June 2016
Category: 
Gorka Espiau, The Michael Young Foundation

Cities in transformation

Whilst there are huge amounts of innovative and creative work within urban areas, many of society’s most complex problems also manifest themselves here – unemployment, poverty, pollution and social mobility to name but a few. These problems, often described as ‘wicked’ problems for their complex, entrenched, and interconnected nature are too often addressed in a short-term or fragmented way.

Traditional interventions may often only address the symptoms rather than the root, or structural causes of the problem. They demand a comprehensive and interconnected series of interventions. A more holistic and large-scale transformation needs to take place. Even the most successful ones have always acknowledged that the challenges we are tackling are too complex and interrelated to be transformed applying a technical “project delivery” mentality.

Cities are also becoming the natural ecosystem for inequality. The wealthiest, the “squeezed middle” and the growing poorest couldn’t live physically closer to each other. In this context, many city leaders share the aspiration of launching new reform movements with the potential to incubate disruptive social innovations that will tackle the structural and institutional causes of inequality.

For this purpose, interconnected and larger scale interventions need to be co-created until a genuine movement of transformation is generated at the city/region level. Projects need to be incorporated as necessary tools of the “transformation movement” but always integrated within a deeper aspirational goal.

These city movements can only be co-created generating a new narrative of transformation capable of connecting the identity of the territory with a “collective decision” to build a socially sustainable city, proud to be associated with, proud to be living in.

Those cities and territories who have been able to associate themselves with a positive narrative of transformation are more resilient and socially sustainable, even more competitive. Barcelona, Seoul, Malmo, Medellín and Bilbao are just some examples of positive social transformation. Those who have allowed a negative narrative about themselves to emerge face much more serious problems to deal with the current global challenges.

Applying a movement-building approach to place-based transformation contributes to reframing the way social innovation speaks. It demands to “tread lightly and listen deeply" to the stories that people tell about their lives. All voices matter, power relations become more democratic and complex, ambiguity and failure are experienced as a natural component of the journey.

Within the same city there will be competing cultures, identities and narratives, but they will be defined by a broader culture to which those who belong to the place associate themselves or have an understanding of, especially whether they belong or fit within the place and what their value is to it. Cities have an ethos and a big story which sets them apart, and which influences how the place operates and how people within it connect with each other.

City means connection, often deeply felt, to and between the people who feel themselves to belong there. For this reason place, while clearly a relevant concept for describing what binds people to a large entity such as a city, also helps us to understand the link between people and smaller entities such as states, neighbourhoods and communities and with non-geographical entities such as networks and communities of interest. This constant dialogue between personal and collective identities means that the extent and strength of the boundaries of any particular place will always be fluid as people’s identification to it changes and develops.

City spaces are both small enough for collective identity to be meaningful and big enough for collective action built on the actual ways in which people already connect and collaborate to have transformative impact upon the structures as well as the local manifestations of inequality.

The nuances of local cultural contexts needs to be merged with evidence based social innovation practices but if that first and most fundamental step has properly been conducted, local challenges can be merged with local aspirations and tangible actions. 

Amplifying existing and new solutions under a common transformational narrative also provides more positive and tangible results than traditional methodologies. By integrating and amplifying local innovations under a social movement, we are also better positioned to foster systemic responses that will address the structural causes of inequality.