Readings: Together by Richard Sennett

One thing that Brickstarter has been very good at so far is adding to the proverbial bedside stack of books. On our field research visit to Berlin, Dan and I stopped into the excellent bookshop Pro QM where I picked up a copy of Richard Sennett’s latest book, Together: The rituals, pleasures, and politics of cooperation.


I’ve enjoyed devouring this volume rather quicker than I usually make my way through a text, as Together gives me words to describe things that I previously knew tacitly, only in my bones. It’s almost as if Sennett wrote the book to flesh out some of the philosophical issues we’re attempting to prod through Brickstarter.

His observations on the value and practice of cooperation touch on a few key issues for us: how communities learn together, how rituals enhance sociality, and the social value of repair.

Learning together

A simple observation: “Experiment involves doing new things, and more, structuring these changes over time.” (p. 13). From the point of view of making changes to the built environment, there are experiments happening all the time but the knowledge from those experiments are often kept within the organizations that execute them.

If you’re a private developer, say, that’s part of your competitive advantage. However, if you’re a community group or some other less commercial endeavor the experimental learnings of your efforts are often trapped as well unless you’ve taken great pains to document and share your work in public. Despite the fact that you don’t stand to lose anything by sharing your insights, it’s an act that takes time and is not core to your mission so it’s usually among the lowest priority. This adds up to community-led efforts requiring recurring heroic efforts: one can go to school to learn how to be a property developer, but there are no (few?) equivalent sources of structured learning if you hope to, say, convert your building’s courtyard from a parking lot into a park. The High Line might offer inspiration to subsequent aspiring civic entrepreneurs, but what does it teach them? And how easily does it make the learning process?

One of the important roles of Brickstarter is to provide an infrastructure for learning. We want the platform to help manifest positive projects in the world, but beyond that we want the platform to also provide a learning resource for future civic entrepreneurs.

Sennett describes two analogs that are relevant. The first are a pair of workshops that Booker T. Washington established in the US for former slaves where participants learned skills such as horticulture, carpentry, metal-working, and animal husbandry. The interesting bit, however, is that graduation required more than mastery of skills, it also required graduates to learn how to teach (p. 56). The workshop became a self-replicating dispensary of knowledge.

The second useful analog is from the emergence of movable type. Sennett describes how this allowed “ways of making” to be written down in how-to books and transmitted further and faster than previous systems of guild-based face to face knowledge (p. 114). It’s a well-trodden argument that the written word created network effects for learning, but what’s important here is that new practices that want to grow should pay particular attention to how they replicate their knowledge base. We view civic entrepreneurship as a (relatively) new practice.

For Brickstarter this informs the way we think about the core functionality. One of the decisions we made early on is that the platform must be functional (i.e. allowing people to launch projects) and informative (i.e. helping them imagine possible projects as well as conveying how to execute successful works).

Informative content takes time. It means we have to research, reflect upon, and document successful practices. It’s important work, but it doesn’t scale very well.

Our task is to devise a way for civic entrepreneurship to scale, and that means we need to get beyond person-to-person transmission of knowledge and know-how. The trick for us is to design the platform’s functionality to ambiently produce useful learnings. How? By keeping a public record of how a project is developed, one that’s legible to others who happen upon it. We need to go beyond the “updates” of Kickstarter and other sites. Our hypothesis is that this will require straddling the line between enabling communication to supporters and providing useful project management armature. That puts pressure on devising exactly the right tools for our target user groups. After all, few people use tools that are not useful.

If Brickstarter is a useful tool for pursuing a civic project, it will attract users and those users, by virtue of using Brickstarter, will produce a public record of their work. Scale is important here because over time as successes (and failures) accumulate it will help us build out what Sennett calls a ‘quiver’:

Sometimes it’s imagined that becoming skilled means finding the one right way to execute a task, that there is a one-to-one match between means and ends. A fuller path of development involves learning to address the same problem in different ways. The full quiver of techniques enables mastery of complex problems; only rarely does one single right way serve all purposes. (p. 210)

The Importance of Rituals

“Ritual makes expressive cooperation work” (p. 17), or put differently, ritual is an expressive form of cooperation. Sennett argues that rituals bind communities because they are an act which is simultaneously bigger than the individual and yet allows for personal and expressive interpretation. In his view, society suffers when it loses its rituals, and we’ve lost many.

