Monday, 21 September 2009

The RSA debates: Design, cities and citzenship in the 21st century

Tonight I attended a live debate at the RSA titled, Cities and Citizenship: Surviving the 21st Century. Here's what came into my mailbox many weeks ago, and what the website said:

What does it mean to be a citizen in the 21st century? What is the relationship between the way we design our city and our perception and experience of citizenship? Is it time to redefine Londoners’ obligations, responsibilities and rights to improve the liveability of our city? Are we equipped to tackle the environmental and economic challenges we face?

These questions and more will be tackled in a debate on Cities and Citizenship which kicks off the London Development Agency’s New Urban Agenda Debates in association with RSA Design and Society.

There were four speakers and one Chair and the subject in debate was urban planning and architecture and their contribution to citizenship through the design of cities and spaces. It was a bit off-the-beaten-track from what my research is directly about, but I always think it's good to gain other perspectives from the expansive field of design. Below are some notes I jotted down, and some questions the debate raised for my research.

The first speaker was social entrepreneur and founder of the community support organisation Bromley on Bow Centre, Lord Andrew Mawson. In his opening he said:

"Governments understand the shape of the forest, but don't know what's going on underneath the trees."

He emphasised that we shouldn't be designing our cities top-down nor bottom-up, but inside-out ie. working with people from within communities and organisations. This point supports some of the good practice models and lessons from Dott 07. Projects like Alzheimer 100, DaSH and OurNewSchool all took the approach of working inside-out, but they also worked outside-in to bring in the end-user perspective to help better decision-making.

Lord Mawson also emphasised people and connections, something Maggie Breslin, a designer from the Mayo Clinic recently discussed in her presentation at the recent Transformation Symposium hosted by the Mayo Clinic (13-15 September 2009).

At the end of his presentation Lord Mawson stated that we needed:

vision + leadership + design to connect the people from within

That's spot on, but I wondered who exactly can take on such a role? It's most likely not done by one person, but a few. In vision + leadership + design, designers can do the design very well, but is it also their role to do the vision + leadership too? If so, what if designers don't get to have that level of influence immediately? What is our point of entry into organisations? That entry point rarely allows us to create the vision (yes, designers are good at communicating and devising a vision, but we often need someone to invite us to help create the vision first) or be the leadership (again, designers can be leaders, but entering into an organisation or community as strangers doesn't usually mean we have credibility or influence straight away).

The other speakers were architect, Wolf Prix, whom I lost track of, but I did pick up where he mentioned that city planning should take a leaf from Muhammad Ali's book. Ali was a great boxer because he could change his strategy during a fight ie. spot the problem before it became a problem. I agree that there is a good lesson in there for city planners, especially since a lot of city planning is about systems and in previous experience, problems in systems usually only become visible when the system is already very broke.

Author and journalist, Anna Minton, spoke about the argument in her new book, Ground Control: Fear and Happiness in the Twenty-First-Century City, where she critiques urban design as not being democratic enough today, and how it is linked to social behaviour. Anna discussed "defensible space architecture" ie. the implementation of things such as CCTV and the placement of security guards which creates the perception that the corresponding space is one of restricted behaviour and is unsafe, doing away with the idea of natural surveillance. The clear link between the design object/space and social behaviour was really interesting because I know a lot of designing for social issues/impact/innovation is focused on behaviour change. It made me think, should we be reviewing architecture, looking at discussions which have already taken place around the connection between the design and behaviour?

The final speaker was Chief Executive of the RSA, Matthew Taylor. He asked a series of questions, but the first was the most interesting: How can buildings services, spaces etc. give us stories (or clues) as to what kinds of citizens we should be today?

It's a fascinating question to ponder and I am going to leave my notes and reflections there. Will have more to blog from tomorrow at the Design Council's Greengaged event, Co-opportunity: A day for world builders.

No comments: