On 27th and 28th of October 2019, Drift hosted the UrbanA Arena event in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. As the UrbanA community of practice seeks ethical, reflexive and transformative praxis, what can we learn from this event? Read the personal reflection of DRIFT-intern Yi-Hui (Lily) Lin.
In October 2019, I took part in the first UrbanA Arena event in Rotterdam. UrbanA (Urban Arenas for Sustainable and Just Cities) is a three-year European Commission funded project that aims to support city-makers in transforming cities into sustainable and just environments. One key aim is to facilitate events that offer a co-creative space for engaged actors, such as policymakers, activists, entrepreneurs, citizens and academics to connect, learn and grow together. Online and offline participants were invited to take part in parallel sessions about topical issues of urban sustainability, round table discussions on existing approaches that counter unsustainable and unjust urban practices, open space discussions that encouraged participants to explore particular questions of concern and plenary opening and closing talks.
Transformative potential of innovation
Of the programs, I enjoyed the session about transformative potential of innovations the most. This session started off with two participants, who shared the story behind the grassroots projects they are a part of. One project, the Nest City Lab, is dedicated to creating a sustainable co-working space in Barcelona, Spain. The other project is called Omek, which is a social entrepreneur project that aims to provide a digital and physical platform dedicated to creating new job opportunities, collaborations, and support networks for the African Diaspora community in the Netherlands.
The short introduction of the two projects was then followed by a talk given by DRIFTer Flor Avelino about social innovations and their transformative potentials and dilemmas. Drawing from this talk, the session facilitators invited all participants to reflect on the transformative potentials and challenges of the projects pitched earlier. The three guiding questions were: (1) How is the initiative transforming the status-quo? (2) How could the transformative potential be increased? (3) What may be the unintended consequences of the initiatives?
‘Yet, given one project’s contentious emphasis on social innovation, I was surprised by the lack of dissenting opinions expressed.’
I thoroughly enjoyed this exercise, because it allowed the session participants to draw on the theoretical insights shared during the talk and reflect on current practices. It opened up a generative space that invited thoughtful comments and critical questions. Yet, given one project’s contentious emphasis on social innovation, I was surprised by the lack of dissenting opinions expressed. For example, urban greening and sustainable building practices are just one aspect of the transformation required to turn cities into livable urban environments. This pushed me to think more about the following questions: How might we understand ‘innovations’? How should we as an UrbanA community constructively question their innovativeness? It also prompted further personal reflection on the practice of voicing critique.
Social innovation paradoxes
Flor’s talk presented a useful analytical “toolkit” to examine the transformative potential of social enterprise and innovation. A distinction was made between innovativeness and transformative change, making clear the difference and independence of these terms. Innovation refers to novel ways of doing, thinking and organising. It can be recognized as novel ideas (creative thoughts and new knowledge), technology and/or actions (methods, practices) that are put into use to improve a desired outcome. Transformative change refers to the process of overcoming and replacing dominant structures, practices and/or power relations in a social context (Schipper et al., 2019).
‘As radical innovations are conceived with the notion of the supposed transformative potential, it must be recognized that this does not always last, even when implemented successfully at first.’
Transformative change can include innovation, contributing to a change towards a more just and sustainable system, but this is not always the case. Innovation can also be used to improve existing structures and thereby get in the way of real transformative change. This shows the importance of evaluating approaches for their transformative potential within a specific context, with the possibility in mind that a seemingly innovative solution to a problem can either give rise to further unforeseen problems or aggravate existing oppressive power structures and relations.
This is wherein the paradox lies. As radical innovations are conceived with the notion of the supposed transformative potential, it must be recognized that this does not always last, even when implemented successfully at first. So, while innovations have indeed contributed to the development of making cities more just and sustainable in one respect, attention should likewise be directed to some of the negative outcomes they are likely to produce. To provide a more hands-on experience for the participants, the session facilitators invited us all to reflect on the transformative potentials and challenges of the two projects pitched earlier.
Empirical example: The Nest City Lab
I was in the group that looked at the Nest City Lab, Barcelona, that aims to establish an environmentally conscious co-working. The mission of the Nest City Lab, in its words, is to “imagine, create and offer sustainable spaces that inspire its members to live a more sustainable and fulfilling life.” To accomplish this, the workspace was built using either recycled or sustainably sourced building materials. It applies and showcases sustainable technology in areas such as zero waste, wastewater reuse, urban farming with vertical gardening, rooftop gardening, aeroponic towers, soil management and recycling, while sourcing its energy from a renewable energy cooperative in Catalonia. This puts into practice the ethos of sustainability and environmental awareness that is so needed in today’s society. By creating a green workspace that is of value to many, a greater diversity of people is attracted to and exposed to these eco-friendly and sustainable technologies and practices, thus raising awareness.
