Learnings from The City as a Commons series

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In late March (20-28), Julian Agyeman, Tessy Britton, Gorka Espiau and Rony Jalkh joined us for The City as a Commons conference series in three Canadian cities. Throughout these two weeks of activities they participated in meetings on how to advance transformative city building and thinking.

Below are some takeaways from these gatherings:

  • To strengthen the City as a Commons, we need to incorporate multicultural thinking in our day-to-day work. This can be achieved through dialogue and reciprocal understanding between residents. Developing inclusive cultural practices will help us advance toward more inclusive cities.
  • Creating a truly participatory city means making sure that city neighbourhoods are made by everyone and for everyone. Neighbourhoods are places that can fuel social transformation; they can o
  • perate as platforms, laboratories, schools, models of sustainability and models of equality.
  • An inclusive city is one where participation has been mainstreamed (embedded in local values and beliefs) and scaled up. An inclusive city is participatory by nature.
  • Participation can be mainstreamed and scaled up if we make it attractive, accessible, and convenient - and with concrete benefits.
  • There are two different systems that work together to create a participatory city:
    i. participation opportunities that facilitate civic engagement in practical projects that align with residents’ daily lives
    ii. support systems that make it easier to maintain or grow collections of projects.
  • Placemaking is nourished by participation and trust; it encourages residents to find a place where they feel welcome. Like peacemaking, placemaking requires courage, compassion and collaboration.
  • A shared narrative has the potential to transform communities, attitudes and behaviors.
  • An understanding of a community’s social fabric and its waves of transformation is required to create a shared narrative (incorporating questions of who we are, who the neighbourhood is, what is possible and what is not). The deeper we understand the waves of transformation and the processes that happen within a community, the more the impact we can achieve through our initiatives.
  • Stories for social transformation are not controlled by a central command. They are connected in terms of value systems and the impact we wish to achieve as a collective.
  • Understanding the city as a commons involves going beyond quaint notions of the gift economy  - it requires engaging in systemic restructuring. The commons are not only about asset building but also about the processes of creating and producing together.
  • To strengthen the commons, we have to go beyond top-down and bottom-up approaches. Conversations should be framed around how citizens and institutions can work better to transform places, moving the centre of gravity out of the town hall and into neighbourhoods.

A list of practical ideas to support placemaking for social inclusion:

  1. Create places for children.
  2. Organise exhibitions and competitions where new residents can showcase their food.
  3. Support cultural and art fairs: music, fashion, dance, instruments.
  4. Conduct gatherings that foster a sense of caring among newcomers.
  5. Conduct activities for space appropriation (such as murals).
  6. Create community gardens using plants familiar and useful to newcomers.
  7. Use public spaces for book clubs and intercultural conversations.
  8. Create informal playgrounds where children can use their imagination in public spaces.
  9. Develop art therapy activities: public spaces can be used as a platform for residents to express their feelings through art. Contemplating these art expressions helps people to better understand each other.

Got any learnings to add to the mix? Please share them with us by commenting or on Twitter #civiccommons.

Crafty placemaking with Brussels-based Urban Foxes

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This is second in our Placemaker Profile series. Read Part 1, an interview with Victoria Dickenson, here.

We first heard of Urban Foxes, a Brussels-based collective, when one of its founders reached out to us, sharing their “Saint-Cath-sur-Mer” project. We found this to be an unassuming yet impactful approach to bringing people together around a common space that was previously underused. After doing further investigations, we learned that we share a name with Urban Foxes’ placemaking labs, as well as common interests in playful and participatory approaches to animating urban spaces. Two elements struck us: 1) a method of placemaking that is rooted in understanding a community’s assets and needs, and 2) an attention to inclusion, especially in the face of re/development that often puts private interests first. Keen to learn more about their background, approach, and on-the-ground projects, we asked Urban Foxes member Bram DeWolfs to answer a few questions.

All photos are courtesy of Urban Foxes.


