What I learnt
This was the first funded community project I had ever organised. It grew out of a spark of an idea, and when I started, I had no idea what form it would take. All I knew was that it would involve bottle tops collected on Brighton beach. A year on and I’ve learnt a huge amount. Here are a few of the most unexpected and delightful things I learnt.
1. We can bring people joy without planning to
Who knew that bottle tops could bring people joy! This was definitely not on my list of “proposed outcomes” when I sent in my funding application. But from the moment I started hanging the strings, I saw the impact they had on people. Kids grinned and ran their hands along them, chanting colours. Runners slowed and smiled. Passersby stopped to talk to me or take pictures. One woman told me how seeing the colour had lifted her spirits after a particularly hard visit to the hospital.
It made more sense to me after watching Ingrid Fetell Lee’s TED talk on joy. Without meaning to, my choice of materials (the bottle tops) and the wavy design had met some of the aesthetic criteria we associate with joy: “bright colour, round things, a sense of abundance and multiplicity”.
2. The process is as important as the outcome
There is so much value in the process. Although I knew this already through my work as a permaculturalist, this project reinforced it. Doing this project in isolation may have resulted in the same colourful wave, but it would not have connected people, created spaces for important conversations or allowed people to just be in the moment through making something with their hands.
Focusing only on the end result would also have created more pressure to do things in a certain way. When we were short on volunteers in the final phase, this could’ve created a lot of stress. Reminding myself that the process was as important as the outcome meant I could come up with a more creative way of dealing with this issue, and realising that really, it wasn’t an issue at all. A wave short of a few thousand bottle tops would make no difference to the overall aims of the project.
3. Change the context and you can change what people see
The question I was asked most often when I was hanging strings of bottle tops on the fence was: “Have you dyed or painted them to get those colours?” The question surprised me at first. But then I realised that bottle tops are just another part of our wasteful everyday that we don’t even see. They’re “invisible”. Stringing them up on a fence made people really see them.
4. You can’t plan everything (and you shouldn’t try)
I had very few plans when I started this project. I knew I wanted to create something with bottle tops. I wanted to gather data about them, and I wanted to involve the community. Other than that, I had very little idea about how I would do it. All the practicalities seemed a little bit daunting. So instead, I came up with a very broad plan – a pattern. It didn’t have details of “how” or “who”. I wasn’t sure if it would even work. But it did.
If I’d tried to plan out every aspect of this project in detail, I would never have done it. I needed to have a little bit of faith and give myself – and the project – room to grow and take on its own shape as it did. Once I shared my intention, things started happening. People helped me in all kinds of unexpected ways. In the end things worked.