Rethinking Engagement in Cities: Ending the Professional vs. Citizen Divide

By Blair A. Ruble

Blair Ruble is a Distinguished Fellow and former Director of the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Urban Sustainability Laboratory. His book, Washington’s U Street: A Biography, examines the challenges of gentrification in Washington, D.C.

Sep 30, 2013 | Smart Cities | 2 comments


Who will you meet?

Cities are innovating, companies are pivoting, and start-ups are growing. Like you, every urban practitioner has a remarkable story of insight and challenge from the past year.

Meet these peers and discuss the future of cities in the new Meeting of the Minds Executive Cohort Program. Replace boring virtual summits with facilitated, online, small-group discussions where you can make real connections with extraordinary, like-minded people.


 

Cities are among humankind’s grandest and most complex creations. Even small urban communities represent the cumulative result of literally hundreds of thousands of public and private, individual and collective decisions over time. They are the playgrounds of spontaneity.

Such an understanding of how cities come into being and evolve is hardly new. Nor are its implications for how we plan and govern cities. While the language has changed, these ideas — and how those with custodianship for urban life approach their responsibilities — have been around for nearly as long as there have been cities. We can look to Ancient Greek political thought for notions about participation and empowerment that have been dressed up for our own times.

We need not look back so far. Anyone who has thought seriously about the contemporary urban condition, for example, has encountered the writings of Jane Jacobs. The specific insights of the ancients and the contemporary deserve serious engagement, criticism and debate. The importance of community engagement and mobilization, one might have thought, has become indisputable over several centuries of reformulation.

Since the financial crisis of 2008, a plentiful number of urban professionals around the world – including economists, planners, architects, and administrators of all types – have dismissed citizen participation as an extravagant expense that only gets in the way of efficient urban management. They reveal a steady re-entrenchment of top-down approaches to shaping the city in which professionals know best. Involving citizens, it seems, just costs too much.

Ironically, the lessons in recent years that have emerged from post-disaster experiences point in precisely the opposite direction. From Hurricane Katrina to Super Storm Sandy and all variety of man-made and natural disasters across the globe, we have seen integrated communities with high social capital and identity recover more quickly and more efficiently than those which are bedeviled by high levels of social anomie and isolation.

How can we explain this division between empirical lessons learned on the ground and the view from the commanding heights of professionalism?

There are multiple answers to such a complex question. Citizen engagement has often been oversold by its advocates who have failed to overcome challenges such as time, expense and passivity. Moreover, professional knowledge is essential to resolving many technical challenges.

Arguments against citizen engagement as being overly expensive and obtrusive ring ever more hollow at a time when smart technologies make information sharing and citizen participation ever more feasible and inexpensive. We know from the work of Tim Campbell’s Beyond Smart Cities, for example, that cities learn from each other through transnational networks rather than from top-down professional pontificators. Urban professionals who view themselves as the high priests and priestesses of city life must confront the realities of a digital age that is converting hierarchies into networks in every aspect of our lives.

Within this context, traditional urban “think tanks” need a new approach to their work. Specialized knowledge and expertise play an important role to be sure; but there is simultaneously a need to make that knowledge and expertise widely available. Communities must organize themselves if they are to be resilient in the face of unprecedented challenges for cities which certainly lie ahead as our planet changes.

Fortunately, models exist for converting traditionally hierarchical academic, professional, and municipal institutions into urban laboratories embedded in broad networks of public officials, business executives, entrepreneurs, civic leaders and citizens. The University of Toronto’s Global Cities Indicator project, for example, mobilizes the considerable expertise necessary to collect and analyze big data about cities around the world while making such data available and transparent to broader communities. Similarly, Brooklyn’s new Center for Urban Science + Progress seeks to promote “a new kind of academic center that functions in collaboration with the city itself.”

Conferences such as Meetings of the Minds amplify the benefits of engaging urbanites and urban custodians from across many sectors. There are countless more examples of governance mechanisms and political arrangements which privilege participation over professional privilege.

As the world rushes towards an unprecedented urban age — as humans become a city rather than a rural species – we need new sorts of institutions – virtual and horizontal networks of minds rather than confined “tanks” for the best and the brightest – if we are going to sustain resilient urban communities. We need engagement and we need modesty if we, as denizens of cities great and small, are going to survive. We need to end the artificial divide between “professionals” and “citizens” once and for all. Fortunately, technologies that are now available allow the dreams of ancient philosophers who advocated direct involvement in decision-making for the cities to be realized.