  1. Can you describe Urban Foxes' approach to placemaking?

As a fairly young collective with no structural funding nor employees, we have chosen to focus on relatively smaller actions in our city, Brussels. Most of the time we target enhancing urban wellbeing by using creative and playful interventions. We don’t differentiate between age groups or cultures. Everybody can play or participate, and we always make sure that activities are free of charge. When it’s more than a [small] intervention, e.g. like Canal Park BXL where we crowdfunded a small part of an urban wasteland (thanks to that pressure, now a large park of four hectares is being “installed” by the government), we aim to involve all stakeholders. We also organize annual placemaking city labs called “Cities for People”, funded by the Erasmus+ program, where 30 participants from all over Europe are immersed for eight days in the world of placemaking. During this time, participants visit places showing good practices, analyze public spaces, communicate with locals, take part in theoretical and practical workshops and in the end come up with their own ways to improve urban wellbeing.

For our last project “Saint-Cath-sur-Mer” we involved locals, restaurant owners, the local youth theatre, the three youth centers and a retirement home from a few blocks away. We tried to facilitate the process of starting up a common project, of which every stakeholder would be a part and where ideas could be proposed.

  1. How is placemaking around water different than on land? What are the benefits and obstacles to transforming water-scapes rather than landscapes?

At times with nice weather, the basins of the old harbour attract people looking for tranquility and relaxation. We wanted to preserve this sensation but we believed we could get more out of the unused space, which is approximately 3000 square meters, on the water. The water brings a natural feeling of poetry and triggers feelings and memories linked to the sea and water. It gives us something to look at, like the glistering and the movement of the water, but also the people around it. The obstacle of the water is that you cannot bring the people on that exact spot, like you would do on an empty market place or old parking lot, but you need to gather them around the water. But we used this disadvantage to our advantage. In order to facilitate encounter around the water, we opted for sailing boats that are controlled by the wind instead of radio-controlled. The wind took the boats across the water, which encouraged people to walk around, interact, and play, asking each other to “send” the boat back. Remote-controlled boats might have kept the people in their own private world, as happens a lot in our smartphone age.


  1. With your Saint-Cath-Sur-Mer project, you refer to "Transforming the Fish Market into a place of wonder, playfulness and encounter." How did you go from their vision to a concrete action plan?

After the terrorist attacks and with the increasing acts of urban neoliberalism by the municipality, the people of Brussels needed playfulness and poetry more than ever. We had a vision of people of different social classes and origins would come together around the water. We wanted to facilitate encounters regardless of age or background. By winning the local competition make.brussels, an open-call to improve the image of Brussels and the wellbeing of their inhabitants, we won the necessary funds to buy the miniature sailing boats, construct the bike trailer and compensate the “vulnerable” youngsters that helped us with logistics (e.g. distributing the boats, maintenance, transporting the trailer, etc). We created a financial plan, a communication strategy, and a participatory process involving residents, local schools, youth centers, local businesses, neighbourhood committees and a retirement home. We bundled the ideas and concerns and came up with an action plan with ideas and proposals. After this process we launched the opening event were we invited all the stakeholders, and where everybody could enjoy the boats, a drink, and a jazz concert. We wanted a mobile and minimal intervention respecting the surroundings and [neighbourhood] identity, and involve all the stakeholders.

  1. The photos of your public space animations clearly show the potential of play to activate and encourage gathering around a public space. What other forms of play would you like to see in public spaces?

It is our dream that there would be an abundance of playing/sporting possibilities for all ages in the Brussels. One important thing that is missing in our municipality is a (soft) running track, but we would also love to see more public benches, parks, playgrounds, pétanque lanes, permanent ping-pong tables (on the newly pedestrianized Anspach boulevard, reclaimed by disobedient interventions of Picnic The Street, from which Urban Foxes sprouted) and of course fewer cars so we are able to breathe clean air.


  1. You mention the importance of free programming in public space (for example, providing residents with small sailboats, free of charge). What tensions do you perceive around financial access to public space (e.g. patios that are only available to paying patrons), and how do you see you work addressing these exclusions?

