By Anthony Zacharzewski
Where better to think about the future of cities than in a city that feels frozen in time?
Last week I was at the Venice Forum on the Future of Cities, part of the Shaping the City strand of the Venice Architecture Biennale, talking about new ways of governing in cities.
With me were our hosts, from UNDP, and a range of city leaders and civic innovators from places as different as Mogadishu and Birmingham. We spent two intense days thinking about the future of city governance.
What did I learn? The first thing was that, though the conditions are very different, some of the questions and methods were surprisingly similar. In Mogadishu, they are trialling the same participatory budgeting tool that my Scottish colleagues are using in West Dumbartonshire. The conversations we had with Batumi and Rustavi, in Georgia, were about building up civic realm improvements around public spaces, very like our project in Messina.
In the bigger sense, though, I was reminded of the principle underlying the Open Government Partnership – that wherever you start from, forward motion is always possible if you can build the right coalition.
The conditions that some of the participating cities were operating in were – put mildly – not the most fertile ground for democratic innovation. But everywhere, civic society space can be grown, and new initiatives can create small-scale democracy opportunities.
These can work below the level at which an oppressive state imposes itself, but still create, in a small way, some of the civic resilience that will be needed to drive and respond to broader system change.
Even where democracy is flourishing, we will need that civic resilience. In an environment where trust in institutions is low and people want to see impact from their personal actions, democracies based on four-yearly renewal of public acquiescence are no longer enough. Nor is winning the news media or social media day. We need active social participation, if we are to manage the shifts that the networked digital society will bring to our cities.
The cities that do not have extensive infrastructure to unpick might be able to move faster into the new generation of governance. We saw it with participatory budgeting in Porto Alegre, though that experiment is now on hold. Perhaps we’ll see it next in Mogadishu, Yerevan or Rustavi.
The conversation we started in Venice will continue at the forthcoming Istanbul Innovation Days in November.
Thanks to Millie, Lejla and Rae from the UNDP team for an excellent and thought-provoking event.