Approaching urban planning and development integrally is nothing new. Already for a while, our cities have become increasingly complex organisms facing many different challenges and transitions at the same time. We cannot address the spatial aspects separately from the economic and the social, and even if we did focus on only the spatial that would still involve multiple topics that all influence each other. Not only buildings, public space and infrastructure, but tackling major climate resilience and biodiversity challenges, changing urban mobility systems, etcetera. And then we have the different technological developments that can suddenly disrupt existing systems and ideas but that also allow for more data-driven, complex and dynamic spatial analysis, solution design and decision-making.
This blog however is not about the technical or design complexity and integrality of urban planning and development. I’d like to focus on what working in an existing urban context – with many different existing urban stakeholders – means for this integrality. I am introducing platform-thinking here and how to embed this in in the core of your local strategies and processes.
All stakeholders have their own interests and perspectives in an area. For many an area is not something they are consciously thinking about on a daily basis. It is a more or less self-evident backdrop for the things they are consciously thinking about. Of course, one group may find other topics interesting and relevant than others. And some topics may affect a lot of different stakeholder groups and also require some form of active engagement, investment or behavioural change from them. But still, many will probably regard the area as a whole, in all its messiness of different things and topics going on, without knowing or caring too much about the exact details of these separate topics. For example, waste management seems to just happen and only if something goes wrong and waste piles up, stakeholders may notice it and realise its relevance.
On the other hand, many of these topics are complex fields of expertise when you zoom in. And within a municipality or large development company they will have their own departments with their own experts, targets, budgets and programs. Waste management is a fascinating world in itself, especially regarding current ambitions of circularity. It is easy to judge the silo-like organisation of for example municipalities from the outside, but of course our cities need the kind of in-depth research and high-level advanced solution design that takes place there. However, towards the different stakeholders in an area it is wise to address all these different topics in a coordinated and comprehensive way instead of every program for itself. First of all, you may miss interesting opportunities for sharpening your ideas. Local stakeholders may bring in unexpected yet interesting new angles and insights. Also, they may require some sort of cross-fertilisation with topics they find urgent and a timing that has natural momentum for them in order to be mobilised for your program.
Besides, there is a risk that stakeholders are approached too often from too many different directions which can make them feel that your organisation lacks overview or coordination. Also, it may simply demand too much of their time and energy, so they can develop engagement fatigue. In our Amsterdam field lab we initially took a lot of effort to get in touch with all the different owners, tenants, employees and residents and to bring them together regularly. We closely collaborated with the municipality’s project team for the area, making them part of the network from the start. Once we built our local network and trusted position, stakeholders strongly appreciated (and often demanded) that we would coordinate different topics, programs and initiatives that required their attention or engagement. Looking through their eyes, that made total sense. At one point there were programs for vacant office buildings, new parks, temporary creative spaces, city marketing, solar roofs, circular waste systems and traffic congestion. Coordinating and combining these in an efficient way was crucial for engagement, especially on the long term.
I believe more and more organisations are becoming aware of this, realising they have to be careful with their stakeholders’ attention. However, that brings with it another risk. The fear of causing engagement fatigue can keep you busy coordinating internally, screening for different plans and programs and trying to either make a clear distinction to justify separate meeting towards the local stakeholders or trying to bring them all together into one integral event. Of course, this makes sense as a basic principle. However, it can easily make things too heavy and paralyse the overall engagement. After all, given the complex and dynamic character of our cities, new topics, goals and programs will keep popping up. You can lose yourself in internal coordination between programs and keep postponing going out there. This can lead to under-engagement, especially when the internal processes of the different departments keep going while you postpone discussing them with the local stakeholders.
There is a fine line between the randomness of every department, program or initiative reaching out to the same stakeholders without coordinating among each other, and the hyper consciousness of coordinating internally and then failing to actually reach out in time. In my experience, platform-thinking is very helpful here. By organising an urban development process as a local platform, you structurally open up the process and invite all stakeholders around the table as equal partners, growing a shared sense of ownership over time. Within this platform both the different departments of your organisation and the different stakeholders themselves can put topics on the agenda, exchange relevant data, insights and opinions, formulate shared goals and discuss concrete solutions and collaborations. I do not so much mean a digital platform here, but a platform as an organisational principle. An open way of bringing stakeholders together structurally and organising direct exchange, discussion and collaboration. Of course, as the multi-stakeholder network and multi-topic local database will grow in both size and complexity, a digital platform can be a powerful support here to keep things transparent, comprehensive and efficient. Also, it allows you to sustainably archive and safeguard the information, the network and the collective ownership. I will get back to that later.
Organising your process as an ongoing local platform will save the different internal departments a lot of organisational hassle (and money) to set up these meetings themselves and collect the contact details of the different stakeholders. Instead, they can focus on the content of their work. For the different stakeholders the platform gives clarity and overview and also a certain equality as it provides them with a recurring opportunity to address their own topics as well – and to be heard.
