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New Convening Role Opening Up for Municipalities

With citizen-led initiatives on the rise how is the role of municipalities changing?


Aspirational groups of citizens joining together to drive initiatives to enhance their communities is on the rise. At the same time a new role for local governments is emerging – and the good news is that they are increasingly open to embracing that role.

While citizen-led initiatives have always existed, several new qualities characterize a growing number of these efforts today. One is how citizens are rallying interest, which is increasingly through the combination of digital and in-person engagement. The second is the number seeking to actualize a vision for some positive change by building on what’s working, rather aiming to solve some problem.

Martin Bell’s 100 Bike Brigade is an example. Launched two years ago, the brigade sees anyone who’s interested join Martin in a weekly Friday morning bike ride from one spot in Kelowna, B.C., to another. The Urban Systems CEO started the brigade as his own way of saying thank you to city volunteers and leaders for their efforts in strengthening the city’s active transportation system. He says he’s also looking to bring more awareness of the system to others, inspire them to get out cycling and create the conditions for people to get to know one another better – to build community.

More of these citizen-led initiatives are focused on creating change themselves, rather than calling for others, such as government, to do it for them.

The shift is happening in Western Canada, where Urban Systems is based. But it’s an international trend.

Programme developer for the City of Amsterdam Frank van Erkel sees it.

“There is a big transition taking place in society,” he says. “We were used to hierarchical structures and now it’s transforming into more network-related structures.”

As an example, residents of an Amsterdam neighbourhood, de Indische Buurt, drafted their own currency, the Makkie. People earn Makkies by doing acts of community service and spend them on local items or services, including cinema tickets and supermarket products.
A key generating factor in this change is the unprecedented capacity to access and mobilize information and people, primarily through the Internet and social media.

Local governments are increasingly exploring how they might focus more on convening conversations in order to understand and help actualize, though not necessarily directly implement, citizens’ aspirations.

Frank describes it as government coming out of their silos and finding ways to plug themselves into the emerging citizen-led action. Municipalities have to humbly ask how they can participate in citizen activity.

A facilitation and engagement model is becoming more prevalent. It’s a move away from being a deliverer of service and a provider of funding.

In the process of hosting these conversations, it’s key that there is genuine intention to hear from citizens coupled with follow-through that demonstrates an alignment with the community perspective.

Communities where those elements are present create the conditions for more trust to grow between the political and citizen leaders, generating an upward spiral of energy.

On the other hand, when the processes are used disingenuously, for instance, to drive a specific agenda, they can create the acrimonious relationships seen in some communities between political and citizen leadership.

How those conversations are hosted is important. Martin points to methods like Appreciative Inquiry (AI). AI offers a structured way to design a new future for a community by engaging people from all perspective in shared conversations, and first discovering the assets and aspirations in the room. Generally, professionals in government, consulting and otherwise are trained to be problem solvers, but not all of these things are problems to be solved. They’re conversations to be initiated and then the answers often come through the conversation.

Given these trends, Martin feels this is a tremendously exciting time both for citizens and government.

The opportunity for people to learn and participate has reached an unprecedented level, and it’s exciting to consider how this will continue to influence how communities are shaped.

This story is part five of a series focused on placemaking and other citizen led initiatives. Read other entries in this series here:
1) Citizens stepping up to reshape public spaces
2) Team sparks renewal of Kelowna’s unlikely places
3) Designing and making choices as a community – that’s placemaking
4) Animating public spaces can inspire, rather than drive, sustainability
6) Placemaking in practice: local history enriches an Edmonton Park
7) City of Victoria lays groundwork for deeper citizen engagement
8) Growing shift among communities focuses on stronger resident engagement and reducing the “role” of local government

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