Participatory Cites - What they are and why they are so important

This is a talk about Participatory Cities, what they are and why they are so important. 

Most would agree that we are experiencing a number of interconnected global challenges, including climate change, political upheaval and conflict, rising inequality.  We feel anxious about the things happening around us, yet they are too complex to solve as individuals.

The easiest response is not to respond.  We live next to homes just like ours, where our neighbours, full of talents and ideas, remain inactive, just like us.  Not because we don’t want to act, but because we literally don’t know where to start.  What do we need to do to change this?  Imagine if we had a way of responding practically to these challenges.  When we see things on the news we could wake up the next morning to a complete set of support on our doorstep that enabled us to do something as citizens.

In many places around the world we already have a host of well-established and well-respected systems that help us to do things.  But most of these opportunities attract only a very small number of people.  For example, only 3% of people in the UK are involved in neighbourhood projects, while 60% say they would like to be.  As vital as these existing systems are, there are still enormous gaps if citizens are to play a central role.

Currently what we are doing is often not inclusive enough, is often not designed around capabilities, and not being done on a large enough scale, with enough speed.  We need to stop being regarded simply as units of resource, that can give, vote, support or follow.  We need to stop being regarded simply as consumers of other people’s products, media, philosophies or ideas.  We are all, every single one of us, creative thinkers and doers, with the potential to be agents of change, producers as well as products of our environment.  Many people think that how we regard each other matters, and that our capabilities should be central to how we design new city systems.

For example, Jim Anderson from Bloomberg Philanthropies said: “It feels as right as it feels radical to assert that we can take on complex social challenges by nurturing connections between people around their own creativity and energy.” 

The RSA Civic Commons noted: “Current models for encouraging citizens to participate in civic life are geared around citizens influencing decision making or service delivery, rather than individually or collectively making change themselves. But this needs to change; participation must enable citizens to take action rather than just have a conversation.”

In every city in the world we urgently need practical tools to enable us do something to shape our collective future.  We need to be given the practical tools to act, not miles away from home, not through extraordinary heroic individual effort.

So where do we start to build systems?

Currently there are small fragmented projects in neighbourhoods, which are not adding up to the scale or speed of change we need.  Some projects are particularly special.  They achieve something incredibly difficult: they attract diverse people together to the same spaces, of different ages, cultures and religions.  They show us that it is possible to attract people from all walks of life together, in social creative settings and on an equal footing.  This is highly unusual in many places today.  Segmenting and targeting over decades, whether for consumer products or government services, has left many of us living in siloed clusters of culture or income.

What kind of activity manages to achieve this inclusive participation?   Things that we need to do every day: cook, eat, read stories to our children, grow food, repair things, share things, learn and play.  These are the things we all have in common, and because they appeal to everyone these projects offer us the potential to create the friendship and trust we need by getting to know one another in the same space.  Some of these projects are innovative, some are not, but all are useful and beneficial.

Imagine then a Participatory City.  

1. It’s a city in which there are hundreds of practical opportunities every week, across a wide range of activities, close to home, built into the fabric of everyday life.  

2. It’s a city where we can all build trust and friendship by living more sociably, building connection, learning, sharing and doing common denominator things with others informally, in the time we have available, and in ways that will be mutually beneficial to us.  

3. It’s a city that enables us to co-create an inclusive, collaborative and circular local economy, working with new ideas, knowledge and tools to make our clothing, grow our food and start collaborative businesses that are sustainable for people, cities and the planet.

4. It’s a city that boosts cohesion, health, equality, happiness, safety, sustainability and innovation, all through peer-to-peer citizen co-creation.

Imagine then what it might be like to live in a Participatory City.

It’s a place where there are teams of designers helping to bring our ideas to life in practical spaces, connected to many organisations collaborating together.  When we hear that the world has been turned upside down, and people are turning on each other, we can turn to our neighbourhood and know that every day of the week there are places where we will always be welcome, however little time or energy we have.  That these diverse spaces, projects and networks are where all the learning is shared, creativity is sparked.  That the time we spend doing any kind of practical activity, even for short periods, is making an important contribution to creating and maintaining your neighbourhood as an inclusive and cohesive place to live.