Currently we are dealing with local policy makers who focus on attracting tourists and increasing consumption by allowing restaurant holders to expand their patios, thereby sacrificing public space and benches. Several protests have been held, with some success, to reclaim the public space that was temporarily lost. We think it’s crucial that the City act as a smart and ethical buffer between the private sector and the city [as public space]. [We need to] keep in mind that the city should be for everyone, not only for those who consume. This is why that we will stay vigilant for matters dealing with public space and we will continue to strive for activities that are free of charge and thereby aiming at inclusiveness (like our mobile pétanque, mobile cinema/fablab). We believe that a city that is good for its people is good enough for tourists as well.

Cities for People + getting to collective impact

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Read the original article, Ten Key Ingredients for Collective Impact: Powering Town Halls for Societal Change, by Indy Johar, Imandeep Kaur, and Orestes Chouchoulas on Dark Matter Laboratories.

One of the goals set out by the Cities for People initiative during its inception over three years ago was to shake up the ways in which we work in cities. How? By approaching big issues from a thematic, collaborative, multi-sectoral angle, rather than on a project-by-project (setting out objectives and following a linear timeline to tackle one facet at a time) basis. The ‘experiment’ laid out in the first phase of Cities for People, which wrapped up in summer 2015, was to see how taking a thematic approach would enable us to identify ways to scale up, out, and deep – on the kind of ‘wicked problems’ cities are faced with, from inequality to housing to public spaces. Underpinning this effort was the belief that lasting change comes from individuals and organizations, often in different sectors (public, private, nonprofit), working deeply together to drawing out commonalities and symbioses that lead to breakthrough moments. This concept is easy to agree upon, but can be difficult to put into practice: how do we actually work in this way to transcend traditional partnerships that quickly become removed from the problem with which they’re trying to address? This article lays out ten essential pieces of the collective impact puzzle necessary to develop a practice of deep collaboration.



Apollo 10 Mission Control. Photo by NASA.

The energy behind collective action (referred to variably as Collective Impact, Collective Innovation, and Collective Change) is fundamentally rooted in the understanding that meaningful change is increasingly not in the hands of any single organisation. No single actor is able to bring about structural impact in terms of addressing life outcomes, health outcomes, alleviating poverty, or even creating new connected products and services. Whether seen from an interventional perspective or a political and organisational legitimacy perspective, the complex interdependencies at the heart of our largest challenges are not addressable by agents acting in isolation. It is increasingly recognised that impact at these scales requires us to build open, large, diverse, multi-sector coalitions committed to a shared mission, common accountability, allied political intent (small “p” politics), and change at a systems level. These open movements seek to work beyond individual agendas, missions, and activity to leverage our collective capacity for organised and coordinated agency but also to manage and moderate the “unintended aggregative consequences” of our siloed individual decisions.

When many citizens and organisations band together in pursuit of common objectives they generate new kinds of power, agency, and innovation.

Some see Collective Impact as nothing new — just partnerships rebadged and rebranded. We would argue that this misses the point. Collective Impact is not about partnerships between a handful of key institutions sitting in a closed board room but rather about a new architecture for movements of citizens and organisations numbering in the hundreds. Collective Impact is a fundamentally different social scaling theory that changes everything. Collective impact represents a different politics of change that transcends partnerships between a sample of stakeholders and looks to all-embracing movements.

Therefore, inevitably Collective Impact requires new models of planning, organising, and financing. While we continue to invent them, we have identified a few key ingredients:

1. An authentic invitation to a shared challenge

The core momentum behind mobilisation en masse comes from a genuine and authentic invitation to address a shared challenge that many of us face consistently. There is beauty and great potential in the energy generated by individually motivated participants joining forces.

2. A love for the outcome, not the attribution

The people this authentic invitation attracts are most often interested in the outcomes, the mission, and the higher purpose. They care less about being recognised for their individual contribution and measure their own success by the collective progress . Attaining the shared goal trumps any thought of individual status.

