Why we are taking the time to build a large Demonstration Neighborhood

Princess Garden Berlin

Princess Garden Berlin

Participatory City is working on an ambitious idea - to build a large urban Demonstration Neighborhood. By large we mean a small city or a city borough of around 300,000 people.

Over 5 years we aim to use a platform approach to transform the lives of the people living and working there, using mass participation as a key building block for that transformation. Through the participatory ecology created, a neighbourhood will be re-organised not just for practicality, but also to be inspiring and exciting places to live: expanding our horizons, growing ideas and projects, inventing new livelihoods.

We expressed this ambition last September, without knowing if this idea would be possible. The Demonstration Neighborhood is about making a big investment in prototyping a future way of organizing ourselves on the sort of scale we aren’t that used to talking about. In a context of cost cutting and political short-termism I did wonder how realistic this plan was … or if we should be adopting a more modest plan instead.

Nearly 6 months on … and around 250 meetings, visits and conversations later I am sticking with this idea … 

Here are 5 good reasons why I am doing that:

1. People are ready

Taking a long hard look what is being achieved has made many people working on social transformation dissatisfied. In an effort to distribute funding fairly, we have ended up diluting our efforts, with minimal long term impact, even in places we care about and know need the effort. No amount of clever evaluation techniques for individual projects and programmes will change the fact that what we are doing collectively, and the way we are doing it, simply isn’t enough.  

In summary that is what the seminal 2011 article on the idea of Collective Impact was saying: raise our ambitions and concentrate our efforts.  And in Montreal they are well on their way to doing that - with a new collective funding of $22m they intend to transform places long term. Innovative funders in the UK have started talking in these terms too.

2. We have the know how

Many ingenious people have been working hard for years on pieces of the puzzle - highly specialized elements on some cases e.g. technology based frameworks for sustainable living, better designed services, new organizational structures and cultures … projects and community business ideas that can change places completely. We have a lot to work with.

In addition to individual tools, methods, ideas and projects there are several initiatives who have been working on larger systemic platform ideas - and we intend to work with these all these other initiatives, learning with them and making sure we bring together every ounce of available tried and testing thinking developing the Demonstration Neighborhood.

Examples of these platforms include PlaceLab, LabGov, Cities for People, The Young Foundation, Granby Workshop, Better Block, Sustainable Everyday Project, Lankelly Chase Foundation Afrikaanderwijk Collective, Bloomberg Mayor's Challenge, 100 Resilient Cities, Lloyds TSB Foundation for Scotland, Kresge Foundation .... and many others.

3. We need the melting pot to bring those ideas together

We have both the ideas and many highly developed individual elements - every single one of them we believe is incomplete taken in isolation. Put them together in one place and we could have a potent mixture of new ideas that could revolutionize how we organize ourselves for a really wonderful future.  The Demonstration Neighborhood is how we bring this ideas together — fusing and bonding new methods and tools in a collaborative melting pot - working through the nuts and bolts, bringing to life a new emerging field. There is no other way to do this well except in a living context.

4. The concept is proving to be a talent magnet

Everyone I speak to wants to be involved in making this happen - either as a possible place, as an institutional knowledge partner, or as a team member ... people have even indicate that they are willing to uproot long term careers to be part of this project. 

If you removed the funding element our experiences and conversations indicated that there isn’t a city in the UK (and perhaps elsewhere too) that wouldn’t jump at the opportunity of being the first Participatory City - and the degree to which that enthusiasm and optimism has been expressed to us tells us we are on the right track.

5. We need to show what is possible

How will we ever know if this positive future is possible if we don’t build it - somewhere? We have to show what is possible when we pool our ideas, resources and expertise, and we need to commit to it.  On a visit to inspiring Bologna this month I had the good fortune to interview Luca Rizzo Nervo - one of the city's Deputy Mayors (thank you again Christian!). The city has recently changed their regulations to allow for more citizen activity through the Urban Commons. Their observation was that when the city was very active in a neighborhood the citizens were less active, and visa versa. Bologna leadership, like us, believe that building new infrastructures for greater collaboration between citizens - and between citizens and government -  is the only way we can change places long term, and that participation is key to this. The current tug of war - citizens and government asking each other to do more and more - is not a collaboration - its an attempt at redistribution of limited financial resources, at worst an attempted redistribution of chores - rather than a genuine and creative effort to find new ways to bring the best together collaboratively.

Alex Steffen raised £75,000 on Kickstarter last week — for a live documentary series about reimagining the world of tomorrow. As Alex say’s ‘we can’t build what we can’t imagine’ … we would add to that ‘we can’t believe it unless we build it’.

And so I am sticking with it - it might take another 6 months for all the many pieces to come together - the place, the people… the resources - it could take another 18 months. But I’m committed … and enjoying every week meeting so many others who are feeling equally bold and equally excited about working on something that could have substantial impact.

Tessy BrittonComment