In March 2020, the City of Torino published an open call to draft a Pact of Urban Commons on Antiracism. Fifty-nine actors — associations, informal committees, individual activists — answered the call and participated in two working days, one in July and one in September. In October, however, the new social distancing regulations forced the City to move the co-design phase online. In this article I will present the steps of the co-deisgning process and its results.
A brief sum-up
A Pact of Urban Commons should not be confused with a purchase of services, a request for a contribution, or an advocacy or lobbying campaign: the relationship among partners is neither monetary or hierarchical. On the contrary, the signers of the Pact commit themselves to collaborate on an equal basis in taking care of a good whose property — and interest — is defined as “common”, i.e. collective.
“Co-design” is the phase in which the parties agree upon the rules to manage the common good. In the case of material goods, such as parks, co-designing means agreeing upon permitted or forbidden uses, upon each partner’s share of the maintenance costs, upon which events to promote (parties, initiatives) and which events to prohibit (for example, sports), and so on. In the case ofimmaterial goods, on the other hand, co-design might be less intuitive as it concerns vaguely defined concepts such as “practices”, or “knowledge”, related to goods. Furthermore, there are no examples or benchmarks available, as the Municipality of Torino was the first administration to declare a value such as Anti-racism a common good.
To make matters more complex, in October the government reintroduced anti-covid social distancing measures, forcing the City to move the co-design activities online.
The co-design phase
Structure and logistics
During an online plenary at the end of October, the City Office presented a road-map for the co-design phase. It was built upon two fundamental needs: one, online meetings need to be short, because it is difficult to keep the participants’ attention beyond two hours (especially at the end of a long day of work); two, smaller groups are more efficient, because they facilitate dynamics similar to the ones happening in in-person meetings. In light of these considerations, the co-design phase was structured as follows:
- the objectives elaborated during the September working day were grouped into four macro-areas: access to services, narratives, empowerment of community associations and education;
- each partner was asked to sign up for a maximum of two macro-areas;
- during the first meetings (between 16th and 19th November, one macro-area per day, two-hour meetings), each macro-area identified priority actions and formed a working group for each action (15 in total). ;
- each working group nominated two coordinators and was asked to finalize a proposal of activity by December 31st;
- macro-areas met two more times (30th November-3rd December and 15th–16th–17th–21st December, two-hour meetings) to share and discuss with other working groups the intermediate versions of the proposals.
The resulting process involved many short meetings in small groups working online. Working groups could self-organize themselves, which increased participants’ ownership of the process and of the results and helped identify coordinators for the following implementation and co-management phases; the City Office ensured a transparent flow of information (by managing mailing lists) and a regular verification of the progresses (during the biweekly meetings).
Different groups worked in different ways: some groups met the deadlines while others missed them; some groups were dominated by certain key-figures while others worked horizontally; and so on. The City Offices deliberately took a step aside, building the logistic framework and managing the timing and the flow of information, but restraining itself from the discussion on contents.
- In purely numerical terms: twelve macro-area meetings (three each), with an average of twenty participants each meeting, and an estimated thirty working group meetings;
- despite these good figures, however, participants’ active participation during the macro-area online meeting was much lower. Further researches are needed to understand if the much smaller and much more activity-oriented working groups had more participated dynamics;
- eleven out of fifteen working groups submitted a finished proposal, while one association officially abandoned the project.
In a round-email to all partners, the City Office shared the eleven proposals and proposed the following roadmap:
- partners will have two weeks to comment, integrate, review the proposals of the other groups or their own. Deadline: 31/01;
- at the end of the review phase, the City will summon a plenary meeting (online) to discuss the proposals and address some of the most relevant issues. Scheduled date of the plenary: 05/02;
- once the actions of the Pact are reviewed, partners will start the actual drafting of the Pact. Exp. deadline: the end of March.
At the end of this brief analysis, I would like to share two reflections.
ONE: From the very beginning of this adventure, it was clear that the high number of participants would have posed a challenge: a very heterogeneous partnership can translate into a very heterogeneous Pact. The outcome of the co-design phase confirms it: the eleven proposals touch upon a wide arrey of topics, from awareness-raising events to educational activities to data collection. Obviously, these actions respond to relevant needs which must be addressed — on the other hand, however, a Pact of Collaboration cannot be the sum of distinct actions, vaguely coordinated but without a common strategy.
How to bridge the need for effective and specific working groups and the need for intersectoral spaces for exchange and strategization? A possible solution relies upon a co-managing structure which includes topic-specific operational teams and broader discussion rooms.
TWO: During the co-design phase, the Administration restrained its role to logistic managing, even when this produced less inclusive dynamics (due to some activists’ excessive protagonism, or to non-inclusive working platforms or scheduling, or for thousand different reasons) for two reasons: activists’ ownership of the process was a steadfast request from CSOs and is considered a necessary condition to ensure long-term engagement and sustainability of the Pact. The question is whether it is possible, or even desirable, to maintain a similar approach in the drafting process ahead — or, rather, whether the Administration should take the lead in this task and propose a first draft.
Generalizing the question, I wonder whether empowerment and participatory processes are linear and incremental or, rather, flexible paths in which different phases and needs are met with tailor-made approaches.
Do you have any questions, doubts or reflections? The write me! Leave me a comment below or contact me on Twitter at tw / @ orpheo85