One of my favourite films to watch over the Christmas holidays is Fiddler on the Roof. I have felt drawn to it since a child, the music, the dancing, and the story. As I got older the allegorical nature of this musical struck me every time I watched it. A fiddler playing while standing, walking, and dancing on a pitched roof is a metaphor for the lives of the Jewish communities living in Ukraine in the early 20th Century. Trying to eke out a life for themselves in a time of great change, perturbation, and risk. If we time travel a hundred years forward and take a panoramic view of the world, we see that this metaphor is grittily real for millions or billions of people in 2023. The final scenes are of people who are displaced by politics and discrimination, becoming homeless refugees.

With the ever-present threat of the political environment around them, the main plot is about Tevye, a devout Jew, a milkman, a husband, and a father; and how he navigates his way through community and family life, bringing up five girls in times of cultural change.

He starts from the perspective that there is Tradition. And if we stick by the way we always did things, then all will be well; it is what holds everything together. But then he, himself points out that once, these traditions were new. As each of his first two daughters, choose their own husbands against the wishes of their parents, he goes through personal moral debate and anguish. Under review are the values he holds. Does he do what is deemed in his community as right? How much does he value his love and respect for his children’s right to autonomy? He flexes, adjusts, evolves his views and approach. He is not, however, infinitely flexible. One of his daughters acts beyond Tevye’s boundaries in running off to marry a Russian Orthodox man and is shunned.

When I was writing about the Finding Places project undertaken in Hamburg for our recent book Design to Value, I was immediately taken by the humility of the process. This project was the city’s response to the allocation of 20,000 migrants fleeing Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq to be housed. This was a people problem with complex, strong and diverse views and issues to negotiate. Although they used some very advanced modelling techniques, this was done only to support and inform a big conversation. They largely got rid of the traditional processes of city planning, keeping only those things that seemed immovable. Instead they used a process of discussion. They brought together those already living in the city, those who would need to provide services and through agencies heard the voices of refugees themselves. They allowed worries, concerns and aspirations to be voiced, using the modelling to inform debate and to regulate emotional catastrophising. No process like this can be perfect but it can be good: constructive, educational and democratising. Research suggested that many of these values had been achieved.

There is no doubt that there is complexity in the world. There are competing beliefs, experiences, traditions and thus there are no perfect designs, no perfect solutions, however there is always the opportunity for great processes and great outcomes. Within change and complexity, we cannot hope to reach these aspirations by simply sticking with tradition. We must like Tevye, flex, weigh things up and at times dispense completely with the way things were done. Guided by the value-we-can-create and the values-we-hold-to, we can constantly change the way we come together to find solutions to problems. Being in the construction industry we can see how we can make playing the fiddle on the roof safe. 

Maybe what we need to do is ask the fiddle player why they are there, what is their purpose and what do they need. The answers to these questions may open up a whole new level of understanding.

Professor John Dyson spent more than 25 years at GlaxoSmithKline, eventually ending his career as VP, Head of Capital Strategy and Design, where he focussed on developing a long-term strategic approach to asset management.
While there, he engaged Bryden Wood and together they developed the Front End Factory, a collaborative endeavour to explore how to turn purpose and strategy into the right projects – which paved the way for Design to Value. He is committed to the betterment of lives through individual and collective endeavours.
As well as his business and pharmaceutical experience, Dyson is Professor of Human Enterprise at the University of Birmingham, focussing on project management, business strategy and collaboration.
Additionally, he is a qualified counsellor with a private practice and looks to bring the understanding of human behaviour into business and projects.
To learn more about our Design to Value philosophy, read Design to Value: The architecture of holistic design and creative technology by Professor John Dyson, Mark Bryden, Jaimie Johnston MBE and Martin Wood. Available to purchase at RIBA Books here.