Techniques to aid imagination

The education sector has one of the most complex environments in existence. As well as wanting to provide stimulating learning spaces we also need to provide world-class research environments, social learning spaces, office space, catering and retail outlets, sports facilities and specialist working environments such as medical, hairdressing and building trade facilities. This presents a huge challenge but it also means there are numerous places we can look for inspiration. This section looks at techniques to stimulate new ways of looking at the issues, with some real-life examples.

UK higher education is distinctive in being one of the few sectors that can plan on long-term ownership and use of its facilities and can therefore reap the full benefits of wise investment in high-performance buildings. Failure to invest will not only create a long-term cost burden, but will also disadvantage UK universities and colleges as more international competitors begin to take sustainability seriously (James 2006).

Opportunities for change

Develop a Vision and find a way of delivering it

Christine Braddock, Birmingham Metropolitan College, Matthew Boulton Campus

All of us that work in education know what our schools, colleges and universities are like. We have a model in our heads about what they do and what they look and feel like. Any new build or refurbishment is an opportunity to bring about fundamental change. Of course we need to be able to imagine what the results of that change might be. What are we trying to achieve? This is not an easy task as we tend to be focused on what is and what has been rather than what can be.

Edward De Bono expresses this well in the context of universities:

The huge bulk of our intellectual resources are devoted to the past. This is almost the sole occupation of universities. By definition ‘scholars’ need something to be scholarly about and that means the past. Book review pages in the more worthy newspapers are at least three quarters filled with books about the past: biographies, period pieces, political memoirs, etc. This is hardly surprising. To write about the past you only need some skill as a writer: the past is there to described. To write about the future also needs some skill as thinker.

It is time to give more time to the ‘design’ idiom. You can analyse the past but you need to design the future. Otherwise it may be no better than the past.

Any new idea that does not raise a howl of protest is probably not a good idea. Those who are comfortable in the use of the old idea find it difficult to see the inadequacies of the old idea. If you have to imagine new benefits and you cannot achieve this effort of imagination, you have no choice except to resist the new.

De Bono (2000)

Whether you agree with De Bono or not there is no denying that when embarking on such a significant project as a new building or a major refurbishment then thinking outside the box that we are in (or perhaps even throwing the box away!) is a good idea at least at the outset. It is the ‘skills as a thinker’ that De Bono mentions that this section is concerned with. Each subsection below presents ideas or tools for thinking about the future and has the potential to help you have new ideas, describe them for others to understand and then maybe build them into your project. The importance of being future focused in developing the vision, and practical detail, of your project cannot be overemphasised. Whilst we do not know what the future holds we do have the opportunity to shape it through what we design, and we need to be bold about it.

Exploring some of the techniques considered here may help you develop those nascent ideas that you already have, but may not have clarified, and enable new ideas to emerge. You may also want to look at the section on Creativity in our Process improvement infoKit.


  • Imagineering
  • For a significant impact you need to start with your dreams and imagination

  • Thinkpak
  • A practical tool for getting groups to experiment with their ideas

  • Work Across Domains
  • ‘Mixed’ groups of staff working sharing ideas of their visions

  • Metaphors And Stories
  • Powerful tools that you can use to articulate the aspects of your project and to help develop your ideas

  • Cultural Probes
  • A means of gathering data about what people find exciting and inspiring

  • Pace Layering
  • ‘Crystal ball gazing'; what will ??? be like in say 10 years time? Gartner Hype Cycles will help here

  • Scenario Planning
  • Stories of alternative futures that are an excellent method of helping you decide what type of spaces you require for the many different types of teaching and learning activities

  • Space To Place
  • What is the message that you want your space to give? What do you want to happen in your space? This technique is about moving from these concepts to physical aspects of space