Toi Aria’s Anna Brown on design between spaces (excerpt)

Read the full interview by Rachel Knight on Medium here

How was Toi Āria born out of a university environment?
It’s a very interesting time to be in any organisation in the world, but it’s been especially challenging for universities to adapt. For universities there are less students enrolling and no foreseeable increases in funding from government, so how does a university continue to deliver great things and evolve into a university of the 21st century?

Our view of what a university is, is changing and it’s something that all universities are grappling with.

When I arrived at Massey, Steve Maharey started as our Vice Chancellor, and he was really interested in entrepreneurship and looking at the space in between the university and the world. He enabled staff and the organisation to test out and try things; there was a real sense of ‘let’s give it a go.’

At the time we were doing a lot of work through Open Lab with government agencies and my understanding of what design could do in an environment changed. My interests evolved and grew into more complex projects, which weren’t appropriate for the Open Lab model of experiential learning for design students. After nearly five years heading up Open Lab, the Pro-Vice Chancellor of our College — Claire Robinson — asked me “What are you going to do next?”

I spent a good part of a year thinking about what I wanted to do, what is needed in the sector, what is needed in our world and what role I could play in all that with others. What I was most interested in was how we can change systems that aren’t working for people, and what value design can bring to that process. For a while, the biggest problem was that I didn’t know what to call it! Before something has a name, or a place, it’s like a porous membrane of ideas that doesn’t have any coherence.

Over a work dinner one night I was talking to my colleague Ngataiharuru Taepa, Director of Maori Arts, about what we were interested in. He asked, “Is it like baking a cake where you take a set of ingredients and measure them out to get a chemical reaction?” I said no, because it’s different every time. He said “OK, is it like the rocky seashore where there’s tidal currents coming in and out?” Yes — it’s much more like that.

matapuri-panorama1.jpg

So Toi Āria literally means ‘creative rock pool’. I think of all the creatures in the tidal rock pool as the people of New Zealand. What happens to them is dependant on what’s happening in the wider environment; a sea coming in could be political parties or economic factors  —  the variances of the environment affects them, but what is their role in it, and how can we enable them?

We were quite deliberate about not calling it a ‘Lab’, because we’ve done all sorts of labs around the university, so what’s next? In our college we’ve gone through a process of putting a pōwhiri framework around our curriculum, and through that process growing our understanding of Te Ao Māori so it felt really appropriate to be gifted a Māori name. As is often true, a Māori name seems to be able to encompass a much more complex set of ideas and concepts than English can.