lunes, 26 de diciembre de 2016

Towards a creative approach on community engagement

The first issue of 180º, a new magazine by Global CAD, is already here and I am happy I had the chance to contribute with an essay on participatory processes and how to make the best of community engagement. This #1 issue is titled Back to Local, and as Fernando Casado puts it, "it analyses alternative trends reflecting a change of mentality committed to modifying our habits: from our consumer patterns to ways of production, to the manner in which we manage generated knowledge and how we interact with each other. (...) Faced with this situation, neighborhood identity has regained its reason for being, community associations are in the spotlight and cooperatives are again in vogue. United by necessity, and responding with creativity and solidarity to the collapse of a future that, perhaps prematurely, we took as a given, citizens have returned to focus on themselves, on the neighborhood. They have returned to what is local. The playing field for this revolution is the city, which is striving to adapt to a citizenry that no longer allows for being represented, and demands a new model of urban management based on participatory public policies accented by inclusiveness."

You can find contibutions from Antanas Mockus, Javi Creus, Raons Públiques, Gemma Soles or Lea Rekow, among others, and below is my text. The full magazine is here.


Community engagement in urban planning is becoming a matter of urgency. While societies are seeking more access to information and transparency in public decisions, when it comes to urban development they are most of the time faced with obscure and intricate planning systems. Citizen participation calls for a design process that strategically considers how to make its promises a tangible reality.

The developing world is witnessing an unprecedented rate of urbanisation. This leads to a growing need for a new generation of tools that help address community demands from an inclusive and creative perspective, to make participatory planning a high impact strategy.

Participatory design has broadened its scope in the last decade. Surveys, public hearings, open space meetings, consultations and participatory appraisals were part and parcel of the traditional tool kit, and are still what comes to mind when we think about participation. Meeting rooms, papers, chalkboards, post-its and people gathering to talk, discuss, suggest and consent. This occurs around specific topics designated by authorities as participatory. Though this brief description may seem overly simplistic and even unfair within the wide array of heterogeneous techniques, approaches and tools, such has been the general framework of public participation in local decisions. Then networked technologies arrived and became widespread, and not only changed our everyday life, but also our mindsets and expectations. Crowdsourcing, peer-to-peer production, collaborative sharing, commons and other concepts and ideas are becoming part of the way we understand how things and projects should be designed, managed and evaluated in different spheres of life, from journalism and media information access to cultural production and consumption. So why it is that governments and public policies are taking so long to adapt their procedures to the way we live? Because local innovation and change call for in-depth changes and leadership that are still lacking.

Public participation and involvement in public issues has to be properly understood to avoid false expectations and participation fatigue syndrome. Here is where a crucial differentiation must be made, as Thomas J. Lodato seamlessly addressed in his article ‘Three Positions on Civic Hacking’. Though the text is linked to a particular approach to civic engagement, i.e. civic hacking, it can perfectly apply to our broader outlook on participatory processes. Participation in, participation by and participation through are three different frameworks for understanding the level of engagement in public issues promoted by certain participa tion processes. Keeping this in mind is a way to set the limits, the scope and the ambition of the extent to which decision- making and citizen involvement will take shape.

Before showing how these trends are reshaping our understanding of civic engagement in local policies, we can sum up a number of criteria for designing participatory processes that are still relevant:

Community participation in local policies and social issues usually comes with the predictable backlash: ‘It wastes money, time and resources, which we cannot afford. There is an urgent need to make a decision’. Sooner or later, those seeking to promote a participatory process will have to face this critique, and it is worthwhile to design the process in a way that counters the risks, scepticism and drawbacks. Community engagement may mean more time until a decision is made, may keep conflicts stagnant, may imply a perceived loss in public bodies’ authority, or add uncertainty in the decision- making process. These stumbling blocks, to name but a few, are potential issues that deliberate and sensible designing can cope with. Participatory planning, however, is more likely to yield better decisions as regards the built environment and the beneficiaries. On the whole, these decisions are better informed, anticipate potential conflicts, enhance the legitimacy of public decisions and create a sense of co-responsibility with urban spaces. But, above all, enhancing participation and civic engagement is the best way to adapt institutional work, red tape and bureaucracy to the growing expectations of societies around the world, so that they can have their say in shaping their own environment.

The main challenge facing participatory urban projects relates to the need for open and inclusive design, and to differentiating the roles various stakeholders should play depending on their position. The map of stakeholders involved in the project does not necessarily have to be a long list of names. The crucial challenge is ensuring that said stakeholders play a balanced role; different set of participatory tools, events and means of contributing are defined so the largest number of social interests are covered. Certain tools such as sociograms– a tool that maps interactions between different groups of people – or stakeholder mapping tools, become very useful for understanding what role each player may have in the process and defining the right contribution everyone can make at every stage of the process. They help you to dive into the relationships within the community and help designers understand how to engage participants in the process.

