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Manchester is Looking Up: Why Would 'Being-Curious-in-Action' Matter?

In November 2014, the BBC Learning Department kindly invited me to speak at their Imaginarium - a lunchtime inspiration meet up where people from outside the BBC are invited in to the Great British institution to share a story about their work.

I presented a very simple 'visual narrative' (AKA PDF presentation of full bleed imagery interspersed with a few enticing quotes that told the story of The Curiosity Bureau, my interest in action research and how this, along with meeting the right people at the right time, has led to a mega-fantastic opportunity - an opportunity to transform a rooftop in the centre of the Northern Quarter, Manchester).

Since the presentation I have since sat and found a bit more time and space write in more detail about what 'Being-Curious-in-Action' means? Also known by me (at the moment - not sure if it will catch on?!) as - 'Curiosity-in-Action'. I have arrived at the following working definition (with plenty of opportunity for wiggle room and further discussion so by all means, do join in and email me if you wish to discuss further.

Being-Curious-in-Action or Curiosity-in-Action is being aware of your process whilst you are actively doing a project of curiosity and mixing up an application of inquisitiveness, serendipity and disruption.

For example, doing research through design - and looking to reflective ways of recording your journey such as visual narratives, annotated portfolios (Gaver & Bowers, 2012) and ‘free writing’ (Marshall, J 2011 - tbc). These processes of critical reflection awaken a deeper level of curiosity and trigger points at which your curiosity may be sparked by the inquisitiveness, serendipity and disruption of others and vice versa.

Inquisitiveness, Serendipity & Disruption

Curiosity-in-Action is inquisitive and whilst the process of being curious-in-action can be independent, on the whole it is a social and collaborative process. The collaborative process expands and contracts throughout, in much the same way as the process of co-design (Sanders, E 2011) - when looked upon from a distance, I see in the process a tempo. A change in tempo of a project is commonly seen in the codesign process, for example, decisions are often made more rapidly when less are involved in the 'co'-design and slows when the 'co'-design expands and increases in numbers of interested and engaged participants. It is as this tempo varies that being-curious-in-action matters, as there is often a need to be more inquistiveness when more people are involved, and it is important to encourage others to be curious and inquisitive too - this forms a coping strategy with conflict, because if defensiveness becomes apparent it can be replaced with curiosity and result in continued action, the tempo might slow, but the momentum remains. This is important because without curiosity any kind of tempo can easily be disrupted, and even destroyed, if conflict does not find resolution through being-curious-in-action.

Being-Curious-in-Action is revealed as you openly declare your inquisitiveness for a a detailed account of how you have undergone a journey through a project. In addition to this, you introduce ways of critical reflection that are unique to your way of deepening your learning experience – for example, you might take action through making an artefact or a number of artefacts (these could range from graphic representations to physical products to digital realisations to designed experiences or activities where you encourage people to engage in your critical reflection) - this is where curiosity-in-action flourishes, because from the moment you began the journey of your project and confronted the unknown (particularly, the not knowing the who or how you would then create a critical reflective artefact or design device or dialogical interaction) you remained open to serendipity - prepared for chance.

What inevitably matters is that you acknowledge your responsibility for sparking someone else’s curiosity, and in doing so they feel something and are provoked to then take action also. This can be productively disruptive, and therefore requires awareness of the power of our curiosity.

Curiosity-in-action can therefore be likened to an ever-growing constellation of projects resulting resulting in artefacts, in-depth narratives, further questions, and deeper critical reflection, and it is in taking responsibility for our ‘curiosity-in-action’ that I strongly believe we begin to familiarise ourselves with humanity, hope and our impact both independently and collectively on ourselves and others.


The 'before' picture of the rooftop at 24NQ, Manchester in October, 2014

The first invitation to the first preliminary event/meeting in November 2014

As trustee of A New Leaf, Partner of The Curiosity Bureau and active resident and citizen of the Northern Quarter I had plenty of reasons to want this project to happen and take shape. However, I became very aware, very quickly of my responsibility of 'being-curious-in-action'. Whilst I mentioned my role as a Doctoral Researcher at HighWire, Lancaster University it didn't feel right to overly promote this. As 'agendas' go, a researcher's agenda at preliminary stages of a social good/action project seem awkward and somewhat self-fulfilling, which doesn't reflect the ethos of a project and the hopes and ambitions for a collaborative and free-flowing process.

Questions I was asking myself included - but why would this project matter to others if I called it a doctoral research project? How does my personal process have anything to do with others? Whilst the process matters to research, does it matter to those involved in the rooftop?

Through a number of conversations with other New Leaf and NQ Greening folk, Atul at Sheila Bird and a few others too, it became apparant that there was a shared curiosity in transforming a rooftop. It responded to a need, and a need that still had many, many unknowns. The process would only work if we also all agreed on its uncertainty, instability and utter acknowledgement that the experimental nature of such an initiaitve might not actually work.

This process and approach re-connected me to some of the reading I had been doing surrounding 'the maker movement'. This involved me reading around transformational learning experiences, and specifically topics such as; Creative Confidence, Imagination and Curiosity in more depth. Here are a few of the out-takes I was particularly interested in.

During our collaborative summer research project (May-Sept 2014) with Mike Stead, we also looked to reports and papers that drew on the insights of gathering momentum, intrigue and insights from across active citizens - volunteers and/or design activists.

After having asked people to empty their pockets of their technology devices and set to work using those devices and communication platforms in an attempt to gather a response to a speculative challenge, our summer project then resulted in an exhibition. We designed 12 interactions/artefacts/experiences/activities to represent the 12 key insights that had emerged from the results of the speculative challenge - to transform a derelict carpark into a community, social space. Some of which can be seen below...

'Field Trips' - walking tours with Morag Rose

'Hello Trello?' - the digital platform chosen and created by participants of the summer project (2014) to share ideas and tasks in response to the challenge

'A Desk Trap'

'Get Your Hands Dirty Workshop'

'Green Currency'

Quite simply, The Rooftop Project began because Atul attended our exhibition (situated at Reason Digital in 24NQ) and together with the greening groups we asked why? Why are we struggling for outdoor social spaces in the Northern Quarter? Atul took the conversation further and asked 'well, why don't you use the rooftop?' And, as if by some magical coincidence our inquisitiveness, serendipity and disruption all collided at exactly the same time and suddenly we had a location, a home for an outdoor social space. Now what?

The Rooftop Project kick started officially in November 2014 and in collaboration with the tenants of 24NQ - SpacePortX, The Neighbourhood, Reason Digital, Hyper Island, Music, Chilli Marketing, PLY, GBA as well as local residents such as Greg Dwyer and Andrew Jeffay, and community groups such as A New Leaf, NQ Greening, NQ Growboxes, Young Peoples Support Foundation, CoOrganisers - to name but a few. It has since gathered tremendous pace and you can read more about the (soft)launch of The Rooftop Project in the blog entry - The Rooftop Project: Finding Space to Be Curious-in-Action

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