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When we hear that the clothing that we are wearing is polluting rivers in a country far from us, we can turn to our neighbours who are happy to show us how to sew, and we have free access to machines, where there is digital equipment making it possible to download thousands of free open source patterns off the internet, print, adapt and use these to make our own designs, where there are projects that help us repair, recycle, upcyle and adapt clothes together, where we can learn how to start a collaborative planet-friendly clothing business or buy planet-friendly clothing made locally by our friends and neighbours.

When we hear that young people are without work and feel disconnected from the rest of society, turning to gangs and violence, we can turn to our neighbourhood and help make the streets safe for children to play out and encourage them to be key co-creators of their neighbourhoods too.  It’s a neighbourhood where we know that when we draw out our children and young people’s talents in shared neighbourhood spaces it builds their confidence and relationships with supportive local networks.  These relationships help them to learn how to collaborate and connect with the wider world.

When we hear that the food we are eating travelled miles, polluting the planet, and we are throwing away 30% the food produced, we can turn to our neighbourhood, where we cook and eat with our neighbours regularly, in shared public kitchens and spaces, where we grow food in public spaces together and recycle food by learning to compost from our neighbours, where we can buy food from our local cooperative that we helped establish and sustain, where we can reduce food waste by sharing in open fridges.  

This is practical public social infrastructure, in the same way as libraries, parks and roads are, and equally essential.  Safe, cohesive, sustainable places to live, places that we have had a hand in creating, are a universal dream of millions of people, people that are currently worrying about their future and their family’s future.

Participatory Cities are not a blueprint created in a think tank behind closed doors, nor are they a politician’s cost-cutting utopia. 

Participatory Cities are a major design challenge for our generation: how to design and build the physical, technical and social infrastructure that enables us to co-create a sustainable future, with our own two hands, and with everyone?  It’s by no means the only design challenge; there are hundreds.  But it is the central one for cities, around which all other new system designs should be built.  Citizens and their capabilities need to be at the epicentre of all city systems.

We know that investing the minimum into participation infrastructure doesn’t work.  We can’t continue to blame each other for materialism, cynicism or laziness, when in most places today the practical tools to act simply don’t exist.  As with every big challenge, research and development is vital to work out the nuts and bolts of what it does takes for practical participation to work at a large scale.

We have to invest in long term transformation.  Elinor Ostrom, winner of the Nobel Prize for Economics expressed that: “A core goal of public policy should be to facilitate the development of institutions that bring out the best in humans.”

It sounds inspiring, doesn’t it?  But what has just been described is incredibly difficult.  We have to be convinced that we should be building our societies with the ingenuity and capability of everyone, not just the most educated, most heroic or most confident.

We have to be convinced that we have no choice but to change the way we live if we are to co-create more cohesive, safe and sustainable societies.  

If we are convinced, we will have the ambition, urgency and determination required to build large scale practical participation infrastructure designed to make these changes both easy and exciting for everyone. 

If we are convinced we will fight for the practical tools we need and want as citizens of our planet to shape the future together.

How are we developing Participatory Cities?  

Inspired by the special projects that citizens have created the world over, we have been working on this design challenge for over nine years on the ground.  We have worked with thousands of people in over a hundred communities.  We have travelled to thirty-six cities on three continents. We have spoken to many citizen project designers in many places, all the while designing, prototyping, testing and re-designing the elements and practices to make a support platform work .

Three years ago we were very fortunate to find a visionary leadership team in Barking and Dagenham, East London, who have been bold enough to take the research and development of this approach to the next level with residents and our team.  We have also been supported by an ambitious collective of funders.

Our biggest question has been: ‘Is it possible to co-create with citizens at a large scale?’  Now in its second year of co-designing and growing the participation ecosystem across a whole borough, the answer is yes, it is not only possible, it is also inspiring to see it growing every day with all the wonderful people involved.

We are building on the learning from special projects in neighbourhoods everywhere, from innovative practitioners and dedicated researchers across the world.  We are equally determined to share everything we are learning, and have openly invited others to connect and build this new field of practice together.

For all the design challenges, we believe the success of what we are doing relies entirely on a simple but powerful fact about how we are hardwired as humans. 

We need each other, and with the right opportunities, the right invitation, at the right time, in in the right space, we simply can’t resist being together.

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Tessy Britton