Better Together: Five Ways to Boost Cross-Sector Collaboration in Cities
Bloomberg Cities

My initial reaction to this article on Twitter was that it relies on a lot of presumptions. For a start, it presumes the goodwill of all parties. Not a criticism, more observation. The comment I made on Twitter invited the not-unreasonable (!) response to amend these recommendations or make five of my own. For what its worth, here you go:

1 A clear definition of ‘public’, what is meant by it? The state and the public are both separate things. For the sake of arguments the state here could consist of those bodies and institutions that provide the necessary regulatory framework for projects to operate in. In that event, the public would consist of those people that would be affected by any given project on a day to day basis i.e. those who live with it in essence.

2 The principle of consent. From the very start, the public as that defined above should be given the power of veto over any project. Not just in principle but something that is effective and actionable, whatever the mechanics. That is crucial for several reasons. For a start, the state itself will inevitably bring with it some degree of institutional inheritance that would be capable of shaping and undermining any project. Here in Ireland, the socio-political system is based on clientelism and notorious for undercutting both projects and its democratic supports at the expense of any affected public. At the same time, an effective power of veto will give an affected public ownership of any project right from the start. This in turn would help facilitate buy-in and build up trust from the very start.

3 Participation over partnership. Partnerships are possibly time saving but very unlikely to be so especially in the context of a project being contested. Even if there is such a thing as an equal partnership(!), it can be exclusionary, such as presuming the state can automatically represent the public interest or even that it IS working in the public interest. In such a scenario, a private-non-profit-state ‘partnership’ can exclude the public. In addition non-profit organizations themselves (In my mind I think of NGO’s) are not immune to corruption, elite capture etc especially if the regulatory state was itself affected by same. Even collusion between all is not unheard of and inevitably exclusionary where the public is concerned.

4 Linked to the above is the capability approach. The Participation ethos MUST be emphasized over partnership, in language, in ethos and ESPECIALLY in project design ie. let the affected public design what going to be affecting them themselves. If they are not in a position to do so, then give them the means to do so e.g. education. Build up the capabilities of those to be directly affected first and let projects emerge from that. Possibly THEN start to shape things, interlink etc as per the recommendations in the article. At the heart of all this and at all times HAS to be those directly affected and they HAVE to be involved in all levels, from conception to completion (presuming an end point). It is extremely easy to lose sight of that. For example in this article one of the few references in that article to the general public is ‘some Bostonians’ with Marty Walsh! There is that picture of the hurricane preparedness exercise in Providence, and Im assuming theyre residents? How representative is that group? Awful lot of white males there, is that a fair reflection of the demographics of Providence? (I don’t know myself, Im not from around there, maybe it is!).

The other advantage about the capability approach is its knock on effects. Those least able to participate are those with fewer resources, be they material, educational (in its widest possible sense i.e. not just formal )and/or environmental. By enabling them to participate, at the same time there can be the alleviation of issues and disadvantages that go far beyond the remit of the project just as generating social capital, the raising of general environmental awareness, and community confidence. They will have completed a project for themselves, and why not build on that?

5 Last recommendation and leading on from the points above concerning Providence: check presumptions. Ill repeat that, check presumptions always. I only know of two ways to generate creative practices (there may be more for sure). One is when two unrelated ideas come together and spark off a third. The other is to remove a presumption and see how that might affect any given issue or thing. If it means a one step back to two steps forward approach, no problems, as long as your building something. In development terms I prefer the latter, its more rigorous and thorough. It also lends itself to the problematic issue of measuring ‘success’. Im personally of the opinion that if an outcome of a development process is exactly as predicted, then something is wrong (my undergrad supervisor said the same thing about research and I think they were right). Which might sound like ‘what’s the point in trying to measure or even plan?’ but what it means is that for me the measure of success is when a project has gone even better then anyone has expected. How to quantify that (and the effects of measurement on the process, deadlines etc are issues that have to be addressed too.

That’s it, hope I haven’t bored you!


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