On the other hand, it is possible that this building is contributing to the gentrification of the area. This was a concern I raised during the workshop and Michael (a collaborator of the Nest City Lab) was well aware of. Because the initiative receives no government funding, it must be run as a self-sustaining business. While Michael did mention that the Nest City Lab organizes periodical community outreach efforts, the beneficiaries of this workplace are likely to be affluent patrons who can afford access to better services and amenities.
My concern with these possible unintended effects of the initiative comes from a point of view that emphasizes social justice. While the workshop format encouraged us to critically reflect on the unintended effect of the initiatives, I felt uneasy sharing my concerns in the group. Given that I don’t know this initiative very well, I was anxious about how the audience would receive my perspective. This made me ponder, what has to be cultivated within a community for people to feel comfortable to voice their dissenting views while maintaining a cooperative environment?
Discussion: On critical reflection
The UrbanA event was a unique experience to me, as it attracted a diverse group of people that are dedicated to making cities more just and sustainable. My impression of the event is that it had a really good atmosphere and that this was a place where people can be critical, comfortable to express their opinions and respectful of each other’s position. However, it also appeared to me that dissenting opinions, expressed and reflected on together as a community, were rare. While the event may have provided the space where these valuable moments took place for some individuals, I think these voices should also come through and be heard by the broader community.
So why should these dissenting voices be encouraged? It is argued by Richards (1959) in How to Read a Page that a certain level of “systematic ambiguity” is essentially embedded in language. Richard’s systematic ambiguity can be understood as referring to talking in vague terms such as “sustainability” and “justice”, which allows us to talk more freely and feel that we are being understood, while also feeling that we understand. Richards believes this aspect of language is important for communication and thought, prompting reflection and interpretation without hindrance. But he recognizes that this also leads to much misunderstanding in conversation. For this reason, it is essential that those communicating have the space and encouragement to disagree and “hash out” these incongruencies in thought.
Raising critiques opens up a space for the UrbanA community to gain greater awareness around issues that would have otherwise been overlooked.
This is especially relevant in the current societies we live in, which are often characterized in terms of uncertainty. There are countless bureaucratic and policy contexts where concerns for environment, gender, class, age, disability, sexuality, race, indigeneity and identity, to mention only a few, have not been taken into account, resulting in policy actions that overlooked inequalities and vulnerabilities that are specific to certain social groups and may subsequently lead to unintended outcomes that diverge greatly from the original policy intentions. Raising critiques opens up a space for the UrbanA community to gain greater awareness around issues that would have otherwise been overlooked. Equally, critiquing can inspire, startle and surprise us in a productive way, leading to a recognition of the complexity of the issues at hand and generating a more nuanced discussion. Unpleasant as these critical questions may be, these momentary encounters may lead one to reflect more on one’s roles and practices as city-maker and facilitators of knowledge creation and collection.
To me, raising a critique is not about challenging another’s knowledge claim. Instead, it should be done from a place of engagement, empathy and respect with the aim to support another’s project and perhaps to build an alliance. Overall, I think to raise critique from a position of care has the potential to initiate a process of rapport building within the community, which can become the basis of shared understandings, especially as we seek ethical, reflexive and transformative urban praxis.
This blog is perhaps a timely internal reflection for myself at the final stage of my study, as I move from a position that challenges, to one that seeks to build dialogues. Increasingly, I realize that in order to be involved in community-engaged work, there is so much for me to learn in terms of interpersonal communication. At the same time, from what I witnessed in the UrbanA Arena event, I wonder what kind of space would provide participants the comfort to come forward with their thoughts as we build a community of practice? Essentially, what I am suggesting is to understand the act of voicing difference, disagreement and critique as both generative and as an effect of care, trust and community-closeness.
 Schipper, K., Avelino, F., vanSteenbergen, F., Henfrey, T., & Lin, L. (2019). UrbanA Wiki Database on Approaches to Sustainable & Just Cities. UrbanA H2020 Project Deliverable 3.2. Retrieved from UrbanA Arena website: https://urban-arena.eu/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/D.3.2-UrbanA-wiki-database-appendix-0_final.pdf.
Richards, I. A. (1959). How to Read a Page: A course in efficient reading with an introduction to 100 great words. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.
February 21, 2020