Over the summer I have been reflecting on the work I did since starting out for myself. Starting out consulting for housing corporations and municipalities on citizen participation projects, it has moved on to stimulating thinking and action around new ways of creating public value. This has led to me organizing events around the work of Tessy Britton, Nick Booth, Cormac Russell and Jim Diers here in the Netherlands, combined with 2 breakfast’s penser on the Big Society and a collaborative economy. The most recent project in this string of activities has been the launch of a new book series called the Community Lover’s Guide to the Universe’ for which I am now co-editor in chief together with Tessy Britton and Laura Billings.
In this book series we built on the amazing stories Tessy has captured in Hand Made 1 (and 2 she promises), and collect positive initiatives from people in particular cities across the globe who try to create networks and public value in their own neighbourhoods. The way the project works is simple and effective (or so we think): we ask local editors to collect stories and publish them through Blurb using a template which we provide them with. In a short period of time almost 20 editors have said yes to our invitation. (beware it is also infective, for after we spread the word new editors have contacted us from as far as Karachi Pakistan). From the moment we spread the word, the project has been growing and growing. So somehow we have hit a nerve with a lot of people. While working on my Rotterdam edition, a voice in my head kept on asking difficult questions, which I want to share with you.
When I explain the project to potential contributors in Rotterdam I always tell them their stories will become part of a larger collection of amazing initiatives from around the globe. Let’s do the math: 20 editions with roughly 15 stories each, means we will have a collection of 300 stories hopefully by the end of next year. That’s a lot of stories, but what is more important, that is a lot of proof that we can organize public value in a different manner. So given our economic, political and social hardship, we actually have examples at our disposal how we can do things otherwise. So why aren’t people more aware of this? Why are many of the projects we are collecting in these books not seen, or if they are seen, why are they seen as quircky, special, unique, one of a kind extra’s? Why is it so hard for most of us to see the social, economical, physical and cultural value of these initiatives? Or to put it more positively, what can we do to change this? And how can we extract from all these different projects the ‘pragmatics’ which can then be used at other places to create public value? These are some of the bigger questions I am giving thought to right now and I want to share with you part of an answer I came across over the weekend with regard to the question why people don’t see the value of these projects.
The first report I was reading was Maarten Hajer’s ‘The energetic society. Towards a new steering philosophy for a clean economy’. (in dutch) In this essay he argues that in order to create a sustainable economy government should try to tap into the energy that is available in society. The energetic society he defines as ‘a society of autonomous citizens with an unprecedented ability to react, learn and create’. Unfortunately government has not been able to use this energy to its fullest. Governments most of the time still see society as an object causing problems for which government then tries to offer a solution. Given both our pressing problems concerning sustainability and seeing the potential energy in society to do something about it, Hajer argues that governments need a new steering philosophy to harvest, stimulate and aim this energy. It should provide the mechanisms, but furthermore it should provide a back story in which all these small initiatives fit. What is needed is a new frame. And this is where it relates to my question why for many of us it is so hard to see the value (beyond appreciation) of the initiatives we collect in the Community Lover’s Guide. So what is a ‘frame’:
Language determines for a large part how we think and talk about particular topics. Most of the time, the meaning of a situation or event is not immediately clear. Frames than offer people guidance. Each frame has its own way of approaching a situation. This means that from within a particular frame you are able to see some things very clear, whereas other things are more blurry. A frame furthermore contains particular ideas about the roles of and relationships between citizens, companies and government. Implicitly a frame determines who causes problems, who should act and who should be normalized (Hajer, 2011, p. 23/24)
To give this a bit more body – or to see why we have such a hard time seeing the ‘true’ value of many of the initiatives we are trying to capture in these Guides – a quote from the second report I was reading this weekend is clarifying:
Why would residents take it upon themselves to clean the street, when they pay taxes for the local government to do this? (Boelens, 2009, p. 187).
Arguing for the need for a new planning philosophy Boelens also recognizes how we – referring both to we as citizens, we as policy makers and we as those reflecting on society – are so deeply immersed in our current framework. This immersion makes it hard for us to imagine things being done otherwise. We find it so difficult to imagine relationships being otherwise that we can only judge projects who differ from mainstream ways of governing (where government and citizens look at the government to act upon particular situations) as unique, special and extra. We can only see them as quirky projects run by do-gooders, not as something upon which we can base the way we govern our society.
Someone, and this is the final angle I’m going to take into this particular topic for now, who has written about this quite eloquently is Charles Taylor, whom coined the term ‘social imaginary’. He defines this as
‘something much broader and deeper than the intellectual schemes people may entertain when they think about social reality in a disengaged mode. I am thinking rather of the ways in which people imagine their social existence, how they ﬁt together with others, how things go on between them and their fellows, the expectations that are normally met, and the deeper normative notions and images that underlie these expectations (…) It incorporates a sense of the normal expectations that we have of one another, the kind of common understanding which enables us to carry out the collective practices that make up our social life. This incorporates some sense of how we all ﬁt together in carrying out the common practice. This understanding is both factual and “normative”; that is, we have a sense of how things usually go, but this is interwoven with an idea of how they ought to go, of what missteps would invalidate the practice.
So a social imaginary is necessary for us to function as a society. But while a social imaginary is necessary, it also has its limits, for as Taylor states earlier
it (our current social imaginary, ms) has now become so self-evident to us, we have trouble seeing it as one possible conception among others
This is a nice way of articulating why we find it so difficult to value these positive, local initiatives of citizens. They go against the grain of how we imagine our society functions, or ought to function. This imagination is not only, and this is important to add, something which functions on a ideational or imaginative level. It is ingrained in, and gives rise and meaning to those practices we hold sacred, necessary or logical. A social imaginary is not something in the mind of people, it is part of our way of life, our being in the world. This is what makes it so hard for us to imagine things being otherwise.
I think that we, as curators of these practices have an obligation to go one step further. We should try not only to curate, but also to create. To take it beyond bringing together nice examples and to try and use our imagination and come up with an alternative framework or social imaginary which enables us to value (and not only appreciate) these people powered initiatives. We now lack a common language to communicate the value of these initiatives. Or we don’t lack it, but it is mostly dispersed and locked inside particular circles. What is needed is to bring these languages together and out in the mainstream. This much too long post is therefore not trying to give an answer, but is a way for me to get this voice out of my head and to turn it into an open call to those who want to use their imagination with me.
For great examples of people offering parts of the language we need see Chiara Camponeshi's amazing enanbling city (and follow her on twitter at @enablingcity, 00:/ stimulating Compendium fo the civic economy, and the engaging book edited by Anna Moreni Creative Communities