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navigation, design, and great circles

Updated: Nov 2, 2022

A few years ago, matua Rereata Makiha was chatting to us at the Manukau Civic Building café, contrasting (oceanic) ‘navigation’ as we think of it now and navigation as practiced by Māori. In the ancient systems, he said, navigation involved a reading of tohu (signs) in the sky, the land, and the water by the tohunga (navigator). Sometimes these tohu did not make themselves available – maybe the night sky clouded over, hiding the stars, or storms blew the waka (canoe) off course, and the way forward was unclear. The tohunga would then guide the craft and its inhabitants to sail or row in large circles – a holding pattern – till the way forward was clear again. While the final destination was known, the way there was not always straightforward.



This telling has stuck with me ever since. And while I have applied this story to many things in my life, here are some parts I treasure:


• Doing a thing (design/project/building capability) is akin to navigation – we know where we started and where we are going, and we have the tools and knowledge to get there. However, reaching the destination depends on being able to interpret the tohu – the signs – that provide guidance along the way.


These are sometimes hard to see, and being able to follow the signs takes skill, faith and courage.


• Even when the final desired destination is clear, there will be times when the current state is unclear and confusing. This is not a problem – this is part of the process of navigation/design. To meaningfully and successfully navigate long distances, we need to get comfortable with this uncertainty, and create strategies to handle it.


• The designer/navigator is not separate from the craft being navigated, or from the other people in that craft. Design has consequences, and the designer has a responsibility to make sure they have skin in the game. The tohunga risks their own life just as much as they do the lives of others in the waka. We need to think about the people who depend on us, and designing from a distance is just not good enough.



And to tie it all together – everyone on the craft needs to trust each other. To build this trust, we need to build whanaungatanga –


(noun) relationship, kinship, sense of family connection - a relationship through shared experiences and working together which

provides people with a sense of belonging. It develops as a result of kinship rights and obligations, which also serve to strengthen each member of the kin group. It also extends to others to whom one develops a close familial, friendship or reciprocal relationship. – maoridictionary.co.nz

And while this implies honest conversations and many cups of tea, it is also “through shared experiences and working together”.


This korero holds together everything I need to know as I work towards helping my teams design better. And while I certainly am no tohunga, (or even just a navigator, yet), I think I might spend some time reading signs…and getting used to the periods of rowing in great circles.


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