Three learnings that have left me humbled in 2017.

What a year 2017 has been. This was the year that I took on the Directorship at Participate in Design (P!D) on my own and running it at full steam. It was a year filled with owning the unknown, confronting my insecurities and fears head on, turning fear and doubt into fuel for brilliance (which can be scary!), all with the faith that this would be what it will take to make things happen. The year has been all about hard work, dedication, and getting sh(it) done, and hopefully kicking ass while at it!

This is a reflection of my work at P!D and also, of my personal growth as a participatory designer, community organiser, educator and a boss. Over the past year, I have gained so much from working on wonderful projects, the treasured opportunities to meet many inspiring people, and the privilege to work with my amazing P!D team. Being the year that P!D turned 4 years old, this feels significant and I would also love for you to take a look at our milestones, project documentation, and reflections here.[ Feel free to download a copy =)] For now, here’s three major learnings that have left me humbled in 2017.

1. More give, less take

Over the years, I’ve had many opportunities to share my work on local and international platforms, and one of the best advice that I have been learning to embrace comes from Simon Sinek, author of the classic “Start With Why”. He shared,

“The best motivation to present an idea is to come with the spirit of giving. When someone shows up with the desire to give, to share an idea, to share a perspective, to share a product, to share a new way of looking at something, people are much more receptive. When you show up with the mindset that you want nothing in return and to share what you have learnt, to share what you know, to present what you discover, people will become curious for more.”

Despite the many presentations that I have given, there have always existed a lingering sense of insecurity about sharing my story, work, or thoughts with a wider audience. There is a constant fear that I have nothing interesting or ‘intellectual’ enough to share and often, these presentations are done with an efficient delivery mindset. As much as I tried, the doubts continue to hang over my head and it was only when I approached a presentation with the generous spirit of giving, that I became comfortable taking the stage.

P!D Team at the beautiful Chulalongkorn University

One of the presentations that I had the opportunity to give this year was in Bangkok, where I was one of two representatives from Singapore at the ASEAN International Symposium on Volunteerism Culture in South East Asia. It was extra special as the entire P!D team was there for our first ever P!D overseas trip!

With the intention of sharing rooted in our minds, we connected with many passionate individuals from the region such as ACHR Community Architects Network, 98B, EPIC, and many others. It still amazes me how sharing sessions like this never fail to bring many opportunities for collaborations with other like-minded creatives, designers, artists and thought leaders!

Nickson Tan from EPIC Collaborative, Malaysia
With the good people from Indonesia and Philippnies: Nurina Wardhani from Rifka Annisa and Abie Zaidannas from Project Child and Gabriel Villegas from 98B Collaboratory

We interacted with the beautiful sights and sounds that the city had to offer, and brought home fond memories and knowledge on how we can embrace a sharing and caring ASEAN community. In particular, the team and I left with a fond memory of the spirited and joyous 70-year old, student from local Chulalongkorn University Petra Trainer who said, “When you talk good, write good, think good, eventually you will do good.” Yes to that!

The ever bubbly Petra Trainer!

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“As a designer, it is my job to make choices that trigger the right responses” — Phil Gilbert, General Manager of Design, IBM

I will always be grateful to Scott Robinson and Johnathan Liebo of Design Forward Alliance for giving me the opportunity to play a small part in the thriving design scene in San Diego. It was an amazing opportunity to take the stage with other civic champions and thought leaders, and share the P!D story of empowering local communities through Participatory Design at a global stage. Once again, I went with a spirit of giving and sharing new perspectives and left gaining and learning so much more from the people and places in San Diego.

With Bennett Peji, Senior Director at the Jacobs Center For Neighborhood Innovation and Scott Robinson, Founder, President/CEO, FreshForm & Founding Chair, Design Forward Alliance

The Design Forward Summit began with a Community Mixer at the scenic Port Pavilion while the actual Summit took place at Liberty Station, a former naval training center. Never have I met a group of people who were more enthusiastic, passionate and ever so encouraging! The wonderful people that I met at the event remain my most treasured take-away from my visit there, just edging out the city’s picturesque scene, and near perfect California weather. I also left agreeing with what is said about San Diego, that is a “city that is not gauged by its length and width, but by the broadness of its visions and the height of its dreams”.

With Bennett Peji at Balboa Park, San Diego. A kind soul who took time to show me around the creative city.
With Jonathan Leibo, the very kind host from Design Forward Alliance!
One of the many inspiring quotes from the Design Forward Summit
Looking forward to DesignForward 2018!

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In Songdo, South Korea at the New Cities Summit in June 2017: Christopher Cabaldon, Mayor, West Sacramento | Neal Gorenflo, Executive Director of Shareable | Chris Gourlay, Founder and CEO, Spacehive | Eve Picker, Founder, Small Change
“We need to ‘hack’ and ‘disrupt’ traditional civic citizen participation approaches and methods in order to make it relevant and purposeful for people.” This is where I took the stage alongside other inspiring and distinguished panelists at NewCities Summit at Songdo, South Korea.

