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The Rose Garden

The global health crisis caused by COVID-19 was an invitation to slow down under exceptional circumstances: we found ourselves in the eye of an unexpected storm. Within the Designing the Future professorship, we noticed an increased understanding of what matters, both socially and personally. We decided to let go of the focus on theory and methods, so we could openly observe what was going on around us. Our colleagues and students started to raise new questions. For example, what is ‘essential’ when the economy is on hold? I often overheard colleagues ask: why was I in a hurry again? Together we started to question: why is an attentive, slower paced environment the exception rather than the rule?

There was no straightforward answer to the questions that were raised. They take time and require patience. This also had practical reasons, it proved to be difficult to create headspace if long to-do lists need to be finished. We started to narrow our search down to the question how to escape the mechanisms in our society that consider our attention as a currency, vying for our attention, visibly and invisibly? Our era is characterized by a high degree of acceleration in which time seems to be passing increasingly faster. We use multiple screens simultaneously, constantly engulfed by notifications and apps.

We then went looking for literature and practices that could help us in the search for answers. We found reflective books, such as publications by Ramsey Nasr1 and Merlijn Twaalfhoven2, and a wide range of academic publications that can be considered future research.3,4,5 Our search was triggered by several officials asking us: how do we navigate this uncertainty since we’ve always been guided by what is certain? Even raising this question requires a tremendous change in thinking and doing. Through her book ​How to do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy, artist and writer Jenny Odell provided me and my team of researchers with a valuable metaphor to envisage headspace: the Rose Garden6. Time and again, the author returns to a rose garden in her neighborhood to experience that she doesn’t have to do anything. The rose garden showed her, and us, that proximity to other people is not always necessary to connect. And sometimes silence can connect more than breaking it. In a sense, this rose garden resides in all of us, and we can make it work for us – provided we make the time for it. The latter is not always easy, with a smartphone at your fingertips.

How to do nothing by Jenny Odell