Who’s afraid of co-creation?

After three years of action research on community development in three different living labs of Brussels, our project comes to a close. Over seventy people attended the final visit and round table of the CitizenDev project. This audience was comprised of practitioners, civil servants, academics and engaged citizens. ‘Self-management’ proved a hot topic to most of them.

What elements of good community development would you like to use in your neighbourhood or work environment? After learning about the nine building blocks implemented by the CitizenDev project guided by the principles of Asset-Based Community Development, the participants in the final round table of the project could chose some of the blocks as the methods they would like to use themselves. They chose 'self-management for residents', 'a place that is managed by residents' and ‘connecting people to each other’. And – a bit to my surprise - 'political interpellation'. Although civil servants were well represented, next to employees of NGO’s, researchers and citizens, I did not sense a fear of mixing participatory urban development with political debates.

Most people who attended the round table shared the main premise of the CitizenDev project: communities should develop by stimulating citizens to take their future and the wellbeing of their community in their own hands, by giving them the opportunity to join forces and decide and manage their own initiatives based on their talents and passions. However, they argued, this should not result in less involvement of the authorities nor in less public investment in the poor neighbourhoods. Therefore, residents involved in do-it-yourself initiatives, local administrations and politicians should engage in a dialogue with one another, according to several of the participants.

Stimulating citizens to take the development of their communities in their own hands should not result in less involvement or investment of the authorities.

We are convinced, as are most participants, that developing our city can and should become a process of co-creation. Citizens should no longer be viewed as merely consumers of professional services. Citizens can join administrations, politicians and neighbourhood workers as actors and co-producers of the urban environment. This is the way to go for our urban development policy.

Use largescale public programmes to invest in assets

This sounds easy enough. However, when you give the matter a deeper look, how can we accomplish this? While several questions remain, one of the main conclusions of the day is that it is time to upscale the experiment, both in terms of theme as size.

Our experiments with Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD) in CitizenDev and in the Sustainable Neighbourhood Contract Athenée in Ixelles indicate that it is possible to mobilise people and create an avalanche of energetic bottom-up initiatives, which try to improve their neighbourhood in a myriad of ways. Our visit to Matongé introduced the participants to some of the more or less 20 citizen initiatives that are the result of the ABCD approach.
These initiatives remain small-scaled however, involving a total budget of less than 150.000 euros over the duration of the project, managed by citizens. The interaction between these small initiatives and the ones run by the local authorities was unfortunately very limited. So how can we upscale the ABCD approach? How can we use our methods to transform the entire programme of a Sustainable Neighbourhood Contract, with its real estate projects and its renewal of public space, into a bottom-up process?

CitizenDev has proven that citizens are not only capable of managing projects for social wellbeing, culture or production. They can run the “hard stuff” as well.

In any case, CitizenDev has proven that citizens are not only capable of managing projects for social wellbeing (e.g. a gift shop for second hand clothing), culture (e.g. promotion of ancient African games) or production (e.g. the kitchen start-up „Green Cantine“), but that they can run the “hard stuff” as well. Our experiment in the Brabant neighbourhood in Schaerbeek has shown that citizens can manage the renewal of public infrastructure (transforming a former shop into the headquarters of the local community) if only they get the keys and full responsibility. The citizen groups ‘Rue du Conseil/Mixelles’ and ‘Green Ixelles’ have been the driving forces of the greening and traffic calming of some streets and squares in Ixelles. Surely, the bigger projects, including the actual building or heavy transformations of real estate, still demand a professional management. Can citizens play a more important part in planning, designing and running those projects?

Some participants to the CitizenDev round table stressed the need of more time to map local assets and dreams as an answer to this challenge. They suggest to launch a specific public programme for ‘assets-and-dreams-mapping’, that precede the start of Sustainable Neighbourhood Contracts, so that residents, local NGO’s and local authorities have the time to build the projects of the Neighbourhood Contract together, in a bottom-up way. This might prove to be a good idea, completely in accordance with the conclusions of CitizenDev. We think we need more field workers to launch these mappings, to talk to people, stimulate them to become actors and connect them with other actors that can help them pushing their ideas forward. Without a thematic agenda or specialisation.

The visit and round table of the 27th of February has been the showcase and final public moment of 3 years of experiment in three living labs of the CitizenDev project, www.citizendev.be. The CitizenDev partners are Community Landtrust Brussels, Eva Bxl, Sascha - ULB and Centre d'Etudes Sociologiques - Université Saint-Louis.

We are finalising a publication on our experiences and recommendations. To order the publication (freely available soon in French and Dutch, unfortunately not available in English), please contact BRAL.

Piet Van Meerbeek

Drawing: CC BY-NC-SA Dado Cornejo