News / Opinion

Assemble’s Paloma Strelitz makes a case for mainstream creative education

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Yesterday, the Design Museum launched the 10th edition of Design Ventura, its award-winning national design and enterprise challenge for secondary schools, supported by Deutsche Bank. It was also announced that the renowned Turner Prize-winning design collective Assemble had been selected to set the design brief for students across the country – focusing on the importance of sustainable design. Here, Assemble’s co-founder, Paloma Strelitz, explains why she joined the initiative.

The future of work is in radical flux. According to the World Economic Forum, 65 per cent of children entering primary school will end up in jobs that don’t yet exist. This is a critical moment to question the current educational offer and ask: What tools will equip young people to address their futures with agency, imagination and resilience?

Design thinking enables the envisioning of possibilities, the solving of problems, and the realisation of strategic potential. Recent analysis by Nesta indicates that 87 per cent of creative roles are resistant to automation. Access to high-quality creative education is critical both to foster young people’s productive capacity, and for the success of the UK’s £100-billion creative industries.

However, the EBacc system continues to sideline creative subjects. Currently, creative learning features strongly only in the curricula of private schools, and just this month, cultural leaders from across the creative industries have written a public letter to the Department of Education urging the government to strengthen the scope for this learning in the mainstream school curriculum.

But beyond the economic case for creative skills is an ethical one – that all children should have equal access to the benefits that the arts and culture bring. Inclusive access to creative education widens the world of possibilities – empowering young people to tell their own stories and shape their own contexts. It has the power to encourage independent thinking, imagination and initiative, as well as teamwork and communication, all skills central to dynamic and engaged lives in our fast-changing times. That’s why I’m supporting Design Ventura, an educational initiative by the Design Museum with mentoring by design industry and business professionals, that invites state school students to design a product to improve everyday life. The winning product will be sold in the Design Museum shop, with proceeds going to charity.

My support for Design Ventura also feels personal. Its mission and ethos – identify a challenge and realise a creative solution – reflects my own experience. Back in 2010, a group of friends and I, then all recent graduates, initiated a project to re-imagine dis-used petrol stations around London. We transformed a derelict structure on Clerkenwell Road into ‘The Cineroleum’, a temporary cinema that we designed, built from scratch, and then ran for the summer, co-opting a wide range of contributors in the process. The project was challenging, exhilarating and hugely rewarding, and it taught us the value of teamwork and gave us the confidence that together we could have a positive impact. From there we went on to set up Assemble, a design studio that promotes agency between the public and the ways cities are conceived and made.

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Design Ventura Workshop

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Design Ventura winning team 2018 with Active Snap

Through our numerous projects since, we’ve created spaces and enterprises that enable collaboration, creativity and active citizen participation. In East Glasgow, we set up Baltic Street Adventure Playground, a physical and cultural space that encourages child-led adventure and experimentation. We conceived and established Blackhorse Workshop, a public makerspace, where users can access equipment and technical support. This became central to Waltham Forest’s successful bid, supported by 14,000 local residents, to become London’s first Borough of Culture in 2019. Both the playground and the workshop offer a focus for productive and communal activities in their respective communities, and empower people of all ages to “do it themselves” and, in doing so, create a world more reflective of needs, dreams and ideas.

Assemble continues to demonstrate the power of collective, creative actions in forging positive change. Since 2013, we’ve been working with the Granby Four Streets Community Land Trust in Liverpool to rebuild their neighbourhood, which had been marginalised by government disinvestment. From an enforced scenario of mass dereliction, a small group of remaining residents resisted a drive to move them out too, rather looking to improve their locality.

The network of projects we have produced together all pivot on design. This now includes the renewal of derelict homes, the development of social enterprise – Granby Workshop, and building an inspiring community venue, Granby Winter Garden. The combined outcome – of collective activism, creativity and visible care – is readily visible in the monthly neighbourhood-run Granby Street Market. For me, the communities initiative evokes the words of the cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

With the changes and challenges we now face – socially, environmentally and technologically – there’s an important need for design education to galvanise appropriate creative action. At the Moonshot Factory in Silicon Valley, inventors and entrepreneurs aim to create radical solutions to the world’s most pressing challenges. From internet balloons to delivery drones and smart glasses, the teams at Google X, motivated by the potential of technological innovation, are re-imagining how we live, work and connect – another instance of design thinking shaping our world. This approach – recognise a challenge, explore possibilities to meet it, realise a creative solution – depends on creative education and initiatives like Design Ventura to foster relevant capacity.

The World Economic Forum identifies complex problem solving, critical thinking and creativity as the three core skills of the Fourth Industrial Revolution that will be needed for the future of work. These are exactly the expertise and capabilities that creative education enables. So it’s critical that these forms of education are not consigned as nostalgic anachronisms or preserved for the pursuit of the select few. Because at its core, design is about living and operating in the world. It’s our collective route to better futures.

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Design Ventura pitching event at the Design Museum (Benedict Johnson)

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Design Ventura

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Dazzle Racer, Design Ventura winner 2015

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Active Snap, Design Ventura winner 2018