Listening, not planning.

Posted on February 15, 2011

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After our Sustainable Cities lecture last week, Paula, Melissa and I had a quick chat and realised that we all felt quite alien to most of the debates that were going on during the class. Not because we are not interested in the issues discussed – quite the opposite – but more because of the way these issues are approached by other students – who are mostly from a town planning and surveying background.

They seem to take a very theoritical angle on everything – starting from global systems and definitions for then considering local issues. It seems that for us, little tiny designers that we are, the context – humans – is more important than anything to generate a solution to a problem. We seem to think in terms of small scalable projects that start from a root problem. They seem to think in terms of systemic solutions.

It’s very enlightening to see how different people approach the same issues, but it can be frustrating when, while we are trying to take a human centered creative approach, everything is always brought back to policy making.

We spoke for example about behaviour change. The discussion quickly moved on to the importance of restrictive laws. Can we impose sustainable lifestyle to people?

Yes restrictive laws can be effective (the smoking ban is a great example of behaviour change, that has been accepted, and to which people have adapted quite smoothly, I think), but why not listen to people first and see what solutions they can come up with?

Some students seemed to have come to the conclusion that humans want Ferraris anyway. So what can we do if all what those damn consumerists aspire only to material wealth?

Well, as designers, we can show them alternatives.

One answer was to focus on green technologies. If that means producing greener – but still more – stuff, I’m not sure it’s an answer. The problem with this type of approaches is that they come from the assumption that people won’t change, so we – planners, policy makers, designers – should change things from them.

I think that if we really want to implement sustainable change, we should stop considering others as a mass of greedy consumers. We should recognise that the “communities” we are targeting are individuals first, and respect them as such. Listen to them. And understand that behind this desire for more “stuff” there is an aspiration to happiness and to well being. It is highly counter productive, and also quite contemptuous to assume that people do not aspire to anything else than material wealth.

For town planners, showing alternatives can be a about offering opportunities to experience conviviality, in order to ignite this shift in their aspiration – make people realise that what they strive for is social wealth, rather than material wealth.

The limits of planning.

I am currently reading a Small Change, by Nabeel Hamdi, Professor of Housing and Urban Development at Oxford Brookes University. It is a very inspiring read, “an argument for the wisdom of the street, the ingenuity of the improvers and the long-term, large-scale effectiveness of immediate, small scale actions.”

Although I am only half way through it, I can really recommend it to anyone interested in a human view of community development.

Speaking about how development used to be approached, he says:

“we held assumptions about development which guided our practice based on clear and unchallenged differentiations between us and them. The terminology of the day emphasized this division: first world and third world, developed and underdeveloped, developed and developing. Development, it was thought, could be brought to people by those who know best, in the form of technology, money and moral values that would make life better. It was something that was done to others, something that was provided for others who cannot provide for themselves.”

In a later chapter, he speaks about the impossibility of knowing everything about a situation:

“Not knowing … leaves space to think creatively … uncertainty gives room to think. It changes fundamentally power relationships because it invites questions, the answers to which are not already pre-set. In this sense, not knowing encourages the participation of others to engage with each other in search of ideas not based on pre-established routines, nor on so-called best practices.”

For me, these two quotes really nail down the sort of approaches I am interested in: recognising the potential of ordinary people to organise their own solutions and escaping this alienating pattern of us/them.

* by Fan Sissoko

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Posted in: Our thoughts