What Lead me to the Subject of Governance in Cities?

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I have as long as I can remember questioned things from why certain rules are in place (like all children start off doing) but also why systems work as they do despite wicked issues like poverty, exclusion and pollution.

But questioning, although a start never felt like enough. So I chose the issues I was and am most concerned about and attempted to find a way of solving them. This is why I studied economics or would have loved to study psychology. I sought a way of solving poverty around the world and in books. My passion for reading and interest in other manners of thinking stayed but a definite answer was never found, maybe I made the mistake of trying to solve the whole problem and small actions would have been time better spent.

When starting my career I worked in various roles in compagnies. I found my drive as soon as I left these for the government. Every action, every initiative, every idea contributed, feels like I am making a difference for the common good. Little things have little effects, but bigger changes are also possible.

I discovered this through working on e-inclusion. At first, I admit I had to read up on the issue, as it was never just about having or not having any form of technology but still today this oversimplification of “have’s vs have not’s is used”. This was a social problem which many were attempting to solve with the means they had at hand (giving lessons, expositions, providing hardware…). The fact so many were already aware and working on the issue was a great starting point. Bringing them together in one of the first (in fact the second) thematic programs of the city was almost too logical. Why hadn’t any body else thought of this in the past? But in fact the various actors had not only thought of it but requested facilitation in it.

So I went out to coördinate my first strategic program, setting out the lines in collaboration with the actors and all involved politicians, hence identifying and remedying the blind spots.

A few years later I broadened my focus on strategy to other themes and worked out European projects to realize various elements in collaboration with cities seeking answers to the same issues. These projects were mostly done through my contacts within Eurocities. Many projects though would stop after the funding ran out and had very specific results.

This learning lead me and others to question the time span of strategies. Yes, each project had a strategy in sorts, each service, department, politician had one and sometimes many but the ambition was always limited to one’s own means and ambitions. This often resulted in conflicts. Yet hadn’t I learnt that if a common problem was identified that a common strategy would bring more fruit?

So how do you do this at the level of a city? The strategic coördinator managed this in 2007. He had a strategy that covered the period till 2020! This was fantastic news to cities all across Europe, that we’re slowly doing the same. A new collaborative way of working to realize on this was also put in place. But as politicians were renewed and heads of offices changed they saw this as a threat and did not consider long-term ambitious realistic or attainable but above all they did not consider these ambitions to be their own.

Although somewhat painfully this strengthened my belief and conviction that future studies or foresight may constitute part of the answer. This blog will hence on a weekly basis give news and share experiences, findings and thoughts as to how foresight can and do help cities. The clue I think is to focus the service rendering on not only giving future guidance but also slowly teaching the interested to make foresight thinking their own.

I am currently being taught a new method by the Kairos institute and am eager to try it out on one of the most fundamental issues in cities: Governance. Governance covers all decision making (also the issues of democracy and participation). You could consider this the brains of a city whereas the clothing are the buildings and the utilities the organs.

I invite anybody willing and interested to contribute to contact me at martine@citiesofpeople.com. A participative session will be organized on the future of governance in (flemish) cities on the 27th of February 2020 in Ghent.

Let’s see where it takes us.

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