On the phone to Alejandro Gutierrez the other day, talking citizen participation, he said I had to meet his Chilean colleague, Rodrigo Araya of Tironi Asociados. Rodrigo, and Tironi, were doing amongst the most interesting and effective citizen participation work around, apparently. A few weeks later, Rodrigo happened to be in northern Europe, so we reeled him in to Helsinki for a chat.
And it turned out to be one of the most inspiring conversations I’ve had for quite a while (and I think that also goes for the colleagues who joined us, Karoliina Luoto, Johanna Kirkinen and Karoliina Auvinen who work across open data and participation, Low2No and Brickstarter projects at Sitra, amongst other things.)
Tironi’s work has shifted from strategic communications to coordinating citizen participation strategies over the last decade. Crucially, it now includes actually facilitating participation, hands on. Our conversation focused on two cases, and two cities: the rebuilding of Constitución, after the devastating 2010 earthquake and tsunami, and a new masterplan for the city of Calama, in northern Chile.
In both cases, Tironi and partners have foregrounded citizen participation like no comparable urban project I’ve ever seen, or heard of.
Participation is often no more than a sop in urban planning and city politics generally. It’s a token gesture that is partly responsible for generating NIMBY responses, manifesting itself in the wrong kind of engagements (surveys, focus groups, votes) at the wrong times (at the beginning of projects, often pre-proposal, before it’s possible to have constructive discussion, or at the end, when all the decisions have already been made.) Tironi have flipped such projects on their head, organising the entire thing around participation. Although the work is in process—as it always is with cities, it has to be said—the results so far appear to be extraordinary.
Tironi’s work in this area started with the forestry business Arauco, who became interested in engagement as a result of trying to obtain a sustainable forestry certificate. According to Araya, this certification took the public perception of the business as one of the primary criteria, and meant Arauco started to gear up their strategy accordingly.
Then the earthquake hit. (Araya tends to cut the air with his hand whenever he says this.) As the significant employer in Constitución, and throughout the affected area, Arauco suddenly became involved in the reconstruction of the largely destroyed city, as did Tironi.
After the fall of the city, we can see a story involving incredible bravery, resolve, invention and commitment. The project set itself the target of a new masterplan in 90 days (to put this into perspective, I believe the City of Helsinki took over a decade to masterplan the much smaller, essentially empty, prospective neighbourhood of Jätkäsaari, where our Low2No project sits.)
This speed is unheard of in itself, but perhaps an understandable ambition given the circumstances. But then the project team raised the bar—or knocked the bar into space—by pivoting the entire masterplan process upon citizen participation, with co-design as the organising principle.
“I think that disasters like this offer an incredible opportunity to be able to grow sustainably and harmoniously.”
- a local fire officer, speaking in the documentary Mauchos
Participation was intense, engaged and focused on a small light building in the centre of the city, where public debates unfolded and teams worked furiously coordinate and interpret input from citizens.
The project included significant funding from Arauco. This is interesting in itself, and in other contexts might cause a raised eyebrow, but here, with a relatively poor city government facing a crisis, it actually lead to an interesting balancing act between industry, citizens and government. Apparently, the funding did not mean that the project was controlled by Arauco, which is key. So, Arauco played producer/funder, but not director, according to Araya. Trust is key to such a productive working relationship; which makes one wonder whether the particular conditions here necessarily forged trust in a way that isn’t easily transferable.
That balance was partly enabled by placing citizens first, displacing the traditional asymmetry of power which usually sees politicians, corporate interest and experts in the box seat. It was sustained through constant, intensive engagement.
Araya placed particular emphasis on the issue of destabilising the position of experts. He discussed the theoretical work that he’d been studying, almost as if in leisure (particularly Bruno Latour and Michel Callon: see the latter’s essay Acting in an Uncertain World - top of the Brickstarter reading list, just ahead of Ostrom) and then that slash of the air again. “Then, the earthquake.”
Suddenly they had a reason to put that theory into practice, in particular drawing from the “hybrid forum” idea from Callon et al’s essay. From the MIT Press website:
“The authors of ‘Acting in an Uncertain World’ argue that political institutions must be expanded and improved to manage these controversies, to transform them into productive conversations, and to bring about “technical democracy.” They show how “hybrid forums”—in which experts, non-experts, ordinary citizens, and politicians come together—reveal the limits of traditional delegative democracies, in which decisions are made by quasi-professional politicians and techno-scientific information is the domain of specialists in laboratories. The division between professionals and laypeople, the authors claim, is simply outmoded.” [Acting in an Uncertain World, MIT Press]
This is fascinating (with some echoes of our HDL Studio model, albeit in a fundamentally different context, with far more emphasis on citizens) and we spent most of the afternoon discussing the implications of working with hybrid forums. The results have been extraordinary, with most of the city of Constitución apparently engaged in an intense, constructive public debate, effectively shaping the plan in real-time.