Thank you 2017 for teaching me that when you set your intention to give and not to take, you receive, gain and learn so much more. There is something so innately magical about being able to share one’s perspectives and leaving with new ones from the people that you meet and work with. This is why I love the work that I do.

“Share what you are driven to share. Say it will all your heart.” — Elizabeth Gilbert, “Big Magic

2. The Danger of a single story

I was inspired by the Nigerian writer and novelist, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s fabulous TED talk in 2009 called “The Danger of a Single Story.” It was about what happens when complex human beings and situations are reduced to a single narrative such as when Africans, for example, are treated solely as pitiable poor, starving victims with flies on their faces. She closed her talk by sharing, “That when we reject the single story, when we realize that there is never a single story about any place, we regain a kind of paradise.”

I am more convinced than ever that each person’s life contains a multitude of stories. If you reduce people to a single story, you are taking away their humanity and eventually authenticity.

As participatory designers and community organisers, I believe that this is a fundamental mindset to have in our relationship with the people we work with. We can’t ask good questions and make good decisions if we don’t fully engage with all that the community has to offer. We need to spend time uncovering and discovering what truly matters to people in all the lives that they live. It is our duty and role as participatory designers to ensure that the things we create are truly with and for the people.

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I had the opportunity to be in Amsterdam this year for Placemaking Week organised by Project for Public Spaces and STIPO and there, I saw the city’s open-mindedness and respect which was reflected in the way the city treats not only its people, but also its buildings.

I was also fortunate that a friend based in Amsterdam brought us to Lola Lik, a former prison that has been converted into a cultural epicentre with a space for startups, art studios, and offices. What was special about this is that the entire complex has been created for and with refugees who now call Amsterdam home.

There, we had dinner at a restaurant called, A Beautiful Mess, that was also run by refugees who were clearly proud to work in an establishment, serving the food that they love from their original home towns. They exuded so much love and pride for the place and their work, and at that moment I saw what could be unlocked when one embrace the multitude of stories that exist in a person.

Delicious Syrian Food we had for dinner

On display was the “Amsterdam approach” where underutlised spaces are seen as local assets, and that being a refugee in a city should not be one’s only story. It is a true example of how the Dutch celebrate and embraces the fact each individual life contains a heterogeneous compilation of stories and that refugees should be included and integrated into the city. Two articles for your reading pleasure if you are keen to learn more about Lola Lik (1) (2).

Stories are powerful and when we embrace the multiplicity of stories within each of us, we get to touch authenticity. This is what I hope to mindfully embrace in the year ahead.

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3. Understand why it matters

This is by far the most important lesson that deserves reminding in the midst of datelines and busyness.

Understanding why it matters to approach design with empathy.
Understanding why it matters to design and create with a heart.
Understanding why it matters to give a damn.

This is a fundamental principle that drives the work we do at P!D and this year, I saw projects and stories that remind me of its importance.

With the inspiring bunch from Community Architects Network of Asian Coalition of Housing Rights at their homely office space. Treated us with an array of tropical fruits that is to die for!

One of such projects is when were in Bangkok, we visited Mahakan Fort, a two-century-old community that dates back to the early Rattanakosin Era, during the reign of King Rama III (1824–1851). It has been a 24-year-long dispute between the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA) and the Mahakan Fort Community, on whether the community must relocate in order to make way for a new public park. An article titled, Green Space vs. Community: The future of Mahakan Fort is a well written piece about the struggles and history behind it.

At Mahakan Fort with Kampong Chief and Sanon Wangsangboon, Founder, Mahakan Model Group

In the face of ‘progress’, the community is still fighting to keep the important living heritage alive. Community architects, designers, and civic leaders are working hard towards a solution and it was inspiring to meet them, understand their challenges, exchange ideas about what is possible, and know that we are not alone in mobilizing communities and designing with people. At Mahakan Fort, I saw communities from different backgrounds coming together because they understand why it matters to give a damn. I saw people who recognize that decisions are only as good as the decision-making process. And I saw people who truly give a damn. This work truly matters.

We ended the day with delicious Thai food and fond conversations!

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As we move into 2018, I carry these lessons with me: to share with the spirit of giving, to listen to the multitude of stories in everyone, and to always remember why it matters to give a damn. There will be many more lessons to be learned, and I wish for myself and for you, the wish of Jonathan Field, author of the book How to Live a Good Life: ‘To live in the radiant glow of my best self’.

With love & gratitude,
Mizah

Finally, much love to Adib, my husband, partner, love and my biggest supporter. Thank you for your encouragement, advice and editing the piece above for me.