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How can we do cities differently? SIX speaks with Rym Baouendi

Published Date: 11 July 2016

Ahead of our event in Harare on ‘Inclusive Cities of the Future: Experiences from Zimbabwe in a global perspective’ with the Hivos Southern Africa Hub and Hivos International, we spoke with Rym Baouendi, founder of Medina Works consultancy and the City Changemaker initiative in the Middle East and North Africa on urban wellbeing and building cities differently.

Why did you start this work?

‘Sustainable cities have always been my passion ever since I was little. I’ve always wanted to build things but in a sustainable way.

Medina Works is a boutique-based consultancy, a social enterprise, that allows me to work with a variety of partners in the Middle East to develop urban well-being.

City//Changemaker is a much more recent initiative, that I’ve jus launched this year with my partner who I met at the TH-NK School in Amsterdam. I became more interested in how people can be a force for change in cities. This programme allows us to work at the interaction of sustainable cities and entrepreneurs and those creating bottom-up innovation. This programme focuses on place making, which not many people are doing well in the Middle East. The programme is focused on ideation and we’ve already seen some really interesting connections, collaborations and ideas develop out of the two events that we’ve hosted in Tunis and Istanbul.

What does an inclusive city mean to you?

To me- it means urban well-being. Inclusiveness means a place where everyone feels well. Well-being includes the environment as well as the city. Inclusiveness means access to things, place and broadening the conversation.

Why is having access to quality public space important?

In the City//Changemaker programme, we’re talking about public space. In the Middle East, the quality of public space is very poor compared to the West- it’s not designed well, not maintained well, and not the most aesthetically pleasing.  

Having access to public space is one of the most important services that we need to provide- it’s a place to move, gather and have discussions, encourage community, and if its designed well- then all of the neighbouring business can thrive. Public space is what connects us.

Public space helps to define the culture of a city. It gives the city an identity.

Access to public space is also about giving access to basic services. You can also provide access to not so basic services through different platforms including digital or shared spaces. Our co-working lab, Cogite, is a share space for entrepreneurs that is affordable and accessible and allows people to thrive. By sitting and sharing together- we’re helping to develop a culture of the city. This all happens because there are safe and inclusive spaces where everyone is invited to share and grow their ideas.

We’re helping to launch other co-working spaces. In just two years, there are now five co-working spaces in the city.

What smart partnerships have you engaged in to better deliver your work?

Co-working was a completely new concept in Tunisia. For the first two years no one paid any attention to us. But we’ve grown into a beautiful new space and the idea has caught on- just last month we had a Minister of Technology and Communication visiting us and speaking with every entrepreneur.

We’ve had to prove ourselves but we’re now at the stage to engage in partnerships with government and other key stakeholders, particularly as we launch our new regional project.

After the revolution, so many citizens were involved and engaged and people are excited about how they can transform their cities and spaces. There’s been a mindset shift and we’re working with a lot of civil society organisations.

However, working in partnership is difficult particularly in different regions.

What is your focus for the future? How do you make the project sustainable?

Our focus for the future is on the transformation of public space. We’re particularly interested in urban interventions and urban ventures- how do we build businesses that create positive change? Should businesses also have a corporate urban sustainability model and policy?

We’re really interested in how we involve young people and kids in innovating to change the city. The real long-term impact will come from transforming mindset and behaviour. Young people understand this and they’re the future. They’re really excited about how they can actively change where they live. We did a recycling competition and one little girl even went on holiday with her parents and brought back two suitcases filled with rubbish to recycle!
At the moment people are very reactive to their spaces and city. We want to shift this and empower people to feel like they can shape the future of the city. We want citizens to crowd source the vision for the city.

I’m really excited about the future and thinking about how we can do cities differently.’’