Collaborative cities: what social innovation teaches us

As cities grow in size and significance, they can become sites of complex social problems – but also hubs for exploring possible solutions. While every city faces distinct problems, they all share a need for innovative approaches to tackle today’s challenges.

This essay is one in a series on future trends for innovative cities, written by the leading thinkers of the Mayor of Seoul’s Social Innovation Global Advisory Committee. Fifth up: Ezio Manzini, the founder of DESIS Network

The following text has been written on the basis of formal and informal discussions and seminars that took place inside the DESIS Network, in the period October 2017- July 2018.

City-making projects have different social and political motivations and implications. That is, they can produce inequalities, segregation and commodification of the urban commons, or move in the opposite direction, reducing inequalities, creating a diversified and vibrant urban fabric. The projects moving in the first direction – that presently is the dominant one – are driven by the interests of who considers the city, in all its aspects, as a marketable good. The second direction is proposed by several cases of transformative social innovation. They are driven by social innovators who see the city as a complex living entity, made of people, communities and places, the existence of which is based on a mesh of collaborative projects.

As a matter of fact, in the past decades, bottom up initiatives have been paralleled by top-down ones and new coalitions have been created (between local administrations, active citizens, civil society associations, social and market- oriented enterprises, research centres and universities). These include new food networks (to create direct links between cities and the countryside); intelligent mobility systems (to promote public transport and innovative solutions); collaborative services for prevention and health care (to involve directly interested users in the solution), urban and regional development programmes (to enhance local economies and new forms of community); and distributed power generation systems (to optimise the use of diffuse and renewable energies). They give us practical examples of how regenerative, sustainable city making processes should be. Looking at them, some guidelines (to orient new projects) and criteria (to evaluate existing ones) can be outlined. They are:

Collaborating: producing results and social values

Moving in this direction means to regenerate the city by developing collaborative projects. That is, by projects driven by collaboration between citizens, and between them and other social actors (as public administration, companies, non profit enterprises, associations, universities). It implies different forms of collaborations (blending horizontal and vertical collaborations), different motivations (blending economic and cultural motivations), and different positions in the innovation trajectory (from initial activism to different forms of normality).

Collaborating (i.e. producing at the same time practical results and social value) gives life to unprecedented economic and organisational models. At the same time, and for the same reasons, collaborating is a strategy to build the power for systemic changes, and to produce and re-generate social commons.

Bridging: connecting diversities

Moving in this direction means to cultivate and connect diversities. That is, to develop projects capable to bridge elderly and young people; residents and migrants; rich and poor. These projects should also be capable of integrating working and living spaces (residences, schools, offices, factories and workshops, farming and gardening, commerce, entertainment, sport, and meeting spaces) creating more diverse and dynamic activities.

Bridging (i.e. connecting diversities) is an antidote to the ongoing trend towards gentrification, segregation and the creation of communication bubbles. And, positively, it is a way to improve the social and environmental resilience of the city.

Commoning: weaving people and places

Moving in this direction means creating spaces cared for by communities. That is, to produce “third spaces”, between the private and the public ones. It also means regenerating social commons, as mutual trust, empathy, collaboration and shared knowledge and expertise. All of them can be the result of renewed traditions, or of unprecedented collaborative projects.

Commoning (i.e. the process of building commons) is an antidote to the main trends of city commodification and marketisation. It implies to keep in account the different nature of commons and of the commoning processes.

Democratising: supporting active participation

Moving in this direction means to develop a project-centred democracy. That is, an environment where individuals and communities can best develop their life projects: an enabling ecosystem that is also a democratic ecosystem where citizens can take decisions and make them real.

Democratising (i.e. the process of improving the participative ecosystem) is an antidote to the ongoing crisis of participative democracy (and of democracy in general). It implies a power shift towards citizens and communities.

In conclusion, in connecting different experiences of social innovation in the city, what appears is a new scenario: the Scenario of the Collaborative City. That is, the scenario of a city where, promoting and cultivating different forms of collaboration, collective intelligence thrives and becomes collective design capability.

To enhance this scenario, a virtuous circle has to be established between urban commons and collaborative services: more collaborative services generate the conditions for new urban commons where collaborative design capabilities spread creating, in turn, a favourable ground for a new generation of collaborative services to come to life. That, as it has been said, is the precondition for producing new commons. And so on.

To make this happen, of course, a favourable sociotechnical and normative environment must be established. Or better, the same city should be seen as a rich enabling ecosystem where this variety of mutually sustaining initiatives, of different natures and scales, have more probability to emerge and thrive.