Discussion

Leave your comment below, or reply to others.

Please note that this comment section is for thoughtful, on-topic discussions. Admin approval is required for all comments. Your comment may be edited if it contains grammatical errors. Low effort, self-promotional, or impolite comments will be deleted.

2 Comments

  1. I agree very much that we need to end the artificial divide between professionals and citizens. I am pioneering ways of doing this in one part of SE London, UK, and showing that there is a blind spot in the minds of professionals and their work worlds which deepens the divide. But it needs just a shift of perception to see that there are two quite different human social systems – vertical and horizontal – in a perpetual dance together, and suddenly ways to transform this can open up with small ‘adjacent possible’ steps.

    See a short video clip here: http://www.socialreporters.net/?p=455,
    – a summary of the approach: http://civilsocietyforum.net/site/insights/insight-from-eileen-conn,
    – my social eco-systems dance model: http://tinyurl.com/social-eco-system-dance-paper.

    See also http://www.peckhamvision.org for a window into the pioneering demonstration of a way of nurturing horizontal systems and enabling citizens to engage more effectively.

    Reply
  2. This is where public television can play a vital role. Station are stepping up across the country to bring together leaders and the community on important issues.

    Reply

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Read more from MeetingoftheMinds.org

Spotlighting innovations in urban sustainability and connected technology

Pitching Your Place of the Future to Next Gen Talent

Pitching Your Place of the Future to Next Gen Talent

Why one city decays and another thrives can sometimes seem random. So, trying to foresee downrange why the future will happen in City A and not City B is hard.  Moreover, to imagine that there is one formula that all 7.8 billion of us should adhere to, wherever it is we live, is clearly nonsensical.

In our work, we study, research, and rank places to determine what the best practices are to increase economic prosperity, social equity, and quality of life. Ultimately, the question we want to answer is: What is it that makes a city a place of the future?  In our research, one thing has become clear to us: next-gen talent is the fuel for the future of place. And by extension, jobs of the future will happen in places of the future.

Digital Twins, Geospatial AI Help Bridge the Physical World and Digital World

Digital Twins, Geospatial AI Help Bridge the Physical World and Digital World

Digital twins and AI analysis would offer significant benefits to organizations across all sectors. By providing a comprehensive look at a geographical area and its infrastructure and assets, these technologies will enable smarter and more targeted field planning optimization. It could help digitize field surveys, offer new levels of remote engineering access, and enable contact tracing around COVID-19.

The focus will continue to shift away from the data itself and towards its relationships. The connections between data are where the most powerful insights lie. With enough data points, organizations can look to analytics to better understand the context and “see” the future.

AI at scale and emerging data technologies truly illustrate this connectivity and potential. Although it’s an emerging field, the benefits are limitless.

Taking a Look into Our Adaptation Blind Spots

Taking a Look into Our Adaptation Blind Spots

In my business, we’d rather not be right. What gets a climate change expert out of bed in the morning is the desire to provide decision-makers with the best available science, and at the end of the day we go to bed hoping things won’t actually get as bad as our science tells us. That’s true whether you’re a physical or a social scientist.

Well, I’m one of the latter and Meeting of the Minds thought it would be valuable to republish an article I penned in January 2020. In that ancient past, only the most studious of news observers had heard of a virus in Wuhan, China, that was causing a lethal disease. Two months later we were in lockdown, all over the world, and while things have improved a lot in the US since November 2020, in many cities and nations around the world this is not the case. India is living through a COVID nightmare of untold proportions as we speak, and many nations have gone through wave after wave of this pandemic. The end is not in sight. It is not over. Not by a longshot.

And while the pandemic is raging, sea level continues to rise, heatwaves are killing people in one hemisphere or the other, droughts have devastated farmers, floods sent people fleeing to disaster shelters that are not the save havens we once thought them to be, wildfires consumed forests and all too many homes, and emissions dipped temporarily only to shoot up again as we try to go “back to normal.”

So, I’ll say another one of those things I wish I’ll be wrong about, but probably won’t: there is no “back to normal.” Not with climate change in an interdependent world.

The Future of Cities

Mayors, planners, futurists, technologists, executives and advocates — hundreds of urban thought leaders publish on Meeting of the Minds. Sign up to follow the future of cities.

You have Successfully Subscribed!

Wait! Before You Leave —

Wait! Before You Leave —

Subscribe to receive updates on the Executive Cohort Program!

You have Successfully Subscribed!

Share This