3. Open whiteboarding, open planning

The words “collaboration”, “co-design”, co-anything are too often thrown around these days. But truly unlocking the potential of collective wisdom starts with openly planning and whiteboarding the challenge. Asking people to share their thoughts and insights and collaboratively testing, prototyping, and learning engages participants with the process, giving them a sense of ownership, responsibility, and authorship of the shared narrative.

4. Invest in collective capacity and shared learning

Abundance is a core value for Collective Impact. Whether it is being generous with your time or contacts, growing the collective capability, or even imagining the possible requires an abundance mindset. That means understanding that ideas, agency, and impact grow richer and deeper the more widely they are shared. This moves beyond the idea of a sharing economy and towards an economy of collective abundance empowering moonshots — an economy where the more each gives the more we all have.

5. Many-to-many accountability

Accountability is too often thought of as a checking process, betraying an underlying power hierarchy tasked with ensuring that things progress as planned. A many-to-many model reframes accountability into a relational, reputational, and educational process. It retains the structure of a movement for change whilst adding the capacity to learn from the collective strategic agency and peer-to-peer interventions.

6. Mission goals

Shared goals are essential for social change. Collective Impact calls for measurable (even if by proxy) shared goals—be it the well-being of citizens, educational attainment, local economic multipliers, or the long-term GDP growth of the city.

Mission goals create the accountability framework for multiple organisations and institutions, allowing them to respect, align, collaborate, and hold each other mutually responsible. In addition, they provide the extrinsic framework to align internal metrics and incentives and to consciously organise supply chains to act as collective impact multipliers.

In order to be effective and structural shared goals in a data-driven age must be open, machine-readable, measurable, institutionally hardwired (embedded into the Articles of Incorporation), and socially and reputationally networked (part of an annual citizen reporting cycle).

7. “Brand” the mission, not your organisation

In a Collective Impact mindset the brand for the movement is not attached to the organisation but the shared mission. It is a #hashtag, not an @attribution. It is an open framework for enquiry, conversation, and contribution — not an asset.

8. Open data

Uniting multiple actors under the banner of a common mission removes the incentives to protect and conceal proprietary information. Collective Impact benefits from a shared data landscape, where all actors offer their collected data and intellectual property openly to the commons. This kind of data freedom upgrades the value of everyone’s metrics and predictive models, helping prevent the “unintended aggregative consequences” of dissociated activity. An open data landscape, interpreted with the help of emerging artificial intelligence techniques, can provide the evidence base for collective action.

9. New models of financing

Collective Impact also requires third generation Impact Investment models which build upon the ideas explored by Social Impact Bonds. They allow investing in the preventative economy whilst recognising the structural need to connect multi-actor efforts and steer collective investments for social change into collaborative efforts led by outcome-driven strategies.

These third generation investment models recognise that there are no silver bullet solutions for sustainable impact and therefore go beyond startup and intervention financing.

This new generation of impact investment recognises that the most challenging social issues (like poverty, social exclusion, inequality in health outcomes) and global challenges (such as ageing, climate change, welfare systems sustainability) are systemically interdependent. This class of “wicked challenges” cannot be addressed in isolation or by selecting single points of intervention. There is no single intervention or investment that can effectively address these complex and social issues. In response, the new financing models must drive synthetic value creation.

For instance, if we want to increase educational attainment, the question is not simply one of whether more funding should be allocated to public or to private schools. It is necessary to simultaneously work in multiple domains affecting education in the area.These might include investing in prenatal nutrition, establishing breakfast clubs, setting up reading clubs to mentor pupils, mums’ associations to support young mothers, youth circles to provide peer support, and developing new technology to facilitate communication between parents and teachers.

Or take healthy ageing in a neighbourhood. Rather than focusing on the quality of nursing homes or starting a “befriending service” to reduce loneliness, healthy ageing may depend on creating opportunities for intergenerational contact in schools and in the public realm; on reducing fear of falling through early morning snow clearing; on a support network to assist older people with household chores, repairs, and navigating the digital age; on new forms of collective housing or skills-sharing programmes; and on maintaining and reinventing affordable social gathering places like libraries and cafés.

