Harbinger Consultants

Culture + Complexity + Change

TALKS | Aboriginal art protocols, regional development & rural design

Over the last couple of weeks we have been invited to give guest lectures at Griffith University and QUT.

At Griffith University, John provided an overview on Aboriginal art protocols and practices to students at the Queensland College of Art (QCA) – Griffith University at both Southbank and Gold Coast. John stressed the importance of welcome to country and acknowledgement of traditional custodians as part of all proceedings and gatherings. As someone who has worked in creative fields for several decades, John also explained that creative careers rarely, if ever, are linear. Describing it as a ‘moving feast’, he stressed the need to remain flexible and be adaptive as conditions in creative fields can change quickly and dramatically.

Reflecting on his own experience in higher education, formerly as Head of Visual Art at QUT, he stressed the importance of equal opportunity and social inclusion in education. In his former higher education roles, he participated in the development of programs, policy and other initiatives that supported the engagement of Indigenous students and staff. In particular, he said that intercultural learning and collaboration enriched cultures, organisations and people: “there is not just much to learn and do, there is much to learn from and do with each other”. That, he explained, was part of the ethos of his work with Campfire Group and Fire-Works Gallery, which developed a range of collaborative creative projects involving Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal artists.

Drawing on his experience and knowledge of Indigenous enterprise and economic development, formerly as Manager of Blak Business Smart Business, he also advised students on how to establish their own creative enterprises. His involvement with Indigenous enterprise and economic development continues in his work with QUT’s Australian Centre for Enterprise Research and other initiatives. There is a need for support from all levels of government and education in ensuring that creatives are equipped to establish dynamic and robust enterprises. It’s more than just professional development as enterprise requires a different approach and mindset. Students should be encouraged to think, innovate and create not just in creative practice but also in the development of enterprises.

At QUT, Linda gave a talk on regional development to urban and regional planning students. She discussed the policy and intergovernmental relations in regional development, including the role played by Regional Development Australia Committees. She has recently stepped down from her role as Deputy Chair with RDA Brisbane. She also outlined that the relationship between land use and regional development wasn’t the whole picture of regional development. While both were concerned with the complex relationships and dynamics that shape the fortunes of regions, there was a need for integrated and engaged approaches. Having written RDA Brisbane’s first Regional Roadmap and played a role in the development of subsequent iterations, including the facilitation of a workshop where the planning goals and priorities were elaborated, she also provided insight into the creation of the Roadmap.

She noted a continuing shift from integrated regional planning, development and sustainability to prioritising regional economic development and competitiveness in policy and practice. Drawing on the work of many regional studies specialists, such as John Tomaney, Andrew Beer and Gillian Bristow, she highlighted the dangers of relying too heavily on a ‘competitiveness’ narrative or discourse which presently dominates regional development thinking. Bristow argues that this is misleading and misdirected:

By concentrating on competitiveness, policy makers fail to distinguish between the qualitative aspects of regional development: healthy or unhealthy growth, temporary or sustainable growth. They fail to question what growth is actually needed or what is required actually to improve the quality of life.

That is there is a lack of clarity about what development objectives are actually being sought. There have been significant failures in Australia in charting an adaptive economic agenda and building resilience. This is reflected in the declining number of sustainable skills jobs, floundering business performance, our large per capita carbon emissions, and disincentivised renewable energy.

Bristow stresses that competitiveness is a construct, arguing that it is a limiting discourse and its dominance can result in the belief of no alternatives. There is a need, as she argues, to do policy differently and to respond to the “peculiar conditions and constraints being wrought by the ‘triple crunch’ of global economic crisis, climate change and the end of plentiful oil supplies”. That is, to cultivate a more sophisticated imaginary and other possibilities for regional and rural futures.

Also at QCA – Griffith University, Linda gave a lecture to Design Futures students outlining a case study of Harbinger’s work with the community of Tambo in Central Western Queensland. The intention was to trigger some thinking about the slippages between social, rural and redirective design practice. Our work in Tambo involved undertaking prefeasibility and feasibility studies for a cultural heritage facility which would act as tourism infrastructure for the region. One of our anchors in our thinking about the project was the growing discussion about ‘rural design’ in the USA. Dewey Thorbeck, for example, has explored the need for a new design approach that focuses on rural design:

Rural design and urban design both embrace ‘quality of life’ as a primary goal. Rural design is, however, fundamentally different: It incorporates the unique characteristics of open landscapes and ecosystems. Buildings and towns are components of the larger landscape, rather than shaping community infrastructure and public space.

Linda posed the question of a ‘redirective rural design practice’; while she didn’t explore that in any detail, she did ask students to consider what that might involve. She presented an outline of our place-based approach which was attentive to reinvigorated localism, community economic development and ideas of living heritage and living museum (based on the ecomuseum concept). Because the facility was to be located on the main street and as part of a heritage precinct, it was important to pursue an integrated approach. We worked with the community in a way that flushed out diverse voices, stories and ideas. The purpose was not to build consensus but rather to reflect the diversity of the community’s engagement with its history while working towards providing a distinctive cultural tourism offer. Working in a way that John describes as bricolage, our process seeks to ensure that the community establishes values, agenda and impact as a way of building a brief for the design.

As we rarely have an opportunity to present and reflect on our work, Linda offered a brief reflection:

  • Our positioning in ‘social design’ and problem solving tends to emphasise engagement and strategy
  • We purposefully engaged with ideas about rural design in our work with Tambo
  • We work with community capabilities and capital, and endeavour to facilitate capacity building
  • We take a long term view when working with communities – endeavour to build relationships
  • It is important to reflect on and evaluate methods and processes!

This case study was particularly relevant to the redirective design and design futures program, which is attentive to unsettlement and futuring. Nationally, there is a steady commentary about how to address the flagging fortunes of small and shrinking rural towns and some think tanks and policy makers have suggested forced closure, while others have suggested regionalisation. Located on the edge of the desert and channel country, Tambo also faces climate change threats. Even during the limited time we have spent in the region, we have been witness to drought, flood and fires. Mining and tourism is playing a role in keeping small towns ‘ticking over’. There is a clear link between the scenario playing out in small towns and the earlier lecture on regional development – Bristow’s call for alternative possibilities and imaginary are particularly resonant.

Linda also took the opportunity to advocate for rural design and encouraged students to further reflect on what this might mean and look like in Australia. She stressed that there is a gap in addressing and exploring rural design and the role of design methods in charting rural futures in Australia and Queensland. She stressed that there were diverse opportunities to practice design-led change:

  • Indigenous communities
  • Small and shrinking towns
  • Governance and leadership
  • Desert cities
  • Transition – mining, agriculture, renewable energy, water, mobility, tourism
  • Changing landscapes & unsettlement
  • Desertification, drought, flood, climate sensitivity, resilience – solastalgia
  • Self-sufficiency and innovation

Linda also provided students with a list of resources about initiatives in the USA and Australia in rural design (see below). The rural design work is an area we hope to continue to research and develop and welcome any comments or interest in this field.

We’ve thoroughly enjoyed these opportunities to lecture in our local Universities. Thanks to all the students who listened so attentively, asked questions and showed an interest in the way new forms and methods of planning, design and engagement can enrich communities and regions.


Rural Design Studio

Centre for Rural Design

Citizens Institute for Rural Design

Regional Arts Australia

M12 Studio

Rural Futures Lab

Rural Communities Design Initiative

International School of Rural Experiences


1 Comment»

[…] lectures about Aboriginal art protocols and practices to students at the Queensland College of Art (QCA) – Griffith University at both Southbank and […]

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