Though participatory planning is a well-established field and has been used in different public policy areas, beware of copycatting. There is a temptation to expect that what worked in one place can mimetically be implemented in another. Of course, thanks to the extensive background of initiatives, organisations and practices we can draw inspiration from, there is no need to start from scratch. Different manuals, inspiring examples and practical tips for facilitators can easily be found. However, one of the most important pieces of advice community planners and participation facilitators will give you is to approach every project with a new design. Caseby- case design is the only way to establish a process that can vary depending on the topic, urban issue, social circumstances or available resources.

One major misunderstanding about how to design inclusive and democratic participatory processes is to think that everyone should take part in the same way at every stage of the process, whatever the type of project. A well-designed process must be able to dissect the different process stages to determine which agents, organisations and individuals should preferably be involved. This may sound counterintuitive, but here is where the different levels can shed some light. In the early stages of the process, when documentation and the project’s starting point context are crucial, those who can contribute the most differ from those who should be involved in the later stages, when decisions, commitments and implementation choices are key. Defining different tools for different stages is a design principle that can facilitate stakeholder identification at each stage, and help determine when and how every potential participant should take part to provide the optimum input. Here is when inclusiveness is a must.

Bearing in mind these first ideas as design principles to ensure context awareness is incorporated in participatory processes, we need to integrate a better understanding of new societal needs and expectations on what we actually call participation. There was a time when participatory planning just meant a series of boring meetings late in the afternoon. This is probably still the main image that comes to mind when we think there is a participatory process discussing an urban initiative. Discussion meetings, which are in fact a very narrow way to make people engage, are just a small fraction of the different tools we can use to raise social interests and contributions. Here is where creativity can inspire those in charge of designing and facilitating the process, to understand that ideas can flow in many different ways, and involvement in local and community issues can be much more proactive. What about developing exercises to include the perspective of children? What about storytelling to include elderly people? What about getting out of meeting rooms and meeting in open spaces? What about getting rid of paper and questionnaires, and using walls or other supports to collect ideas? What about physically transforming the place under discussion to imagine its potential use? What about involving other pro fessionals apart from architects and urban planners (such as artists, novelists, photographers) and thinking outside the box laden with maps, ordinances and zoning codes? At this point, a good illustrative project can be mentioned, Green My Favela (Rio de Janeiro, Brazil) as a means (among others) of exemplifying the kind of action-oriented projects whose DNA comprises a participatory approach based on real and creative appropriation of the city. Participation is no longer a matter of getting obsessed about representativeness, and inviting others as representative individuals of groups or interests, but a matter of who can bring something to the table and contribute with their own hands. Digitally-enabled participatory processes and ways to collectively engage in urban issues are boosting community planning and citizen involvement in public matters. Embracing new digital tools, from social media to citizen science, from mobile apps to open data and spatial visualisation, have transformed the way civic participation can be designed, broadening the scope, the people involved, the kind of input and, ultimately, enhancing the quality of community engagement in cities. This may have an instrumental role (mapping the invisible in slum communities), but it turns out to be a powerful tool, such as in the very well known case of Kibera (Nairobi, Kenya), for boosting community building and engagement. Civic technologies have also had a huge impact on facilitating crowdsourcing projects that demonstrate how citizens can transform their cities with their own hands. From crowdfunding civic projects via Spacehive and other platforms, to collecting ideas through online platforms (Change by Us, for example), from tactical interventions to building guerrilla bike lanes, crosswalks and urban farms, and activating vacant sites. All these tools, projects and trends show us a new balance on the rise as regards the relationship between citizens and governance. In terms of these changes, it is worthwhile noting the design criteria established in Governance for the Future: An Inventor’s Toolkit, by Institute for the Future as good guidance on how those principles previously described have been renewed by the expanding social innovation movement. New engagement methodologies and approaches are being tested with a broad understanding of how participation works in the networked society (for an example, see Citizen Canvas).

Technology driving innovation and governance is no exception. Institutions and their bureaucracy are heavy machineries that are taking longer than society to adapt to the new demands for open societies and more in-depth democratic governance. As such, technology is only an enabler of an underlying shift in cultural mindset. This change is related to the collaborative and sharing cities movement (see the Sharing Cities Toolkit, for example), which is the manifestation of a new approach to participation: don’t tell me I can’t do it.

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