Importantly, this also means that change can no longer be the responsibility or within the remit of a single actor, organisation, institution, or enterprise. In the example of ageing, the involvement of the snow-clearing company (whether public or private) is as important as that of the residential developer. Involving networks of energetic creative young people is as vital as involving schools.

This type of investment is can be thought of as funding movements for change. Another way to think of them is as structuring Impact Derivatives — contracts based on the performance of investment contracts — working together and virtuously for Collective Impact. Allied movements of actors on both the supply and demand side of innovation are required to address these sticky challenges.

10. New organisational infrastructures

While it is sexy to focus on the human part of the Collective Impact story (the relationship building, the love, the empathy, the collaboration) we need to recognise that Collective Impact is really an organisational theory. It is a platform for empowering hundreds of actors with a shared mission, powered by the near-zero marginal cost of digital administration. This needs us to fundamentally reimagine contracts, embracing smart contracting for its ability to openly and asynchronously enable agreements for massively multi-actor movements. Open contracting driven by realtime data can achieve this in a viable way, without introducing unmanageable overheads.

While we continue our work in these fields we would like to invite you to participate in what is an urgent and necessary mission: to reimagine, build, and test the new institutional infrastructures to empower Collective Impact.

Written by Indy Johar, Imandeep Kaur, and Orestes Chouchoulas.


Announcing the Civic Innovation Award winners!

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Winning projects showcase the high potential of city-university collaborations

We're excited to announce the winning projects of the inaugural Civic Innovation Awards program. Seven projects from across Canada have been awarded grants of $10K to $30K to showcase innovative collaborations between cities and post-secondary institutions. The awards program, launched last fall as part of the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation's RECODE and Cities for People initiatives, attracted 150 applicants.


"The projects selected show real potential to bring about positive change," said Stephen Huddart, President and CEO of the McConnell Foundation. "We're delighted with the strength of the applications overall, and very hopeful that collaborations between cities, post-secondary institutions and other civic organizations are going to keep growing in impact and scale."

Jurors were looking for projects that were highly innovative, and defined innovation to mean any "initiative, product, process or program that profoundly changes the basic routines, resource and authority flows or beliefs of any social system." The prize winners are:

Grand Prize Winner ($30K):

Northern Innovation Hub | Iqaluit, Nunavut

Second Prize Winners ($20K):

Local Economic Development Lab | Vancouver, British Columbia
MR-63 | Montreal, Quebec
Vivacity | Calgary, Alberta

Third Prize Winners ($10K):

Civic Accelerator | Guelph, Ontario
Community BUILD | York Region, Ontario
Building a Virtual Knowledge Commons for Pop-up Shops | Toronto, Ontario

Click here to read full descriptions of the winning projects.

Click here for the press release.

Cities for People: An education in collaboration across distances

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Sarah Bradley, Assistant Curator, Cities for People

Note: This piece was originally written for the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation blog. . 

While I became an intern for Cites for People last winter as a recent urban planning graduate, I had been so immersed in concrete, place-specific issues that I lacked the kind of broader-picture thinking necessary to tackle the sort of multi-dimensional problems that this initiative aimed to reconceptualize. I think that coming from an urban planning background can put one at a disadvantage for being able to grasp the roots of problems common to Canadian cities: thorny matters with convoluted histories, like affordable housing, public transit, and urban ecological systems. The tendency is to want to problem-solve through policy change or some sort of place-based intervention – both of which have limited impacts if they fail to apply pressure to a lever of change at the systemic level.

One important series of lessons I learned was about the power and challenges of collaboration.

I have realized that collaboration does not have to mean working in close quarters.There are so many ways to work at a distance, especially with online platforms and conferencing technologies like WebEx, Skype, and Google Drive. However, there are also frustrations that arise when the time commitments expected to maintain a platform like Cities for People become a strain on organizations. Tasks like participating in weekly calls, contributing to our internal bulletin, and updating our global work plan can seem minimal from a time perspective, but actually require that at least one staff member have the capacity to contribute outside of their busy jobs.

