Great Chefs of The New Urban Democracy 1. Theories
2. Ingredients and recipes
By Marianella Sclavi (English translation by Andrea Schiffer of an article published in the Newton monthly review, Milano, Rizzoli, April 2010)
1. THEORIES At the beginning of the 70s, studies about group dynamics in complex environments carried out at the London Tavistock Institute of Human Relations and at the MIT Group Dynamics Laboratory of Boston – each with branches in other universities and research centers in different parts of the world – had discovered that order, within a turbulent and complex system is achievable only if the subjects that take part in it change into a “ self –generative learning community.” To bring about a group identity that will subsequently support group learning it is necessary to create a nonthreatening situation where: 1. there is no risk of ‘losing face’, where mutual
comfortable 2. members
the process allows the participants to give notice to the others of their presence as individual persons.
These scholars had also devised a range of methods and procedures to reach good and effective decisions in complex environments. The methods and procedures were tested in offices and factories, in schools and in urban planning projects, with the most brilliant leaders of corporations, public institutions, in local administrations and at national levels. The main obstacle the researchers were well aware of and were experiencing on an almost daily basis, was that, as Aristotle asserted, changing the kind of government implies changing the underlying authority that is taken for granted. This means, changing deeply rooted habits that are related to the sense of self and of others. The results were therefore not long-lasting even when the researchers had achieved extraordinary success. As soon as the experimentation atmosphere dwindled, everyone was back to their old habits. Here is a lovely story of how such things work, told by anthropologist Edward Hall, the inventor of intercultural proxemics. Once, while visiting a home for the aged, he had noticed that the chairs that were in the meeting rooms where all lined up against the walls and that the guests, who hadn’t dared move them, would sit for hours, next to each other silently, their gaze lost in space. Upon Hall’s suggestion, the chairs were arranged as to create lots of small sitting rooms and, as a result, the guest’s behavior changed completely. The guests held conversations that would extend into the garden, at the dinner table and beyond, and the doctors and attendants were enthusiastic about the change. But the following day the chairs were back against the walls. The answer as to why had they been put back was: “Public places can’t be left untidy”. Nowadays, thanks also to the Internet that makes surfing the web obvious, organizational methodologies based on the three principles listed above have multiplied and are spreading in
many parts of the world. This is especially true for large urban areas where problems that relate to organizing environments dominated by rising differentiation and interdependency, have become more serious. The link between the development of these practices and their theories can be shown with another example: the discovery that almost total sorting of waste can be achieved by involving residents at face to face level is nearly always the result of the tenaciousness and common sense of a few members of local authorities. But to fully grasp the meaning of this experience and make it repeatable, it is necessary to show how the facilitators who knock on citizen’s doors, in order to be accepted and be effective, put into practice the three principles listed above regarding the “self –generative learning community”. Governance and deliberative democracy are the modern theories stemming from these principles, which offer the necessary authoritativeness and thought to practice, to resist attacks and to act more assertively, thus facilitating their rooting in everyday life. The concept of “deliberative democracy” suggests un upgrading of traditional representative democracy on the basis of three principles: the difference between “rough and informed opinions” shown by James Fishkin’s (Stanford University, Palo Alto, California) method of “Deliberative Polling”; the principle of greater efficacy of inclusive decision making (by Scott Page of Cal Tech, LA California); the “Consensus Building” approach (by Lawrence Susskind, Harvard and MIT). Fishkin has shown that answers given to a statistical survey by a group of randomly selected individuals change completely (more than 60% of participants changed their minds) if the same individuals are offered the opportunity to meet and discuss the issue and freely collect information on the subject. It is known that surveys don’t reveal what people “think”, but only reflect the answer to a specific enquiry. Deliberative Polling takes a step forward, as it supports the idea that citizens have the right to be in the condition to express their “informed opinion”. Scott Page, in one of his books filled with math formulas and cases drawn from extremely diverse fields, has shown that when presenting the same predicament to two different groups, one formed exclusively by experts and the other, a non homogenous group where the different stance of each member is represented, the latter systematically reaches more effective, fungible, wise and long lasting solutions, which, in one word, prove to be better. The difference between the two groups is that, naturally, some of the members of the second one are experts, whereas the first group is formed only by experts, which shows that ‘inclusiveness’ is a winning choice. In order to illustrate this point, there is a good example concerning our country: we can in fact compare the HSR (High Speed Railway) project on the Turin-Lion section of Val di Susa in 2005, presented as indisputable by a group of “experts and technicians” and the one presented at the end of 2009, which, thanks to the well known controversies, was the result of a large participatory process. Page would bet his life claiming that the second outcome is much better for local citizens and for the majority of European citizens as well. Finally, the approach to Consensus Building consists in directly upgrading the three principles of parliamentary democracy. Freedom of speech, the right to replicate and debate and the majority vote, change into the right to be heard, the right to cooperate in multiplying the options, and the right to be a protagonist in the inventions of new solutions. This upgrading process regards improvement of interactivity and circularity of communication, so that the right to be heard implies freedom of speech plus the right to mutual respect (that occurs in the kind of questions asked by the interlocutor ). In light of the right to be heard, freedom of speech by itself appears as a reduction, a loss of multi-dimensional choice. Likewise, within the right to multiply the options, the art of argumentation is used in reverse, no longer to show that the interlocutors are wrong , but to allow true understanding of other people’s reasons.
