Structural Change



The date is Tuesday 22nd February 2011 and the time 12.51pm, and the City of Christchurch, New Zealand is about to be changed forever. It took a 6.2 scale earthquake, 10 seconds to liquefy the soil and destroy much of the city and surrounds. 185 people lost their lives and large tracks of land have now been deemed uninhabitable.


While it is not uncommon for people to come together in a crisis, something quite remarkable has emerged from the rubble … a community-led vision for both the short and long-term rebuilding of the physical and social infrastructure of the city.


Vacant land, where buildings once stood and are still waiting to be rebuilt, has been turned into parklets and playgrounds. Some have even been turned into paid parking, where the funds are quarantined for other community development activities.


There has been thought given to active transport (cycling, walking, e-scooters) to reduce the pollution from cars, work done to initiate urban farming that delivers a paddock to plate supply chain within the CBD and even returns the waste back to the paddock for composting. This is a self-sustaining commercial venture that demonstrates sustainable ways to reduce food miles.


By all accounts the people of Christchurch have grabbed the opportunity to review and regather with both hands. It’s not perfect, and I am sure there are still plenty of issues, more healing and rebuilding to be done … but the start that they have made is inspiring.


However, there could be a deeper lesson for engagement and facilitation practitioners to consider here – the way in which physical structures lock in a certain way of relating and being with each other.


Many of us face ingrained systems and thinking that serve as a speed bump or even a dead end on the road to change. But the example of Christchurch could be showing us two things:

  1. That institutions and people can change ingrained systems and ways of working.

  2. That what locks people in is not just the structure of institutions but the physical structures we create.

What is intriguing in the Christchurch example is that the walls of these institutions came crumbling down before the institutions and systems changed. On some level it makes perfect sense. If the people and systems building the buildings are locked into a certain way of living, then those buildings will be created to support the system that is there.


Think about the hallowed institution of government and the protocol that surrounds how elected officials interact and what it does for the quality of decision making. There is something about Humans that seems to be hard-wired to maintain and even defend the status quo. It is not until people seem to be quite literally broken that our humility kicks in and we become willing to work in a different way.


But could we consider if this level of change can be achieved without the need for tragedy?


In a world where everything counts, change may need to be considered on a deeper level than just the mental desire to do something different. Step out from the safety of those meeting room tables, turn off those power points and look across the room, sit in circles so you can see each other and you could even look at the photos on the walls and the messages they are sending.


If we want people to free up how they and/or others think then it seems incumbent on us all to explore the subtle changes we can all be making to help people move together differently, rather than doing the same thing and expecting something different.


If people respond with discomfort then maybe, that is the start of a change you are looking for … What habitual structures do you have for working with groups that may be a rut?