To an extent, I think we would agree. In the context of Brickstarter we’re interested in tiny rituals as a way of celebrating specific kinds of usage. It’s an idea that hinges on one seemingly obvious point: specific kinds of usage require specific uses! By narrowing our scope to civic entrepreneurship in the built environment we’re isolating a wide but specific spectrum of issues, opportunities, and challenges to deal with. We have identified a territory that allows us to hover between general and specific and begin to speculate about reasonable rituals therein.

One of the rituals we’ve identified already is the notion of celebrating/decorating projects that exhibit pro-social values through the conferring of badges or other means. Side note: On Friday Dan and I had a good discussion about an alternative to badges which connects to Finnish history and symbolism. As both of us have a background in interaction design, we’re concerned with those aspects of the project as a point of innovation as well.

I appreciate Sennett’s thinking on ritual because it forms the sociological flip side of what behavioral psychology tells us about gaming and game mechanics. Motivate the individual with a badge, sure, but use the act to create wider ripples of meaning that reinforce the values of a community.

The social value of repair

Sennett argues that societies which have a culture of repair are more integral cultures. I’m struck by this perspective as it links the physical and the social through the quirkiness of matter. When things break they break in unique ways, always with a slightly different context, even minutely varried details. Repairing things implicates the owner and the repairman in an unavoidable dialog of diagnostics.

Making can happen in the isolated atelier (though it usually doesn’t if we’re honest with ourselves) but repair almost always happens in the world, with people.

Sennett describes repair as “[re-formating] an issue so that it becomes changeable” (p. 229). In some sense this will be the task for Brickstarter: if we can make the built environment feel mutable to a larger group of people, not just developers, architects, and other insiders, then we’ve done a good job. A question for us, then, is “how can we make the cracks, seams, and loopholes of the city legible and actionable to a wider variety of citizens?”

Reading Together challenges me to think of all acts within a city as repair rather than creation. Understanding a creative act as ‘repair’ implicates the ideological underpinnings of that choice: is it a good repair or a bad one? Implicit in repair there is a sense of history that’s valuable to retain. Or more poetically, as Swedish impressario Jens Lekman puts it, “what’s broken can always be fixed; what’s fixed will always be broken”.

Changing the courtyard from parking lot into a park could be seen as repairing a broken courtyard rather than creating a new park. But in some cases it will be useful, even necessary, to consider how to gracefully accommodate those who fall on the losing side of a public decision. Sennett explores the question through the example of David Chipperfield’s renovation of the Neues Museum in Berlin which was devastated in WWII, but we will also need to think through these issues on a much more humble scale, like courtyard gardens repaired into place in entirely peaceful settings. In our courtyard example above, how to retain a sense of history is a useful quandary.

Reorienting the book’s subtitle, I might phrase its relevance to our work as: supporting the rituals and pleasures of cooperation to ease the politics of shared decisions in shared spaces.

If you want to skip all the reading you can watch this talk from the Harvard Graduate School of Design instead:

Why do I blog this?

Because the book was excellent and thought provoking, duh. OK but seriously, because I wanted to get some of these issues into the flow and writing this blog post gave me opportunity to merge the concepts that I picked up from Sennett with the loose threads of various Brickstarter conversations. Writing congealing the liquid thought, perhaps.

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One comment on ‘Readings: Together by Richard Sennett’

  1. This is the second time our interests have combined, so I thought I’d connect. I finished Together about a month ago, and have been thinking about ways of incorporating the thinking contained into my practice of experience architecture. I’m actually planning to write a little on the different concepts of repair that Sennett teases out when writing about the Neues Museum, how they reflect different ways of conceiving a rebuild or redesign project, and how being sensitive to them can avoid a knock-down/rebuild approach to websites, which, even when privately owned, are essentially a public space (especially with the rise of UGC).

    I also first heard about Sitra at almost the same time, at the most recent UX Australia conference, up in Brisbane. There, Tim Horton, the South Australian Commissioner for Integrated Design, gave a great closing keynote on the 5000plus project in Adelaide and more generally encouraging design-based methods for more effective urban governance. It’s not surprising that Sitra came up, but your Brickstarter project sound fascinating.

    Good luck, and please, look me up if you guys are ever in town.

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