Finally, the consensus building approach uses the majority vote as a last resort only in cases of failure of other methods. Consensus Building originates from research on alternative conflict resolution and is carried out in public decision and public dispute contexts. At the end of the 80s and during the 90s, Consensus Building was successfully used in crucial situations where stakes and levels of conflict were high. Some important examples are the extension of the Amsterdam Airport, the guide lines for the San Francisco estuary renovation, citizens’ participation in drawing up the charter for a town that had been involved in cases of corruption, to prevent criminals from regaining power in the municipal government (the details will be dealt with in the following section titled “Ingredients and Recipes”), the definition of a transparent and shared criteria on how to use funds in an AIDS/HIV prevention campaign and many others.
2. INGREDIENTS AND RECIPES The traditional recipe, which reads: attending a group assembly where everyone is sitting in rows like soldiers, where A speaks then B speaks then C speaks, then A replies to B and C, then a vote is taken, the majority wins, the unhappy minority will probably make it up next time, is becoming more and more indigestible and unhealthy, boring and frustrating. In the new recipes, much more up to date and appreciated by participants, everyone joins in a big room, not more than ten people sitting at each of the dozens of round tables. What takes place is a sequence of this kind: plenary assembly – group work –plenary assembly-group work – plenary assembly – group work –final plenary assembly, in which a mixed group of volunteers and experts is appointed to ‘translate’ the resulting guidelines into a specific project, which will continue to be discussed in further meetings of the same style. The most important chef of this new recipe is Carolyn Lukensmeyer, who in 1999-2000 became famous when, as Executive Director of Washington DC Mayor Anthony Williams, coordinated an expansive citizen engagement, which culminated in a Town Meeting with 3000 participants. For an entire day, under an enormous tent with dozens of round tables each seating eight (the perfect number for a small group according to sociology experts since the 50s in “seven and a half”) everybody discussed the priorities for the District’s strategic plan that became operational in the 2001 fiscal year. Each table was set up as to warrant the widest range of diversity of its members for age, sex, profession, place of birth, and social background. In a town meeting, each table decides its own list of priorities, which is then projected on a giant screen and compared with all the other lists from all the other tables. Lukensmeyer differs completely from those who think that the faults of politics lie in the excess of contentiousness and partisanship. According to her, this is not the cause but the consequence of the lack of conditions and methodologies that would allow all interested citizens to engage in public life, learning from one another and carrying out shared investigations. Later, Lukensmeyer founded AmericaSpeaks, an association that has organized over 50 Town Meetings across the US, involving thousands of people since the year 2000. The outcomes of these meetings are ‘informed opinions’ and ‘guide lines’ and are the result of the work of thousands of citizens. This is something that is hard for politicians to ignore. In 2006 in Italy, an association based in Turin called Avventura Urbana organized a Town Meeting for the Region of Tuscany at Marina di Carrara with 408 participants, largely members of the public administration and local leaders, half male and half female, 43% from 18 to 35 years of age. This Town Meeting produced the guidelines for the law on Participatory Planning in Tuscany, which came into effect the following year. Thus the law on Participatory Planning was deliberated through a participatory method. Another very successful recipe is the Open Space Technology. Harrison Owen, the chef who invented it, tells that Open Space Technology – O.S.T. – was conceived during an afternoon in 1985 when, with the help of a few Martinis, he was trying to jot down some ideas to organize an
international conference. He was reflecting on the fact that frequently, the most productive time, even for the most successful conferences, is during the coffee breaks, when everybody can talk to the interlocutors they choose, about whatever topic they care for, for the time necessary to do so. Would it be really impossible, he thought, to transfer this energy and these dynamics to an entire conference? A few images successively materialized in his mind: his first visions were those concerning the importance of circular shapes in the lives of the natives of African villages he had been to as a photo-reporter. Particularly, the empty, round space at the center of the village, where dancers continuously congregated in wave-like ebb and flow motion during their joyful energy bursting ceremonies, and their habit of sitting in a circle anytime an important issue needs to be dealt with. The circle is the spatial representation of meeting amongst equals, and it is not by chance that one can experience a different kind of energy in a circle than when sitting in a row of seats all turned towards the podium. Therefore, the first necessary step would be to start arranging seats in a big circle. Secondly, if everybody sitting in the circle is interested in a certain issue, how is the decision reached as to what issue should be discussed, with whom and for how long? At that point, Owen thought of a billboard on which each person could write the title of the theme or issue or proposal he/she desires to discuss, so that all the members who share the same interest