January 1, 2020

Translating passion into action: working collaboratively to make cities better places Or: why we do what we do at Actors of Urban Change

By Sebastian Schlueter and Agnieszka Surwillo-Hahn

“Compatibility should be an achievement of love, not its precondition”, writes the philosopher Alain de Botton in his novel The Course of Love. De Botton’s wise observation about relationships sums up our very own leitmotif. To make our cities better places for people to live in, we need the commitment of a variety of people working collaboratively for a greater cause. This sort of collaboration between people, we believe, asks for experimental spaces and time for playfulness to actually work.

Actors of Urban Change aims to provide such spaces for teams across Europe to achieve more compatibility and synergy in their collaborations. Because successfully working together on a joint idea for social change is not a precondition of any kind of relation, but is an achievement of trying it out.

Relationships between people often start with shared passions as well as shared concerns — and the desire to translate them into action. In order to practice and establish compatibility, the Actors of Urban Change network creates an environment to test and implement new ideas in a safe space. At the very heart of this lie our international meetings, each taking place in a different European city. During these summits, the Actors community comes together, and participants exchange intensively on topics such as project management, processes for citizen participation and co-creation, advocacy and long-term sustainability. Field visits, workshops, open spaces and one-on-one coaching offer opportunities for learning, and expert facilitators create space to reflect on and speak freely about the challenges of cross-sector collaboration and urban change work.

The goal of every cross-sector collaboration is to create an environment that turns different ways of doing things into a productive tension for getting things done.

Our program is based on three beliefs: we believe that people from very different backgrounds can work together to improve their cities if the right context is provided; we are certain that long-lasting change can only happen when a culture of co-creation is taken seriously; whereas true change mostly starts locally, we believe that thinking globally is necessary to ground practices of urban change in an interconnected world. To put it differently, cross-sector collaboration, a culture of participation and co-creation, and international exchange is the triad we think works best to make cities better places for people to live in.

Why cross-sector collaboration?

In an era of ever growing complex urban challenges, collective, lasting change can only happen if people with diverging ideas, experiences and perspectives work together. The goal of every cross-sector collaboration is to create an environment that turns different ways of doing things into a productive tension for getting things done. Our program enables innovative partnerships between private entrepreneurs, public institutions and civil society, providing them with a space for experimentation so they can discover new, creative ways to collaboratively improve their cities. Whereas citizen-driven movements very often spearhead local initiatives, they can reach a far more effective change when working together with municipalities and local businesses. Practicing cross-sector collaboration means to be able to advocate much more profoundly for long-lasting change than individual actors could ever do.

Why a culture of participation and co-creation?

Culture — our ideas, art and ways of socializing, thinking and behaving — is a vehicle of creativity, social life, heritage and the values we bring to shaping shared space. Where culture functions as a driving force for urban change, it makes for places that better reflect our humanity, where people experience a sense of belonging and are motivated to care for place, each other and for the future. Our theory of change places culture at the center of strategies for the sustainable development of cities. Fostering the potential of culture in the practice of urban development helps facilitate more diverse participation, deepen understanding and strengthen community solidarity.

True co-creation of urban spaces asks for changed practices, a change in the culture of doing things.

We believe that it sometimes takes a nudge to change local ways; we do this by showing the potential of co-creation. True co-creation of urban spaces asks for changed practices, a change in the culture of doing things. Old ways of thinking can create obstacles on the way to real transformation — whether thinking about change only in institutional silos, or making an administration responsible for local problems that could easily be solved through community efforts. Actors of Urban Change aim to overcome such barriers by rooting ideas radically within their diverse communities from the very beginning.

Why international exchange?

We support actors to kick-start and shape local projects that can become models for how to tackle urban problems collaboratively within their cities and across Europe. Actors’ projects act as laboratories, coming forward with new methods and practices that allow people from many different backgrounds to participate in urban change. The safe spaces we create allow them to learn from each other across local as well as national boundaries, while at the same time making Europe more tangible through working together.

Cities everywhere are facing similar challenges — climate change, population movements, demographic change, the quality of housing and other urban infrastructure — and they can all benefit from sharing experiences and solutions. By using and shaping our program as an international platform, the Actors become part of and co-create a good-practice network: they show how to carry out initiatives that can inspire and drive positive change in cities everywhere.

Nature, communities, spaces

During the past six years of Actors of Urban Change, nearly 100 changemakers have been working relentlessly on a wide range of challenges and sharing their visions for a better future with thousands of citizens in their local environments. For the past two years, our participants have been equally engaged in projects representing a variety of topics. They invite people to think about the relation between urban and rural spaces by testing out new ways of producing and consuming resources, taking nature as a source of innovation and inspiration. They activate local communities to advocate for global systemic changes. And they show how to dedicate new imaginations to old spaces, in order to put them at the center of thinking about the future of their communities.

To be compatible in a relationship, Alain De Botton reminds his readers, means to continuously remain curious and learn from each other, and also to be patient with each other, so that failures and learning can build the ground for growth. With this evolving network of Actors of Urban Change, we are hoping to not only make cities better places, but to establish a community whose joint actions for a better future are based on strong bonds and close companionship.