Araya’s ‘social team’ led the process, with experts and others in a supporting role, shaping and reshaping their proposals in response to the debates. (The experts in this case included two great Chilean designers, who we’ve had the pleasure of working with: the aforementioned Gutierrez, who I worked with at Arup, and who led Arup’s successful bid for our Low2No project: and Alejandro Aravena of ELEMENTAL, who we worked with in the Helsinki Design Lab studios, and whose social housing solution is one of our core strategic design case studies. You can more of ELEMENTAL’s work for Constitución on their site.)
Rather than plod through the whole story here, I’ll point people at the film ‘Mauchos’, which documents the story of Constitución and the earthquake. ‘Mauchos’ can be seen in full below.
Moving as that is, the short ‘Making Of’ movie is perhaps more relevant here, as it describes and demonstrates the participation model a little more, and is more a documentary of the project. (Araya described how they were keen to document this project differently, using narrative format: a report would not have done. At the end of the ‘Making Of’, you’ll see the town gathering to watch the movie, their movie. This is incredibly moving, but also illustrates how the documentary was another instrumental component of the project, further helping bind the community together through the project.) The version at Vimeo is without subtitles. In case you don’t speak Spanish, I’ve uploaded a version with the English subtitles (Dear Mauchos producers; I hope that’s OK.)
If you want a quick hit, scroll forward to around the 4’10″ mark, you’ll get a sense of the participation, including the debates, the reshaping of the proposals, and the voting on proposals that took place. Leave it running, and you’ll see the inevitable tensions, conflicts. But also the sense of a city whose people were rowing in the same direction.
It would be instructive to compare the Constitución case with the rebuilding work in Christchurch, New Zealand, which also suffered a devastating earthquake relatively recently. Some ex-colleagues have been involved in this too, and I was aware of a ‘crowdsourced ideas’ forum which rapidly emerged from the disaster, with some promise. However, recent conversations have indicated that the momentum may have slowed there, amidst a lack of clarity as to the way forward (I hasten to add that I don’t know this to be the case; feel free to clarify below). What might we learn from each case? Did the web-based facilitation of Christchurch’s Share An Idea not have the necessary physical counterpoint, for instance? Are the two different cultures at play sufficiently different, despite the similarity of conditions? I’m not close enough to either to judge, but it would be a great comparative case study, across the two cities (note to self…)
The story of Tironi et al’s work in the city of Calama is very different, in that it is not forged in the same conditions of crisis, but nonetheless it is a test of the same principles, the same model. Here, the urgency is drawn from economic conditions and a desire for improvement, rather than natural disaster, as well as a series of previously promised and never-delivered masterplans. Now, apparently, there is genuine motivation to transform what Araya describes as a highly functional, mining-oriented rough sort of town. Again, the project has placed citizen participation at the forefront, and again, the “hybrid forum” methodology is being deployed.
We talked about how you might create focus without a crisis – one of Finland’s problems, as with many (over)developed nations, is that our crises are generally of the slow, creeping variety (climate change, ageing population, emerging social issues) rather than the focus-pull of natural disaster. So how do we create the sense of urgency? We will have to create and deploy meaningful constraints to ‘box in’ the problem, and so the participation.
Equally, we also talked about cultural issues, looking at the Latin facility with ‘discursive public spaces’ such as piazzas (Mike Davies talks about this in Magical Urbanism, in the context of a transforming Los Angeles), something also afforded by the Mediterranean climate. Perhaps also, generalising wildly, a highly social culture? How will this work in different cultures (assuming each place now has numerous cultures within it at any one time)?
As Karoliina A. pointed out, some concerns over participation here in Finland (and elsewhere, I must say) rest on the perception that it slows down the development process. It is an often slow process; yet this is partly because of the stop-start method with which it is implemented (diagnose, design, propose, consult, re-diagnose, re-design, re-propose, re-consult, appeal, court case, re-propose, lose financing and so on), over long periods, with major leakage of information, focus and commitment each time the project pauses. Again, this means equivalent projects take years. Constitución indicates that pulling participation into the process not only gets more buy-in, and so less likelihood of complaints and blockages, as you’re “building the right thing” in the first place, but also a far quicker process. Again, the conditions that drove Constitución to this position are not ideally replicable, but the findings might be.
So leaving aside these ‘facile’ differences, across both Constitución and Calama we can see some patterns to the participation work.
- Build a physical focal point. In Constitución, a simple, light wooden structure (‘PRES Open House’) was rapidly built in what had been the centre of town, acting as the focal point for the participation. This was where the project happened; this was where people could gather, discuss, see the plans. (Subtly, the design of the structure pointed at a new kind of building for the town too, using timber.) This physical focal point seems fundamentally important.