With every topic that is discussed, the platform taps into the practical experience and professional expertise of a very diverse group of people and organisations. After all, a stakeholder may be a layman in the field of urban development, but an expert in another field. This ongoing dialogue helps to test your own assumptions, give new insights and formulate new, unexpected and possibly better solutions. I remember a meeting in Amsterdam where we were discussing a specific spatial design proposal with a group of local stakeholders. The designers were struggling with a few details and one of the stakeholders turned out to be representing a construction company, coming up with a very clever and pragmatic solution. Normally we would have brought in a construction company in a much later phase, missing out on this great advice. During another meeting we were brainstorming about making the outdoor space more green, attractive and lively and the HR manager of one of the companies in the area mentioned a research she had recently read highlighting some key trends in outdoor meetings. This gave a completely new angle to our existing ideas and it immediately gave us a basis to bring the local companies in as partners in this project. These are just two concrete examples, but you can imagine the (untapped) potential in any area here.
The structural character of a local platform also allows everybody to grow a stronger sense of context about what else is going on in the area. Like this, it becomes much more probable that the importance of an individual topic is better understood by different stakeholders and the cross-links with other topics that feel closer to them become apparent. This is crucial if you really want to build collective ownership over challenges and generate concrete support for solutions.
As a platform organiser you continuously reach out to engage and invite more and more stakeholders around the table, while managing a local agenda where all stakeholders can bring in topics that they see as important for the area, whether they are big or small or focused on the short, middle or long term. Together you discuss, deepen your understanding, formulate and enrich solutions, find opportune cross-links, build support base and unlock (collective) investments. Depending on the topics on the agenda, you define which internal departments or perhaps external experts should attend that specific meeting. And the other way around, internal departments who have formulated specific goals or programs can simply join the next meeting and put their topic on the local agenda.
On the one hand this type of platform is solid and self-evident in its recurrence and central connecting position. On the other hand, it is light and dynamic in its thematic openness and its informality in governance structure. Depending on what comes up during a meeting, of course smaller and in-depth follow-up meetings can be organised. Also, specific thematic project groups can be formed to elaborate on ideas which they can then bring in again at a later point to further discuss, sharpen and grow support base. A group of owners for example who want to cooperatively purchase solar panels for their buildings may want to meet more often in a small group together with the experts from the municipality’s energy department. If necessary, they can formalise their group with its own financial or governance structure. Just like we can layer different topics on the local agenda in a light and open way, we can also layer different levels of formality depending on the type of project, coalition and financing model. But I will dive into that in my next blog.
As I mentioned before, it can be challenging to keep an overview when the platform becomes larger, more diverse and more active. You may want to support your organisational platform with a digital one. This will not only help you to keep track in a transparent and efficient way, it will also help you to distribute the responsibility to keep the local information complete and up-to-date among the local network.
This is why we developed our own integral online platform while we were running our organisational platform in Amsterdam. At one point we felt we were going to be overwhelmed soon by all questions, ideas and requests for information or local connections. We then realised that we were organising our platform in a rather centralised way, providing our organisational activities as a service to the local community rather than stimulating them to sustainably self-organise. We built our online platform in order to bring all stakeholders and municipal departments in direct connection with each other and give them the same access to information. Part of this could be automated through for example open data APIs keeping the area informed on specific topics (for example energy use of buildings, where are the solar roofs, what is the solar potential of the roofs, etcetera). It also invited stakeholders to share their own specific data to build towards new user-generated datasets. Like this we could enrich the amount and quality of local information on specific topics and keep sharing it with the local network.
The online platform stimulated stakeholders to directly exchange data, plans, visions, ideas and resources with each other and build collaborations to execute real projects and solutions for a large variety of topics. It is important to emphasise though that the online platform was augmenting and catalysing that process rather than automating it or replacing our other activities and meetings. Our face-to-face meetings built the initial awareness and the trust needed for stakeholders in order to use the online platform at all. It gave the platform a personal touch, a face. An online platform like ours has not so much power on its own. It does not automatically achieve a successful platform function with the accompanying impact in your area. This is essentially an organisational – and probably mindset – change that needs to be made first. Rather than looking from inside your organisation to the outside, you constantly go back and forth between looking from the inside out and from the outside in. The more structurally and equally you meet with the different local stakeholders, the more natural and rewarding this will become.
So, being integral in your urban development or transformation projects is crucial not only from a technical or design perspective but also from your stakeholder engagement perspective. Don’t take their attention and engagement for granted. Respect their time and energy by clearly coordinating your activities, but don’t make that coordination too heavy as a threshold. Rather organise stakeholder meetings on a regular basis where everybody, including the stakeholders themselves, can put topics on the agenda. Like this you build towards sustainable shared ownership. This makes your whole process more solid on the one hand and keeps it light and flexible on the other hand. It is oke if you have not solved everything or do not have everything under control. You can also bring in the personal experience and professional expertise of other stakeholders for valuable new angles and insights. By keeping the process open, equal and reciprocal you can more and more share responsibilities – and work towards the best local solutions together.
Saskia Beer, 24 February 2021