Visual thinking for building ‘community resiliency’ and other abstract-sounding ideas

By Assma Basalamah

Material resources – including time and funds – can be scarce in the world of community building and activism, even with a wealth of resources in terms of ideas. The questions that must be asked are: “how to use creativity capital to compensate for lack of material means” and “how not to waste creativity capital of a group of people with limited time and income”. The answers often lie in business models which, though wealthier, are also looking as desperately as community builders to be time and energy efficient.

Common go-tos for proficiency are planning and strategizing. The mapping of a project seek to skip as many stages of ‘learning through mistakes’ as possible. One can imagine how costly it would be to proceed by trial and error to create a functional and aesthetically appealing car. In order not to have to choose between blindly embarking on a project or exhausting one’s resources, the best approach is to combine planning and doing by creative prototyping.  This allows all the elements working on the project to be on the same page and to function in a nonlinear, parallel manner. It also develops a type of ‘pre-emptive hindsight’ as the project to be can be ‘seen’ through its representation: the prototype before it comes into existence. Keeping the example of the car design in mind, we can understand how prototyping is relevant to complex projects, as it offers a ‘patron’ to mimic in order to achieve the same end result, regardless of the number of minds and skills at work.

Now when it comes to more abstract projects like building resilience in a community, the equivalent of prototyping is the process of visual thinking. The same scheme occurs in a slightly different manner. Goals, which are usually first conceptual, are visualized in order to be made accessible, then perhaps modified by other ideas which when visualized are made to concretely challenge other ideas. Visual thinking creates an arena in which ideas can be laid out to shape one another, until a step-to-step map is formed.  This map, just like the prototype, combines both planning and modelling at once in order to allow a group to assess it prior to its undertaking. There are of course many stages of prototyping or visual thinking that occur between the first visioning meeting and the actualization of a force such as resiliency in a community. For example, beyond mapping, manifestations of visual thinking include sensing a sample of the population, creating pilot projects, studying the effects of the work done, etc. In the world of car design, stages of prototyping phasing into the end product would include test-driving, safety assessments, etc.

To conclude, it is important to note that while creative prototyping helps explain visual thinking, it is important to remember that the scales and tools are different. While material production often depends on a system as fast paced as the change of market demands and hikes and falls of sales, social change is a far longer process which has to be viewed as intergenerational, thus more deserving of your investment.


Assma Basalamah is a Political Science and Law Student at the University of Ottawa. She is a visual tapestry artist and designed the tapestry for the Culvating Resiliency Co-Lab in November 2014.

Follow her on Twitter: @AssmaSalahB

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