Cardboard, Consciousness and Complexity: Taking action in today’s world

Some months ago I came across this great big story video a friend shared on Facebook, It was about this global craze where people are coming together, having fun building outfits and armour out of cardboard only to go destroy what they had created.

After I shared it, a few people said they were keen to see it happen in Birmingham. Me being me, I’m down for anything that involves creativity, community and people creating things together, so I said why not? Let’s make it happen. Fast forward a few months and the wheels are now in motion for Birmingham’s first Boxwars event.

As a convener of this event, a designer, a person of colour and a conscious citizen there are a number of fairly complex thoughts, ideas, internal conflicts and contradictions I have grappled along the journey of putting this event together. The writing of this post was a sense making process and is intended as such, so if you find this whole thing somewhat difficult to follow then feel free click the [x] — it’s totally fine.

Cultivating Progressive Behaviours

The first thing that really compelled me about this Boxwars phenomenon, is the simplicity and accessibility of the chosen material that the event centres around — cardboard. The elaborate craftwork on display in the photos and videos from events around the world really showcase what’s possible when we release our inner child and access that play and imagination that gets designed out of us as we grow up in the world.

A core part of the work I do is about helping people build design capacity and progressive mindsets and behaviours. Often this involves building capacity to reframe, repurpose and think differently about the resources they have available to them through serious play. When we are in a playful mindset we are more likely to try new things, have new ideas, and challenge our own assumptions of what’s possible. In a time of unprecedented and rapid change, I believe these are some of the attributes that enable people not only to adapt to change but to shape the futures they want.

I often think about how we might create more experiences that people participate in with their whole selves rather than simply personal or professional personas. I consider how these experiences might be designed in such away that surpass our initial personal motivations and perceived needs to transform areas of our lives we never expected. This was the intent behind hosting projects such as Brum Spaghetti Jams and having seen multiple examples of how these design jams have impacted the whole lives of individuals I have been thinking about and experimenting the concept of Boxwars and surrounding activities a in similar, broader and deeper way.

Considering the Bigger Picture

I also often think about how these experiences can be seamlessly rooted into large movements and conversations at a societal level. In the case of Boxwars, this fits quite nicely into my current curiosities around circular design for a circular economy, which is essentially looking at ways we design products, businesses, organisations and systems that are regenerative and restorative.

The new opportunities for organising and manufacturing afforded through technology are not only blurring the lines between the producer and consumer, but fundamentally broaden the scope for us to be more intentional about designing regenerative and restorative systems and designing out waste. As the likes of fab city model and movement and Ellen McArthur Foundation have spent years exploring, sense-making and strategising for us to move towards these possible futures through tools and experiments, I began to think about how the likes of myself and others can move from merely read about these ideas as concepts in the latest tech blogs and magazines but begin to making it real where we are.

My response to this question is to create shared spaces where more people can have more playful yet meaningful exposure to these possibilities. Spaces where they can begin to experience, comprehend and actually share in the intentional building of these futures. Spaces where we can build a collective consciousness of our current cultures, mindsets, attitudes and behaviours towards production, making and micro-manufacturing in this region. Spaces where we can gain clarity around how these behaviours need to shift in order to make room for real progress and embrace systems that are regenerative and restorative.

With only a surface level understanding of circular design, and a conceptual knowledge of digital fabrication technologies as an enabler towards this end, I began to think about how I might start to experiment with some of these ideas and tools in a small scale with community. In collaboration with my friend Andre Reid, founder of community led design and fabrication startup Kiondo, we have thought about how doing Boxwars might become one in a constellation of projects, ideas and experiments in our city.

Over the past few months Kiondo have been studying how people where we live respond to spaces for making and thinking about what this means for how people negotiate their own sense of belonging in a place in order to shape their futures. With these things in mind, we programmed in a couple of experimental open making sessions around the Boxwars Brum event to make space to think and do with people. We have been thinking about how we can begin to expose people to new making technology and create the space for peer-to-peer learning and experimentation. Through these engagements we aim to foster a deeper insight into what is needed to help people foster the mindsets and skills needed to become more involved in making and production in a non-prescriptive, emergent, exploratory and playful way. The experiments continue.

The significance of insignificance

The second thing I find compelling about Boxwars is this unique space for destruction. With this added layer, I imagine the experience moves from one exhibition, parade and pageantry into a piece of participatory theatre. The natural question we will ask is what good can really come out of destroying things that other people we have spent time labouring to create? As a culture, we go to great lengths to avoid or diminish feelings of tension, conflict, and chaos. We seek peace and happiness, and find it hard to see the benefit in unbalanced states of disorder. Seldom do we intentionally create space for destruction to play out. Yet in the process of making, inventing new things we have to break and deconstruct things, deal with failure and destruction.

For me this destructive element of Boxwars could bring and exaggerated version of the emotional labour involved making and how we as humans move through the emotions involved in this. From a systems perspective, living systems are dynamic, and they need a certain amount of unpredictability and craziness to prosper. Flipping between construction and the destruction is part of what makes a complex system evolve itself. To become more at peace with the mindsets and behaviours involved in making, we need to be comfortable with both construction and destruction.

On the contrary, Birmingham is a city that in recent years has grown accustomed to knocking down buildings (sometimes of cultural significance) in order to build new ones the name regeneration. So in context I ask the question whether comfortability with destruction and temporality really an idea that we need to perpetuate? On a more practical level, what happens to all the cardboard after the carnage? Is there anything that we can do to repurpose rather than simply recycle their use? The jury is still out on this one but we encourage anyone participating in the event to also think about and take responsibility for this.

Finally, I will confess that as I am writing this I am continually tempted to press the delete button on this lengthy blog post as I question whether this stream of consciousness over-intellectualises something that at its core is really not that serious but about light-hearted fun. It is possible that this feeling stems from a personal internalisation of Black African Caribbean attitudes towards art where anything considered too frivolous, animated or without political agenda is considered of less value.

Wanuri Kahiu raises this in her TED talk that champions the celebration of more fun and frivolous African art. She highlights how through our deficit of this kind of art, we could be denying ourselves a full range of human experiences. While this may be the case, I think it’s important that rather than deleting these musings, I allow this idea sits paradoxically with the rest of the thoughts in this blog post. Neither idea gives way to the other, but the contradictions coexist as we continue to explore as a true illustration of what it means to take action around complex issues in today’s world.