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The ThinkPlace team at the noho marae

Noho Marae: A sleepover with purpose...

How would you enjoy spending 48 uninterrupted hours with every single one of your work colleagues? 

Eating, talking and preparing food together. Sleeping in the same room, on mattresses placed on the floor. 

For the designers of ThinkPlace New Zealand it was very much an exciting prospect, as the recent Noho Marae – held just outside Wellington -- proved. 

This was a chance to get together, be immersed in a powerful cultural experience and talk about designing in a nation where Maori hold a special place and creating interventions that will affect their lives carries a special responsibility. 

We spoke to ThinkPlace Wellington’s Keita Twist (who has tribal connections to Ngati Manawa, Tuhoe, Tainui, Te Arawa through her father and Tuwharetoa through her mother) and Auckland Studio’s Peter Harrison (who does not) about this important event, now in its second year. 


TP: ThinkPlace NZ has recently been holding a Noho Marae, what is that? 

Keita – A Noho Marae is where you go to immerse yourself in Te Ao Māori, traditional hospitality, customs and cultural practices passed down from our ancestors to us. Like The welcome on to the marae, where you learn about tangata whenua (people of the area) their mana whenua (right to manage their land) the rohe (area) and their stories (history).  

Peter: Literally, it means a sleepover on a Marae. Noho means “to stay in or occupy a space”.   

Marae is a very important word. The Marae is the centre of culture, language, storytelling, and connection. It’s a large house, made up of different spaces for different activities. 

And there is clear tikanga (protocol) around how to conduct yourself on the Marae.   

Keita: The Noho is a gathering. You sleep, laugh and live together. Under the same roof. It builds trust and it’s a safe place to share, to be together and to work towards a shared purpose. I spent a lot of my youth on a Marae, Rangatahi is home. It’s where I belong. It’s where I will go to be buried. It’s my pito: the cord that connects the baby to the mother. 

TP: Who was involved? How long did it last for? 

Peter: The entire ThinkPlace NZ team of almost 30 people for two days and one night. 

Keita: Our team had people who had only been in the country for three weeks. We had waewae tapu - people who had never been this marae, or any marae before. Others, like me, felt very comfortable. We were fortunate that our hosts Suzanne and Francis stayed with us for the duration of the Noho, sharing in our learning, walking with us and at times guiding us. 

Peter  Harrison's profile'
Peter Harrison
The ThinkPlace team at the noho marae
Coming together to eat, sleep and learn in a shared space helped our team to bond but also enabled us to learn valuable lessons about cultural competency.

TP: What was the shared purpose of this event?  

Keita: At ThinkPlace, we work all over New Zealand and the world. We don’t always see each other. We also had new team members. We were a new team. We wanted to connect as a whanau (family). We wanted to nurture whakawhanaungatanga (building a relationship, creating a deep connection) based on shared experience. But there was also another reason… 

Peter: The second purpose was to deeply engage with what for us is a very important idea: Cultural competency. We wanted to talk about and think about what cultural competency means in Aotearoa, particularly from a Maori viewpoint.  This is critical to the work we do as designers in New Zealand. 

TP: What do you mean by cultural competency? 

Peter: In New Zealand we have a Treaty (The Treaty of Waitangi / Te Tiriti o Waitangi) that was signed in 1840 by many of the Maori chiefs and representatives of the British Crown.   

Ultimately, that treaty gave Britain the right to settle people in New Zealand, whilst ensuring Maori retained the right to self-govern.  It is something that must be taken very seriously to this day. 

Keita: The treaty is the basis for everything. It’s the basis of the relationship between Māori and the Crown. And when you read it, really spend time reading and unpacking it like we did, it means the Crown has serious obligations to Maori under that agreement. 

At ThinkPlace we spend a lot of time working for government. So we need to understand the principles that underpin the treaty. If you’re not aware of those principles and acknowledging them you can be perpetuating a bad situation.  

Peter: At a minimum, there is an obligation to ensure that we are applying the principles of the Treaty, especially around participation, mutual benefit and self-determination for Maori.   

But it also goes broader than that. Cultural competency is about having the awareness that other people may have quite different cultural norms to you and, as a designer working on systems, programs and interventions, having the cultural intelligence and flexibility to be able to adapt your own style and thought patterns to a different cultural norm. 

TP: Why is this critical to the work TP NZ does? 

Keita: We are a human-centred design company. We pride ourselves on having empathy and understanding for the people we design with. In this case that means connecting and thinking in a way that is inherently Maori. Maori have a relationship-based culture, we have a connection to the land and its people.  If you want to work well with Maori you need to connect with them and how they see the world. 

Peter: For example, we explored an experience model at the Noho that was developed in a Western context (in the United States) and is heavily focused on what people are experiencing at a point in time.  When we applied a Maori cultural perspective to the same model we identified that it didn’t factor in broader dimensions that are critical to the lived experience of Maori people. These included things like whakapapa (your genealogy) and whanaungatanga (relationships). This model for understanding user experience in a context of human-centred design was based on an individual’s experience rather than a collective view of experience, which is more common in Maori culture.   

We also explored the idea of institutional or systemic racism. By this we mean that individuals acting within a system who don’t identify as holding racist perspectives can inadvertently contribute to systemic racism that results in certain groups of people being disproportionally represented in health, education or criminal justice systems.   

This is important to understand given that much of our design work is carried out alongside government agencies. In addition to government having obligations under the Treaty of Waitangi, government (and its agents) have massive potential to inadvertently contribute to structural racism (or to reduce it if they go about things in a different way). 

TP: How did staff respond to the Noho? 

Keita: Everyone responded beautifully. It would have been a completely foreign concept for some of them but I was really proud of how they embraced the spirit of it. If there were people who were out of their comfort zone, it didn’t show. We had a very safe space for people to immerse themselves in Te Ao Māori. It was lovely. 

Peter: It was a very emotional experience for many of our team. Our amazing and generous host told heartbreaking stories of how her iwi (tribe) had their way of life decimated by the relentless pursuit of Western progress and development. But she also laid down a challenge for those of us present who were not Maori – we are a major part of the solution, and the non-Maori part of the system cannot change without people from within that system taking a different perspective.  

ThinkPlace / WahiWhakaaro wishes to acknowledge the hospitality of Kohunui Marae and the people of Ngāti Kahungunu and  Ngāti Hinewaka. We have been welcomed into their whanau, they have been woven into our learning journey. Kohunui Marae and its people hold a special place in our hearts.  Mauri ora!