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December 2, 2015

The dark side of social innovation

The dark side of social innovation

Following November's SEiSMiC Forum on "New Urban Space", keynote speaker Pietro Garau, an architect, planner and tenured researcher at the University of Rome, sent out a provocative note to fellow participants.

In it, Garau highlighted the "rift" that exists between two world views of the city. On the one hand are those who believe cities should be governed by publicly elected representatives, and managed and operated by professional experts. On the other hand is an emerging cadre of youthful entrepreneurs impatient with traditional governance, and eager to solve problems by themselves through ad hoc action.

Garau sees some contradictions in the latter approach, and he describes them an open letter to the  SEiSMiC community: 

Out of the Seismic Project’s Forum on Public Space and Social Innovation, Bruxelles , 9-10 Nov. 2015: A Travel Note

This meeting – beautifully organised, by the way, by the SEISMIC project leaders from Vienna’s AIT and the Bruxelles hosts helped place in sharper relief the rift that exists between two world views of the city.

They are described  below in very broad-brush strokes.

The first one tends to be championed by younger generations. Its general approach is one of mistrust in established professional expertise (architects, planners) and institutions (government) fueled by a drive to create, invent, innovate. We shall call it “transformative” to use a word that is often used in this group’s language.

The second vision is championed by older generations who recognize that the world is changing but still value professionalism and the traditional role of democratic institutions in governing our cities. We shall call it “institutionalist”.

This dichotomy is full of contradictions, and it is exceedingly difficult  to evaluate it while trying to get rid of one’s historical baggage of ideas, convictions and experiences. Let’s try.

One major contradiction is that the “institutionalist”  worldview can be assimilated to “the left”, or at least the “traditional left”, as it relies on the legitimacy of elected institutions, is deeply rooted in the primacy of the “public sector”, is deeply distrustful of “the market”,  and believes in governance as an instrument for social justice. So, institutionalists, who mostly belong to older generations, are the champions of what, forty-odd years ago, was the banner of the post-1968 politically articulate generation. Of course, some of them are precisely that: older former “soft” revolutionaries.

The “transformationist” view, on the other hand, is totally non-ideological, or at least it thinks it is. It is not concerned with history, society, or politics. Its conviction is that clever individuals, alone or in groups, can create alternative realities with the help of widely available portable technology (smart phones, apps, etc). In this connection, local governments, elected officials and their bureaucracies are seen as fastidious hindrances. What this woldview requires is “new space” for “non-institutional” initiatives.

A bizarre twist is that this view is perfectly compatible with, and in fact supports, the prevailing neo-liberal doctrine in at least two respects. First, anything that further undermines the role of government and of the “public sector” gives additional legitimacy to the triumphant “pensee unique”.  Second, this worldview is rooted in the mantra  of independent entrepreneurship.  No transformative actor aspires to a “steady job” or, God forbid, to become a civil servant. So, younger generations, who in theory should abhor the order built by the establishment, actually espouse it. The clarion call is that of a romantic re-enacting of the glory days of pioneer capitalism: precariousness, risk, temporaneity, a strong belief that success and retribution are within reach.

A third contradiction is that the transformative lumpencapitalists look at the public sector for support. They try to secure public space for their social and/or entrepreneurial experiments; they seek public funding from incubators, start-up programmes, etc.; they offer their expertise to local authorities to carry out things they do not quite know how to do – organising “public participation”, for example. Communication is, of course, of capital importance. But it is organised almost excusively through websites, Facebook, Instagram, Whatsapp, etcetera.

Is this a new form of alienation? Possibly. Is there a relationship between reliance on the virtual in lieu of the real and the increasing lack of interest for the material world? Is this abstraction the ultimate rejection of materialism, and hence of any form of thought based on the appreciation of differences in terms of material earning, material health, material status? Doesn’t a smart phone make us all equal, obliterating all class distinctions?

Maalbeek’s “urban jungle” project in Brussels (PUM) might be an interesting example of this new form of alienation, and of an additional one: alienation from space. There, transformative approaches were experimented on a piece of idle urban land waiting for redevelopment. But the goal was not a “material” one – i.e. saving a morsel of urban nature for future public enjoyment. The land was used for a series of short-term experiments, some of them quite odd – e.g. a ceramic maquette of the Maalbeek area. The interesting thing is that the actors of the experiments were not at all upset about the prospect of being evicted by giant construction machines. For this kind of non-material (or if you like, alienated )experimenting, any piece of land is fine. And the more precarious, the better. After all, isn’t “temporary” the flavour of the day?