can meet in the spaces provided. As for the time and location of the meeting, he recalled the fervor of the native village market where people meet, have a drink together, and find a spot to negotiate and exchange the latest news: sitting in a circle, creating a billboard, opening negotiations to decide when and where to meet. Four months later, eighty-five conventioneers participated in the first OST and decided to repeat the experience the following year. They had discovered another more vital and, in many ways, more effective system of organizing a conference. Owen tells us that the first doubt about whether this was not just an organizational kit for creative conventioneers, came up when in 1989 the firm Dupont asked him if he had any idea on how its researchers and technical staff could meet and discuss how to deal with a number of license expirations and with the fact that its competitors where ready to put those same products on the market. It was necessary to come up with a new product, one that would be more attractive than the previous ones and in the shortest time possible. Not having any other proposal, Owen suggested an OST which produced a number of very innovative ideas, that were subsequently technically devised and that were enormously successful in terms of productivity and image. Owen’s comment was: “This was the good news! The bad news was that I didn’t have a clue as to why such a simple type of organization could work so well in such complex situations”. Since then, OST quickly spread throughout the world at a surprising speed, thanks to the fact the “those who try it, do it again”, in addition to an instruction manual and a flourishing of internet web sites. When, in 2008, Owen finally published Wave Rider. Leadership for High Performance in a SelfOrganizing World (the theoretical text) OST had taken root in 136 countries and was used in dozens of thousands of different environments like the United Nations, the European Parliament in Brussels, African villages, large corporations, small nonprofit associations. This year, from May 13 to 16, everyone is invited in Berlin, Germany, to the 18° world conference of OST organizers. Naturally, the conference will be in itself, like the previous ones, a gigantic OST with thousand of participants. OST is also becoming a popular method in meetings and negotiations in Italy. Franco Angeli Publisher has recently put out a book titled Paradise l’Ost ? entirely dedicated to this experience.
To illustrate the recipe for Consensus Building, I would like to retrace the story of Chelsea, a small city connected by a bridge crossing Mystic River to Boston, MA. In the first part of the 90s the city of Chelsea had to suspend all activities of its elected bodies to be placed under State Receivership because of bankruptcy, fiscal mismanagement and corruption and failure of governance of the public school system. The citizens of Chelsea were all involved in drawing up the new city charter, contributing to the creation of the city’s governing framework that would also prevent criminal organizations from regaining power in the future. This issue was debated and dealt with for nine months under the guidance of Susan Podziba, a facilitator of deliberative democracy processes who specialized at Harvard and at MIT. With the assistance of a group of local volunteer facilitators, the issue at hand was debated upon at every street corner, almost every evening. The Receiver, who in the past had been a lecturer at Harvard Business School, made a promise: if the new charter is the result of a unanimous consensus from a diversified group of prominent citizens which is subsequently approved via referendum, he would guarantee its approval by the State of Massachusetts. And that is what happened. Ten years later, in 2005, several press investigations and sociological reports determined that the city had largely improved not only at the moral and civil level but also economical. In short, this approach is not just about asking “What do you want?” or “Do you like this solution?” It is about creating the conditions so that interested parties can become a “self
community” where everyone is ready to learn from one another as a collective body and everyone is and acts as a protagonist. Up until the end of the 70s, the only organizational form deemed suitable to put people face to face to discuss issues and decide together was the form of the assembly, be it either direct or representative, tiny or gigantic, which in turn would refer to a commission or a task group, etc. Since the mid 80s, new kinds of meeting styles started to develop which transformed the plenary assembly into a space where working parties of different sizes would form and dissolve and whose main job was discussing and suggesting. The objective here is to give more attention to the single individual, to active listening and to creativity. These methods, which comprise Forums, Town Meetings, Open Space Technology, the EASW (European Awareness Scenario Workshop) and others are called, in short, Large Group Interaction Methods (Lgim), and are all connected in some way to the Search Conference (SC), conceived at the Tavistock Institute of Human Relations at the beginning of the 60’. In all these contexts Consensus Building is central, in that it allows the different initial proposals to converge towards a mutual gains and mutual agreement solution. It displays a savoir-fair of mutual respect and the ability to welcome diversity: the new kind of savoir faire needed in a glocal society and world. (J. Forester: 2009).
Podziba S.2006 Chelsea Story. Come una cittadina corrotta ha rigenerato la sua democrazia, Bruno Mondadori, Milano Sclavi
Susskind L. and J. Cruikshank 1987 Breaking the Impasse: Consensual Approaches To Resolving Public Disputes, Basic Books, NY Susskind