The first lesson I learned about collaboration is the importance of flexible coordination. Establishing a body responsible for developing structures that support joint work without asking that all participate to the same extent and in the same way is crucial.

Cities for People experimented with a new mode of project delivery that integrated learning and evaluation, both within individual networks and across the Cities for People network. Curation was a way for the McConnell Foundation to test an alternative grantor-grantee method by funding four thematic curators, as well as a national curator playing a coordination role, who then allocated “demonstration project” funds to organizations in their respective networks (for more on the Cities for People network and curators, please click here). The tension between each organization stretching themselves to work in new ways while continuing to do work within their respective mandates was something the Cities for People collaborators recognized, but we struggled to come up with a viable way to balance working together and apart.

So, my second lesson was that it’s important to give organizations time to figure out in what ways they can contribute to a learning network, and that a collaborative platform like Cities for People must make room for differing interests and capacities.

One curation-related question I am left with is: would it have been better to focus on scaling efforts either up, out, or deep, rather than each curator doing a bit of everything (as identified by our Developmental Evaluators)? My initial thoughts were that curators could work more effectively towards the larger changes we’re yearning for in cities if they scaled up by focussing on collaborative projects that harnessed many small energies. Campaigns like We Are Cities (stewarded by Evergreen CityWorks and the Montreal Urban Ecology Centre) and Transforme ta ville (a micro-grant program to encourage active citizenship at the neighbourhood level by supporting a network of projects across Montreal) resonated with me, and evidently, a lot of other engaged urbanists, in their ability to connect and support projects and ideas for a greater impact. However, these unifying campaigns are not the be-all, end-all. It is unrealistic to expect curators to all work in this vein given the differences in each domain and its maturity.

Leading from this, the third lesson is that learnings and collaborations can also surface from seemingly divergent work. Given the complex challenges that cities are facing, there is immense value of connecting thematic areas, often in unlikely ways. As individuals and organizations working towards change in cities, it is valuable to both build on natural connections and contribute to field building by re-situating one’s work within broader process and narratives that contribute to societal change.

From One Earth’s Urban Sustainability Directors Network to Musagetes’ place-based collaboration with artist collectives, many new ways of working both within and across domains were tested, and continue to evolve. This dance between looking inward and reaching out, I think, is field-building work that has the potential to shift cities’ approaches to problem-solving.

There is much more I could share about collaboration as an integral part of the Cities for People experiment, from how to combine multiple narratives into a Joint Report, to maintaining public-facing communications, to negotiating power structures in a decentralized network. However, for now I’ll leave those stories for another collaborator to tell.

URBAN TOMORROWS: Share your vision

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How can we, as an increasingly urban-dwelling citizens, collectively imagining our futures with cities as the backdrop?

URBAN TOMORROWS is a research project whose goal is to collect ideas and visions on future cities.

A research team at the Institute of Urban and Regional Planning at the Technische Universitat Berlin has developed a crowdsourced research project to encourage individuals to share what cities might look like, and how to get there. Their goal is simple: to collect the ideas that people nowadays hold about the future of our cities, and through the lens of these visions, gain a better understanding of our world today and the possible future worlds we may create. Because of open-ended nature of this subjet, the research team is seeking opinions on anything and everything that relates to cities -- this encompasses discussions of the technological, environmental, architectural, economical, political, and social aspects of future cities.

From their project description:

"Cities, by nature, are forever "in the making" – never quite reaching the utopic visions and scenarios that we may dare to imagine for the world around us. Despite this reality, humanity's visions for an urban future (have and will) provide the basis for the cities that we create. At the same time, such visions mirror the hopes and fears, doubts, and foresight of today’s society. The aim of this project is to create a compendium of these visions and ideas in order to discuss their social, environmental, economic, and political consequences for future urban design while exploring the implications for the cities we inhabit today."

Click here to share YOUR vision by filling out a short questionnaire.

The team plans to update its site in winter 2016 with research outcomes, so be sure to follow along to find out what others are saying.