September 16, 2019

Power to the Cities! The rise of conscious communities

Cities have become the last hope to tackle issues that are otherwise too broad and complex to deal with: from climate change to inequality, they are rising as hubs of hope in the turbulent era we live in.

By the Ouishare Team


It feels like regressive forces all over the world are in high tide—from President Trump to Bolsonaro, Brexit and the rise of fake news, economic and political turmoil in Latin America and the authoritarian paths of Russia and Turkey.

International coordination has failed to tackle the most urgent issues of our time: global warming, structural inequality, and the worst refugee crisis in recent history. Nation-states, the very foundations on which this order was built, are crumbling—and the collective indignation we share from one Facebook post to the next is not changing much.

Cities are where we can make change happen.

More than half of the world’s population now lives in cities, and the proportion could reach 70% by the middle of the century. Over the last few decades, a limited club of world cities have been concentrating more and more of the global population as well as its financial, cultural and intellectual resources. London alone accounts for 22% of the United Kingdom’s Gross Domestic Product. About 50% of the South Korean population lives in the Seoul metropolitan area. Back in 1950, there were only 290,000 people living in Lagos. Today, there are 20 million, and 40 million residents are projected by 2050.

There is a widening gap between people living in big cities and the rest of the world’s population. It is no secret that people who call themselves progressives mainly live in big cities. In fact, if you are reading this, you are likely to be one of them. In cities such as San Francisco or Seattle, less than 10% of voters backed Trump. The majority of Londoners voted to “remain”—75.3%.

Yet, cities are also powerful discrimination tools. The boom of real estate prices and high-end development projects in global cities in the course of the last three decades has fueled structural inequality. Cities still consume a tremendous amount of resources and energy, and generate a gigantic amount of waste. They are at the core of a looming environmental disaster.

Conscious communities are not isolated experiences in different cities; they are part of a growing movement that is leveraging the power of community, networks, and participation to work on systemic challenges.

All the more reason to focus our collective efforts on the city scale.  As citizens, we need to assume our roles in the governance of our cities, assume our roles in decision-making processes, build strong relationships across cultural, sectoral, political and spatial differences, embrace diversity and become more resilient and adaptive in times of rapid change.

This empowerment does not happen in isolation. Our modern society has rarely seen a widespread use of democratic tools: in contrast to the continuous messages we get daily from commercials and politicians on our supposed freedom and individuality, our agency as individuals is relatively limited in our daily lives.

Illustration: Norma Nardi

It’s through the continuous practice of collaboration that one learns to collaborate; it’s not a theoretical concept. In the same way, it’s through the repetitive use of democratic principles that one learns how democracy works and feels empowered to use his/her own agency for a cause. Local communities, from urban gardening groups through neighborhood associations to collectives that fight for the right to housing, are the spaces in which we can practice these principles and feel empowered to take collective action.

Citizen-led communities are flourishing in Europe, occupying the space where local governments and municipalities are not able or willing to act together with citizens. Groups of citizens are coming together towards common goals such as improving their neighborhoods, preserving the environment, promoting integration, growing healthy food, and more. We call these initiatives conscious communities.

To scale and achieve maximum impact, share resources and spread their ideas, changemakers across different sectors and political beliefs are coming together in their cities. The following are examples of some of the conscious communities throughout Europe that are leading the way.

Roubaix: A community fighting against energy poverty, connecting local actors around a local social challenge.

In Roubaix, one of the poorest cities in France, there were several citizens and local actors concerned with energy precarity. They did not identify as a community, though. In September 2018, a local foundation organized an event around the question: how can we bring together people and organizations to work on the problem of energy precarity? Several months of collaborative and eco-systemic work have followed. Now, they have built the necessary common ground and trust to jump into action and tackle the challenge of energy poverty together.

Not only is a community of engaged actors in Roubaix working directly on the issue of energy poverty, but a network is also forming in the towns nearby—and even Paris and other cities have expressed their interest to contribute and learn from the process.

Munich: Making good use of welfare, reconnecting with the city.

On the other side of the economic spectrum, Munich—one of the richest cities in Europe—faces a different set of challenges.

