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.

Cities for People Internship Opportunity

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Dates: January-June 2015

Location: Montreal, QC

In cities across Canada, people and organizations are finding ways to address complex challenges and creatively shape the future of their communities. They are greening neighbourhoods while producing local food; creating social enterprises to reduce poverty; mentoring immigrants and making spaces for them on community boards; and using community arts and sports to mobilize and celebrate civic participation.

Cities for People is a collaborative experiment that explores the following question: How can we enhance social, ecological, and economic well-being and help civic cultures thrive? It engages multiple stakeholders – citizens, community organizations, policy makers, municipalities, universities, private companies and foundations – in taking collaborative action to create more resilient and livable cities.

Cities for People is offering a 6-month (full-time) internship to support the coordination of its network and communication activities.  This is an opportunity to learn about and contribute to fresh, innovative approaches to working together to make cities more resilient and livable, and to develop a range of professional skills. In addition to experience gained on the job, the intern will be supported in developing a learning plan to help realize his or her learning goals.

Job Tasks

Communications (network and public-facing)

  • Web site: Manage and maintain website, write and post content (blogs, events, resources, updates), and provide support to others in the network on their posts
  • Social media: Tweet and post based on Cities for People network activities and other relevant items
  • Newsletters: Write and assemble a weekly bulletin for the Cities for People network and prepare regular e-newsletters for the broader mailing list
  • Network communications platform: Organize weekly meetings, set up and run calls via WebEx; respond to partners and general enquiries; manage network web site
  • Other communications activities:
    • Webinars: organize, promote, and manage technical production ofa Webinar series
    • Create presentations (prezi and powerpoint) and reports as needed
    • Video/audio production: support creation processes
    • Input on thinking about and experimenting with collaborations and initiatives to enhance resilience and livability in cities in Canada and beyond

Administration/coordination

  • Travel bookings for guests; planning, organizing, and logistics as needed
  • Event planning and coordination (g. bookings, catering, speaking tours, site visits)
  • Expense reporting and processing
  • Note-taking, summarizing, and sharing documents
  • Additional support as needed to the National Curator and National Coordinator

 

Requirements

  • Demonstrated interest in and curiosity about social change and improving cities
  • Ability to self-direct; good judgment about decision-making and when to ask for guidance
  • High tolerance for ambiguity and openness to new ways of working and problem solving
  • Well-developed organizational skills
  • Strong capacity to work both independently and collaboratively
  • Excellent IT skills (including experience in managing a wordpress website and using mailchimp)
  • Social media savvy
  • Excellent communications, writing skills, ability to copy-edit and communicate complex information in an accessible and compelling manner.
  • Fluently bilingual (English and French; flawless written English in particular)
  • Desirable: education (preferably Masters level) and / or equivalent experience in a field related to urban planning, sustainability, urban resilience, or city livability.
  • Desirable: education and / or work experience in communications or administration

 

Location: downtown Montreal with occasional travel

Salary: $2400 per month

Please send CV and cover letter to Jayne Engle at jayne@citiesforpeople.ca.

Deadline for applications: 15 December 2014 (Interviews will be held starting 17 December). Please address any questions to Jayne Engle, National Curator: jayne@citiesforpeople.ca or by phone: 514.235.7824.