Walls

'They're building a wall
Between water and land
So we can eat fruit
And they can eat sand'

I stayed a few nights at a hotel the other week that bills itself as 'Eco friendly, stylish and cozy, carefully designed by professional designers, creates a unique chill-out ambience to make you feel happy and relaxed. Set right on the unspoiled white sandy beach, lined with palm trees and washed by the warm, turquoise waters of the Indian Ocean, it's a perfect gateway from every-day life.' What I experienced was all of that and it was glorious.

And then I remarked on the fact that a high stone wall surrounded the hotel. From my room I could see clearly the hotel side of the wall – beautifully tended gardens with watered bougainvillea, electric night lighting along the paths, and carefully positioned pieces of sculpture.

I could also see on the other side of the wall arid scrubland, a well-populated village with no sanitation, no electricity, a single well for all the villagers, and a ramshackle collection of small mud and thatch one-room dwellings. 88% of that country's population lives on less than $2 USD per day. My breakfast (with fruit) was $7 USD. I felt uneasy with my privilege.

When I voiced the wall and the privilege thought the person I was with told me of the David Rovics song that there's an extract from at the top of this piece. I listened to it. It's desperately sad and set me wondering about walls and how they exist literally and figuratively. How do I feel about eating a $7 breakfast and staying in an eco-friendly hotel secluded behind a high wall? Is the wall to keep me in or other people out, or both? Is it – as some would argue –providing work for the local population and taking them out of poverty, or is it taking the few resources they have access to (e.g. water) so they have less? I did find out that about 200 villagers helped construct the hotel and I asked what they were doing for work now. The owner shrugged.

Having recognized one wall I have been seeing them everywhere – on my return trip I went through a security line to get into the airport including having my fingerprints taken, a security line to get into the airside area, a security line to get onto the flight. I landed at the stopover point and went through a security line to get into that airport (even though I had just got off a flight where I'd been screened three times in order to get on it). Each time I showed my passport. In changing flights I showed my passport again. Arriving home I went through passport control. Like many people the security lines infuriate me, yet I am lucky in that I have freedom of movement and can pass through the walls of national borders. What about those who can't? Should I be supporting the no border network? Is freedom of movement a right/entitlement or another privilege? On this see Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which states that:

  • Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state.
  • Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.

On the longest – 9 hour leg of the journey – I was upgraded to business class from economy which was lovely, and unasked for – but I happened to be traveling on the day the article The Extra Legroom Society about tiers of service for travelers appeared in the newspaper I was given to read on the plane. (Newspapers are not given to people in economy class). In my 'walls' frame of mind I read it as piece about those who are able to scale the walls of privilege. As the author says, 'the places and ways in which Americans are economically segregated and stratified have multiplied, with microclimates of exclusivity popping up everywhere. The plane mirrors the sports arena, the theater, the gym. Is it any wonder that class tensions simmer?'
There was no let up on this trip of walls of one type and another. Another piece that caught my eye was the new Robert Reich film Inequality for All about income inequality in the US. One reviewer said: 'you can be left aghast at the jaw-dropping statistics, such … the fact that the U.S. ranks a lowly 64th on the inequality scale among the world's nations-—only slightly better than the Ivory Coast and Cameroon. Or Reich's revelation that our richest 400 residents have more wealth than half the U.S. population – 313.9 million (2012) – combined. '

Also on that flight, in shades of the hotel experience, I read about gated communities in Buenos Aires 'Residents of the Mayling Country Club, a gated community on the outskirts of Buenos Aires that boasts tennis courts, a polo field and a private restaurant often carp about the Pinazo river, which runs through four holes of their verdant 18-hole golf course. If one doesn't aim carefully, the river, which is flanked by weeping willows and navigated by ducks, swallows all the balls launched its way.

A few miles downstream, residents of Pinazo, an informal settlement that has sprung up along the riverbank, have very different complaints. During heavy rains the river overflows, inundating their makeshift aluminium-and-brick homes with sewage. … Less than half of homes have sewerage and a quarter lack access to piped water. A third have no gas; almost as many stand on unpaved streets. But amid this poverty, islands of luxury are popping up.'

So where is all this wall stuff going? It is leaving me wondering:

  • What do walls as defensive barriers say about the wall-builders – are they fearful, defensive, paranoid or sensibly protecting themselves (or something else)? For a discussion on these lines watch the film The Iron Wall).
  • What is the responsibility of us organization designers to tear down, scale, or build walls – is it ok for example for us to be designing work spaces by position in hierarchy, barriers to building entry, surveillance systems of various types, grading systems, promotion routes and massive salary differentials (see Redefining the Minimum Wage)? Or should we have a code of ethics (we don't currently) close to the humanistic values I talk about in my blog piece Organization Development Values.

I think we should be alert to walls (barriers, etc.) that we may be creating. They should not compromise fairness, equity or well-being. In this week of walls also appeared in my email an HBR blog discussing a survey of 15 factors of employee workspace satisfaction which found, 'Workers in cubicles with high partitions were the most miserable, reporting the lowest rates of satisfaction in 13 out of those 15 factors.' So if this statement is universally accurate let's not design high cubicle walls.

Then I came across a piece in Fast Company Against the Tide on partnering with nature on water flow to protect the land. In this article Tracy Metz, author of Sweet & Salt: Water and the Dutch, 'learned that the dream of Holland as watertight fortress–canals are moats, straighter rivers are safer rivers, higher walls are better walls- is compelling but flawed.'

I like the notion that higher walls are not better walls, and mentioned this to someone who told me about the SwedishVittra Schools, described in Fast CoDesign: 'Sweden loves its experimental education, but here's a venture that's far-fetched even by Swedish standards: It's a school without walls.

That's right. Vittra Telefonplan, in Stockholm, was designed according to the principles of the Swedish Free School Organization Vittra, an educational consortium that doesn't believe in classrooms or classes. So instead of endless rows of desks, it's got neon-green "sitting islands" and whimsical picnic tables, where students and teachers gather. Instead of study hall, it has "Lunch Club," a smattering of cafeteria-style tables on a checkerboard floor for working or eating (or both). '

So although I was able to find some breaking down of walls, overall I'm left this week with the feeling that generally we build more of them – literally and figuratively – than we take down. I'm developing a stronger belief that organization designers should not design in walls and barriers but rather look for ways of encouraging equity, accessibility and fairness. What's your view? Let me know.

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