This city luckily still enjoys a very high welfare status, making it more difficult to awaken local interest in conversations about the future and the current challenges its citizens face. They exist, but are less visible. There are many initiatives dealing with integration, education and other relevant topics, but the conversation is mostly about how to use such welfare for good: how to promote sustainable practices and places, promote circular economies and encourage inclusion.

There are some topics that go unnoticed, though: isolation and alienation from the city, like it does not belong to its citizens.

To react to this scenario and to spark a conversation that can awaken the local interest, there is a growing community around the topic of the Wise City.

In contrast to the Smart City concept that most councils have chosen to adopt by filling up cities with sensors, in a wise one, citizens have the chance to shape the city they live in: they develop future products that make sense for them and respond to actual needs. This engagement awakens the feeling of ownership of their space, and shows how they can influence its design to improve the quality of life in their city.

Paris: Connecting conscious communities

The need for connection is not only felt towards the city, but also among the different communities that act within it, as is the case with Paris. The city boasts a vibrant economy with an abundance of actors and a plurality of approaches and challenges to be addressed. How can cooperation and clear communication be facilitated among a dense network of actors? The goal is to increase the impact of their endeavors: enable large-scale actions and multiply the collective emulation.

An experiment with a network of communities is already on its way with la Base, a place of acceleration and mobilization for climate and social justice that opened its doors in March 2019. It brings together associations, videographers, as well as a citizen cooperative of popular education. And they’re not alone: coworking and experimentation spaces such as Volumes, Woma, Kézako, Labtop, Les Halles Civiques and Studio Singulier have recently joined forces not only to create synergies between their activities, but also to ensure their sustainability and implement actions that have a stronger impact.

Barcelona: Fostering citizen empowerment, connecting to the local government

In some cities, the local government has understood the power of engaging citizenship in the decision-making process. Barcelona, with its Digital City Plan, is one of the references on digital social innovation and participatory democracy. Its goal is to put people before technology and engage them in policy-making.

Hubs and connection areas have also been key in Barcelona so that its well-known maker movement could flourish: the Fab Lab and the urban factories foster learning and skill development of citizens on digital competencies, allow them to develop their own devices and circular production models and help finance digital social innovation.

One could argue that most of these initiatives are led by the administration and citizens “only” contribute to them, instead of the administration supporting citizen-led initiatives. It’s a learning process. One such community-led initiative supported by the public administration is Maker Mornings, through which more than 50 different organizations gather periodically to discuss, exchange knowledge and collaborate around digital social innovation.

International conscious communities: Systemic connection

Conscious communities are not isolated experiences in different cities; they are part of a growing movement that is leveraging the power of community, networks, and participation to work on systemic challenges. These collectives are starting to see the need for deeper and more strategic collaboration to increase reach, impact, access to audiences and funding, and share lessons on how to govern and collaboratively scale products and services. They are aware that their work is a contribution — not a complete solution — to the challenge they aim to solve, and that it is a piece in a much larger puzzle of interlinked global problems.

A common thread: seeking connection

As we have explored through these examples, the connection to others—whether at an individual level or among communities—is key so that initiatives can emerge. Local governments can play a key role in facilitating these physical and thematic spaces in their cities, but they are not the only ones to be able to do so. We all have a shared responsibility in this role. Communities such as Ouishare, a decentralized collective, have been connecting ecosystems around the world for collaborative, systemic change. Ouishare does this through Ouishare Fests, with editions in four continents: Ouishare Fest Paris and Barcelona, Eco2Fest in Québec, Colaboramerica in Río de Janeiro and AltShift in Cairo; as well as more than 300 other events that its members have organized over the past 7 years. The connection happens at many levels: unlikely allies meet and engage in a dialogue through participatory methodologies; the space, breaks and leisure activities at these meetings are carefully prepared so that everyone can make valuable connections that deepen the impact of their work.

In the overwhelming era of the internet in which we spend a good part of our time making social media “connections”, building trust face-to-face—MPRL, Meeting People in Real Life, as we say it in Ouishare—to develop empathy and common understanding is essential.

Cities are spaces where the great challenges of our time materialize in concrete forms; but they are also spaces where actors that care about environmental and social issues can connect and engage in collective action more easily, which is also a great opportunity. Let’s make use of it.