- Use every form of communication to draw people in. They used social media to get the word out in both cities, although the levels of internet connection in Chile mean that it’s not a viable strategy for mass communication. Hence the footage of the loudhailer on the top of a car driven around town. With no infrastructure, the teams had to rely on basic, more accessible forms of communication (Aravena talks of ‘designing via SMS’, though you also see CAD in use. All tools are used).
- Focus through compression. Araya says the team tried to increase the level of participation by ramping up the intensity of the process, working with the tight time window, rather than against it. Although it’s a stretch, one of the things we appreciate about Kickstarter is the smart use of time limits, building a kind of auction-like sense of focus. Public projects are different, but time constraints can clearly be used beneficially, on this evidence.
- Build a rhythm. Rodrigo noted that these meetings became almost like a “weekly liturgy” for the community. It helped keep the pace up, and provided a clear framework of engagement for people (both citizens and experts alike.)
- The “hybrid forum”. This is the heart of the proposition. Again, drawn from Latour, Callon et al, but actually put into practice here. Balancing the interests, attitudes and different modes of experts, politicians, business big and small, and citizens will take highly skilful facilitation. But for this approach to work, the hybrid forum was key to deliberately unsettling the role of expert, or of destabilising accepted, unquestioned hierarchies, but in a ‘safe’, collaborative environment.
- Place social in control. Related to the above. Putting the participation element at the ‘top of the pyramid’ was a clear statement of priorities. It directly addressed the default asymmetry of power, with which experts and policymakers have traditionally traded, often with poor results. It also provides a clear framework for a public-private partnerships in which private finance and public responsibility can be aligned. (There are significant implications here for the traditional positioning of representative democracy, of course. Not necessarily fatal ones, but they do suggest a serious recalibration of the roles, skills and responsibilities of policy-makers, politicians, designers and engineers, and so on.)
- Start with a proposal. This also seems key. We also talk about the value of getting to ‘the sketch’ as quickly as possible; the project teams in Constitución also started with a proposal, to “avoid the eternal diagnosis” as Araya put it. This then enables the ‘experts’ to be in the role of listening and re-shaping a proposal from the start in response to citizens. (crucially, not defending; “push back, but not block”),
- Confront things. Watch the video and observe the confrontations. It is vital, in terms of the community learning and engaging together, that issues are confronted head on, in public. Rodrigo relishes these situations; for the sheer passion – as it indicates things matter – but also because this is a form of healing and binding. (Araya’s Phd was actually conducted in the Balkans and concerned the fall of Milosevic and the various violent or awkward transitions at play there. He may have the right mindset for this game.)
There are dozens of other small points we can draw from these examples; it’s such rich terrain.
We also talked about how to maintain this kind of participation. Having built a seemingly successful hybrid forum for collective decision-making in the town, it would be a shame to see the level of civic engagement and ownership subside completely, as – inevitably, hopefully – the crisis condition dissipates. Rodrigo noted that this was all work in progress, but the intriguing idea remains – how do you form a new kind of governance that retains this kind of participation? Accepting that the momentum must subside, how you ensure you have ongoing civic engagement in decision-making in this meaningful way? And how, given the fact that actual, physical change happens slowly – as a resident notes in the film, it will take over a decade for the parks to ‘grow back’ – how do you manage expectations, deal with arising issues, and put in place the next series of moves? How do we conceive of these new roles for policymakers, politicians, experts, businesses and citizens to create cultures of decision-making that are risk-taking and responsible, forward-looking and pragmatic, holistic and nimble?
These are obviously broader questions — in terms of platforms, frameworks, systems and cultures, and at the heart of “designs” for 21st century governance — but the transferable elements of these inspiring projects might well contain some of the seeds we’re all looking for.
Why do I blog this?
The emphasis on seeing participation as a way of getting things done, as opposed to a blockage to getting things done, drives the core of Brickstarter. Also fundamental is a more nuanced notion of governance, including multiple layers of connected decision-making—small pieces loosely joined—as opposed to a blunt idea of essentially two layers of state and municipality. There is a new form of democratic governance hinted at here, and we’re engaging with that dark matter. Equally, there are numerous details of the practice of participation here, such as starting with a sketch, the hybrid forum, the intensity of focus through time constraints, the emphasis on physical debate and space, and so on. Finally, though, this core idea of inverting the notion of engagement, orienting towards participation as the organising principle (“reversing the polarity“), is key to Brickstarter; that the involvement of citizens in everyday decision-making about their environment is likely to result in outcomes that are more inclusive, holistic, faster, scalable, and better, as they are decisions “owned” by the citizens. In other words, sustainable. Many thanks to Rodrigo for his time and insights.