If you have a hammer, look for the needle

Agents of change need institutional support, concluded the Globally Networked Urbanism event at IABR–2016.


The idea behind the three days of Globally Networked Urbanism makes so much sense that it you can wonder why such events do not take place much more frequently. In cities all over the world so called agents of change are working hard to improve their city. They often operate through small but meaningful interventions in order to achieve, for instance, a more sustainable energy system or a more socially just housing system. Their actions are like the needles of an effective acupuncture session. While there are many initiatives in cities on all continents, so far these needles tend to be applied in isolation and face strong opposition from the incumbent urban regimes. The Globally Networked Urbanism hypothesis was that by organizing face-to-face interaction, change makers are better equipped to collectively catalyze sustainable urban transformations all over the world.

Designers Pedro Henrique de Cristo and Caroline de Cristo of +D Studio are a case in point. They learned their skills at Harvard and then went back to Pedro’s native city of Rio de Janeiro to work in the favela of Vidigal to improve the life conditions and outlook of the people there. Informed by local experience, but simultaneously relying on the top-notch standards set by the Harvard Kennedy School and the Harvard Graduate School of Design. Pedro has recently joined the local city council, since this was to only way to really achieve a systematic change. They were able to realize inspiring projects, but had difficulties to structurally implement change. Firstly because the existing political regimes were reluctant to go along, and, secondly, because financial support to get things beyond the initial start up phase was difficult to organize.

Hands-on as they are, during the closing session the agents of change started to carve out the problem and develop solutions. Two ideas are worth mentioning. First, a fund to support agents of change all over the world, in terms of finance, but also organizationally. Hands-on knowledge of legal and financial issues is now a stumbling block. The fund should have two goals: provide seed money, and deep investment only in case a project proves viable in the initial phase. This will ensure that seeds of change will continue to grow in a complex local context. The second idea is on the national-urban nexus. Gaston Gelissen, a Dutch civil servant and thereby a ‘regime player’, suggested to develop a ‘change agent support team’, which would help local change agents to navigate through bureaucratic and regulatory contexts. The hammers from formal government and large funds are still needed, only this time their attention has to be turned to the needles of global urban agents of change.

The ‘invisible’ economy in which the agents of change are operating has to be revealed. Both agents of change and current traditional system players (e.g. corporate organisations and governments) are not aware of the societal value that is created through their projects. Furthermore a network will be developed in which agents of change can organize themselves globally to learn from each other and bundle their valuable tools, marketing and communications, financial resources, data and knowledge. They will organize themselves as a network-force for mobilizing civil society into a more structured and organized circular economic domain. Thus they’re able to participate in a new level playing field and cooperate with governments and the industries alike.

The Globally Networked Urbanism event took place at the IABR between May 10 and 12. It was organized by MVO Nederland (CSR Netherlands) and the Urban Futures Studio (UFS) of Utrecht University.



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SONY DSCGlobally Networked Urbanism workshops. Images: Rosalie de Bruijn