Reflection of the Process
‘Learning from each other’ was a guiding principle.
A central idea and objective of the workshop was to work together when approaching the topic of ‘neighbourhood’ from different disciplines. While the first workshop in Hamburg served to create mutual understanding and learn a common language, the second workshop in Cairo provided the opportunity to test and apply the methodological approaches and practices. Upon reflection, this transfer of knowledge and the room for individual experiences was essential for the negotiation of cultural and disciplinary understandings and values. Both workshops were designed to provide for a holistic experience of learning from each other: not only were both workshops designed to include group work in interdisciplinary teams, especially the first part in Hamburg provided the means to settle together in the University of the Neighbourhoods (UdN) and explore ‘neighbourhood’ from the inside out, so to say. While thus at first an overall aim of the workshop series, ‘learning from each other’ quickly turned into one of our guiding principles, influencing not only the formulation of our aims, but also our approaches (dinner discussions, working on the wall, sharing information).
Throughout the first workshop on the Veddel, we presented to and discussed our work with experts from the university and the Wilhelmsburg District. As different stages of the presentations and ongoing research results from all groups remained on the wall, it became possible to trace and document the actual processes of knowledge production and mediation, even to outsiders and guests. This technique also allowed to show how perspectives, specific details and methods travelled between workshop members, alongside the more mundane and everyday, yet equally relevant and important experiences that were made as roommates and workshop colleagues sharing one place to live and work. Some participants remarked that the intense sharing experience was particularly worthwhile and effective: the groups were excited to see each other present their observations and hear what kind of situations they had discovered, explored and witnessed. ‘Learning from each other’ also meant to learn from each others’ perception and perspectives, to see how others had approached a specific situation, to hear someone’s or a group’s explanation and viewpoints. This exchange resulted in a broadening of individual research perspectives and sharpened the participants’ methodological knowledge. Because the group as a whole lived and worked in the same area, participants were enabled to relate to and comprehend specific perspectives not only methodologically but also thematically and in relation to the field.
Two workshops in two places
The two legs of the workshop enabled organisers and participants alike to get to know each other, develop a common language and exchange methodological approaches in Hamburg and prove deeper into the interdisciplinary exchange over research interests and fields in Cairo. If the first workshop was more of a warming up exercise in terms of the depth of the actual projects, it was essential in terms of team building and exchanging of understandings. The Hamburg convention was also the first personal meeting between the organisers from Hamburg and Cairo. As the theme for our workshops – neighbourhoods – demanded the presence of different disciplines, it was vital to introduce and get to know each other so as to provide opportunities for discussions and exchanges on both organisational and methodological levels. Coming from two different institutions and different cultural backgrounds meant that organising the workshops became an intercultural and interdisciplinary exercise which had to be communicated among the organising group and between us and the participants.
Although as organisers, we determined the place where the participants would work and stay, we didn’t chose the exact research fields. The themes and places of interest were chosen by the individual working groups during or following their dérives on the Veddel. The four groups and their foci developed through continuous rounds of presentations on the wall and discussions, both formal table sessions and informal evening conversations over dinner. The research interests from Hamburg were then transferred to Cairo and further developed. As organisers, we simply facilitated the working process. The participants developed their topics and interests on their own with guidance from experts and supportive university staff who provided feedback throughout the process.
The organisation of the two workshops rested primarily in the hands of students. Each organising group was responsible to prepare the local workshop with regular mutual updates, so that the two workshops would work as a whole. Each organising team split up into subgroups responsible, for instance, for accommodation, the programme and finances, so that coordinating the teams and weaving the different strands together remained as crucial as updating Prof. Bernd Kniess, the financial department of HafenCity University in Hamburg and the DAAD in Germany and Cairo. Keeping the various communication loops alive and coordinated turned out to be an important intercultural experience in its own right.
The hospitality concept in Hamburg
The workshop in Hamburg took place in and around the University of the Neighbourhoods (UdN). The participants and some of the organisers lived and worked there, using the building to its full extent. The UdN’s infrastructure invited participants to get to know each other not only professionally through group work, but also personally as bedrooms were shared and meals prepared and eaten together. The open and flexible architecture allowed for the lecture hall to transform into the dinner hall and to host a concert after dinner, only to be transformed again into a room for table top sessions with experts and university staff supporting and discussing with the individual working groups on the next day. While prepared by the hospitality team, the common cooking sessions in the open plan kitchen in the evening enabled chance encounters, exchanges of kitchen tricks and collaboration and team work of a different kind than during the day, yet equally important and inspiring for the actual research projects. Hosting and accommodating 20 participants was a challenge that also had reverberations for the further development of the UdN itself as it turned into a temporary hotel, a method later to be explored further and resulting in winning a prize awarded by Deutsche Bank. The setting’s unfinished and improvised character and the intentional avoidance of a definition of the building’s function for the sake of being open to various functions enabled the participants to spontaneously adapt the space as necessary. Collaboration and team work functioned beyond the workshop groups, even cooking and cleaning duties were shared, resulting in not merely studying ‘neighbourhood’ but living ‘neighbourhood’.
From today’s perspective
The two-part workshop can roughly be divided into six phases – organisation, workshop, reflection in Hamburg, organisation, workshop and reflection in Cairo. Organising in hindsight was the trickiest and most time consuming effort, while carrying out the actual workshops was all about improvisation. No matter how well planned and organised everything had been, the dynamics evolved with the participants and depended to a good extent on their inputs, interests and demands. In Hamburg, the UdN enabled such unplanned interventions and schedule adaptations depending on the situation, whereas in Cairo, accommodation and work spaces were quite far apart.
Initially designed as work in progress, the emerging routine, flow and work ethic suited both participants and organisers. Retrospectively, the UdN experience was significant in setting a scene, bringing the participants together and developing a common language. Each stage of the workshops could then build on one another with participants shaping the topics and themes. The resulting ‘neighbourhood of researchers’ was strong enough to remain stable throughout the workshop in Cairo where working and staying were spatially divided. Building on the Hamburg experience, interaction in Cairo didn’t have to be established in the first place, so that the groups were able to directly delve into their projects. If grounds for comparison are always contestable and contested, the two workshops offered to question the notion and explore the meaning of ‘neighbourhood’ from two greatly different perspectives and in very distinct contexts.