How naïve: citizen power or collision?
Sometimes, you are conducting an ambitious meaningful co-design project with expected positive impact on sustainability and social life which is a struggle at the time, but can deliver insights on which battles to choose with whom in future co-design.
A few years ago, I was involved as a co-design researcher in the first living lab project of an ambitious future smart district. In this sustainable, circular, and socially cohesive neighborhood-to-be, future residents were expected to generate energy, grow healthy food, and share water, digital data, and mobility systems. The neighborhood was not meant to be developed based on a pre-determined and fixed plan, but based on an innovative responsive process, guided by its future residents. As such, the development process was characterized by co-design and the latest smart and sustainable technologies. Purposely, a foundation was set up to independently facilitate this development process outside city government walls. The smart and sustainable neighborhood should eventually bring positive impact to society and people, but the innovative way of working should also lead to new knowledge on how to organize, approach, and act in these so-called societal impact design projects.
Future residents of this first living lab project were therefore deliberately seen as partners and co-owners of the design process, development, and realization. Together they were expected to determine which units would be built where and how, and how the public space would be used and arranged: shared or divided. Apart from the wish to realize one collective plan for a 20,000 m2 plot based on high ambitions, to set a new standard for smart urban development and the square meter cost, foundations’ decision makers did not set any other requirements, and gave carte blanche to the residents involved. The foundation stated to be open for co-learning, shared decision making, and new contextual insights.
"If you want to change the game, you will have to play the game!"
Co-learning includes surprises
Although the decision makers pointed out the explicit wish to break with current dominant development structures, approaches, and culture, not all future residents seemed to believe them. In fact, some asked for rules and requirements at the very first information session. This distrust amazed the foundation, who had thought all pioneers would be happy with the freedom given. Secondly, they were surprised by the good vibes emerging in the succeeding three co-design sessions. Residents expressed a collective consciousness for sustainability and even empathy for one another. Moreover, they were overwhelmed by the pace in which the residents developed their first individual and collective sketches. They themselves were not ready with preparing a supporting eco-system of architects, business, policy, and research partners yet. Subsequently, they could not answer most residents questions adequately.
In turn, residents were astounded by the fact that the foundation did not seem to be emotionally interested nor sensitive to their stress, caused by the many choices they had to make as individuals and as a collective. They put a lot of time and effort into getting to know each other, building a community, and getting acquainted with the smart and sustainable themes. Yet, the decision makers could not respond to their questions, but were critical to their first sketches. Some residents experienced that their capabilities and intentions were mistrusted. For them, the process did not feel as a joint effort, and they observed informal criteria emerge. This made them feel frustrated and at risk, since they had no official power and were totally depending on the foundation. Some residents took matters into their own hands and demonstrated what they were capable of. These pioneers took ownership of the development.
To conclude, this co-design process impacted people’s individual lives immensely, as dwelling is one of the most important and expensive life choices. Despite its innovative ambitions, the foundation turned out to still be depending on vested interests, procedures, and outside effects such as the nitrogen crisis.
"By chance or not, these collisions, clashes, conflicts, struggles, battles are the original meaning of the word ‘impact’!"
In retrospect, we were all naïve. The foundation, the future residents, and me, the author, as well. But, in hindsight, that might just be the only way to start something unknown: if you want to change the game, you will have to play the game! We could have waited until we had a top-down urban vision plan with quality requirements based on the ambitious themes and clarity about the building procedures and nitrogen status etcetera. Still, we would probably have collided with each other and the system. Therefore, I wonder if co-design might just require some friction and bumping into each others’ diversity in interests, knowledge, knowhow, experience and (non-)power. These collisions seem to be meaningful and, when acknowledged well, might even lead to disruption and radical ideas for societal impact. By chance or not, these collisions, clashes, conflicts, struggles, battles are the original meaning of the word ‘impact’!