit problems hosted and guided by Zahra Ebrahim and her group of unorthodox thinkers. And then start to think about the reverberations from those two negotiations.
Imagine Wall Street financial services markets meeting with the Unitarian Services Committee to plan the remediation and restitution required to atone for the rape of the financial services industry, and the economies of many of the western nations, if ArchiTEXT were the company at the heart of the process.
PLAY, that four-letter word is so anathema to the establishment that it is virtually worse than a swear word. It is the classic enemy of the straight-laced, buttoned-down, stiff-upper-lip attitude and culture of the people who swear by their values of "discipline," and "following precedent," and "keeping with tradition," and refusing to permit the kind of thinking, and subsequent actions that would never have been contemplated, and would never have been respected by that same establishment.
PLAY is to puritans as sex is to Baptists...solely as a necessity for procreation!
PLAY is to corporate leaders as booze to the temperance union of the 20's, forbidden!
PLAY is to political leadership as bungie-jumping for babies!
PLAY is to school teachers as acid and methamphetamines to the Officers of the War on Drugs!
Play must be collegial, and co-operative and lateral and the inverse of vertical. Everything about the establishment is vertical, in order to preserve the power of those at the top, for its own sake, and for the sake of preserving the status, position and honour of those at the top, who are now the recipients of those glutonous bonuses. Along with preserving their power, they must also preserve their culture of avoiding "messes" because "messes" invoke images of little children who have not yet grown "up"....notice the geometry of that word....And messes need to cleaned up "at once" in order to avoid the embarrassment that accompanies all messes!
Let's get real, and acknowledge that much of the world, including much of what goes on in most organizations is messy, but we choose not to look at those messes, because they are unlikely to be cleaned up any time soon. They have become 'normal' by our negligence and denial.
However, they are still there, and we choose to scorn their presence, if we acknowledge it at all.
Perhaps, if enough 'risk takers' are willing to engage with ArchiTEXT, and spread the word, there will be a ripple effect that grows into a tsunami of honesty, and new solutions for old problems, and new attitudes toward what is possible. And, to think one of these examples, born in Kenya, started in Canada! Ironic? perhaps but impressive!