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November 2, 2015

Banded together in Bologna

Banded together in Bologna

This year marks the first anniversary of a landmark experiment in participatory governance of urban public space: The Bologna Regulation for the Care and Regeneration of Urban Commons. This law sets out a new way for local government to cooperate with citizens. Ordinary people are invited into a “co-design process” with the city to manage public spaces, urban green zones and abandoned buildings. With this new legal framework, Bologna strives to become a city of collaboration.

This approach has deep roots in Bologna’s culture of decentralised political authority and encouragement of active citizen participation. The city administration rejects the idea that tight central control leads to a good and attractive city. Quite the opposite, it believes that the less the central administration is doing, the better things are working. This philosophy led to the Bologna Regulation, a new model of community development that links classic ideas of self-sufficiency with the contemporary potential of the Internet.

The Concept
The Bologna Regulation seeks to tap the talents and enthusiasm of an emerging new social class – active citizens, social innovators, makers, creatives, entrepreneurs in the sharing and collaborative economies, service designers, co-working and co-production experts, and urban designers. Conventional governance structures cannot effectively mobilise the energy of these people.

The 30-page Bologna Regulation outlines a legal framework by which the city can partner with citizens for a variety of purposes, including social services, digital innovation, urban creativity and collaborative services. The conceptualisation of the city as commons represents a serious shift in thinking. It requires a deeper sense of mutual engagement and obligation than service delivery, outsourcing or other types of market contracts.

Becoming a collaborative city requires that various stakeholders find new ways to work together. Citizens, businesses, schools, and government among others have to learn how to make long term, good-faith commitments to each other and the process. The city is considered as a collaborative social ecosystem and not as an inventory of resources to be administered by politicians and bureaucratic experts. The Bologna Regulation sees the city’s residents as resourceful, imaginative agents and defines their roles. As such, it’s a sort of handbook for civic and public collaboration, and also a new vision for government.

Since the regulation was adopted in May 2014, the city and citizens have entered into more than 90 different “pacts of collaboration.” These formal contracts between citizen groups and the Bolognese government outline the scope of specific projects and everyone’s responsibilities. The goal is to build peer-to-peer platforms – physical, digital and institutional – to organise work in three domains: living together (collaborative services), growing together (co-ventures), making together (co-production).

Projects include a kindergarten run by parents, a “social streets” initiative, and an urban agricultural cooperative. The social streets project has grown from a network of neighbourhood Facebook groups to a non-profit with a set of tangible projects, including an outdoor ad turned into a neighbourhood bulletin board. A group of 50 neighbours joined forces to fight waste and improve the lives of children and the poor (a project dubbed “Reuse with Love”). An initiative called “Inside the Nest” helps restore schools. Other projects seek to fight graffiti, renovate the city’s famous arcades, retrofit public-space lamps with energy-efficient lightbulbs, and improve the quality of social housing. Envisioned projects include collaborative housing and new forms of social services provisioning, perhaps with new co-learning programmes in public schools and neighbourhood markets.

The Bologna Regulation has alleviated ideological conflict because goals are mutually set and programmes are co-designed. Differences are more easily bridged than in traditional policy making and are less stifled by bureaucracy, political battles and beggar-thy-neighbour adversarialism. The openness of the process also curbs NIMBY-ism (not in my backyard). Unlike a bureaucracy, Bologna’s new civic network is designed for rapid citizen feedback and constant iteration. The civic network is an Internet portal for the publication of institutional news, online services and participation in interactive sharing processes. This includes the collection of proposals from the city government and citizens, and the subsequent process of commenting, commenting and evaluation by everyone involved.

The idea of a city of collaboration has been a unifying vision and almost a brand identity. It aligns Bologna with larger trends around the world, including open-source software, social media networks, and DIY innovation. The success is such that dozens of other Italian cities are emulating the Bologna initiative.