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Rebuilding better: designing the future of cities and governance

In city and town meetings throughout the United States, “we need to rebuild better” has become a common refrain from progressive political leaders to communicate their response to COVID-19 and the subsequent demands for racial justice. It is shorthand for the urgency of economic recovery while acknowledging the reality of structural inequities. The pandemic’s indiscriminate destruction of life and livelihood has exposed blemishes of intolerance that have been artfully swept under the rug for decades and has mainstreamed the notion that returning to what was normal is insufficient.

City governments and other public serving organizations are being challenged to not only facilitate an economic recovery, but to do so in such a way that realigns the values of the organizations themselves. Prioritizing equity in the delivery of goods and services, questioning how decisions get made and by whom, and cultivating welcoming work cultures have become real and immediate transformational tasks. And still, there is no clear path towards accomplishing them. When public sector organizations seek to transform, they typically default to trimming the fat, to removing inefficiencies for better operation. But there is a growing realization that more efficient organizations do not necessarily equal more equitable organizations. In fact, an over-reliance on data driven decision-making or other technical solutions may in fact exacerbate structural inequities, ingrained power structures, and dehumanizing work cultures.

In February 2020, we published our book Meaningful Inefficiencies: Civic Design in an Age of Digital Expediency. The book profiles civic designers, or people within public sector and other public serving organizations, who are typically working against dominant organizational cultures to craft human systems guided by relationships and care. We tell stories of people from small news organizations seeking to transform the interface between audience and newsroom, and people from municipal governments who are deliberately deprioritizing a focus on streamlining service delivery by designing inefficiencies into systems as a means of shifting focus to the time and labor-intensive work of building relational trust with historically marginalized communities. In February, we understood these practices as fringe, as subtle acts of resistance inside of organizations. But as we write this blog post in August 2020, the active pursuit of a values-based transformation in public serving organizations has been mainstreamed.

But this pursuit is in no way straight forward. It is expensive. It often runs counter to common sense practices of incorporating technological efficiencies into antiquated organizational practices. And as a result, beyond initial platitudes, it is politically difficult to execute. Unlike past waves of public sector innovation, it cannot be addressed by a small batch of design thinking workshops, or by developing a new app. Cultural sensitivity training is not enough, and quotas for increasing diversity fall short of addressing structural processes that perpetuate inequality in the workplace. What is necessary is not just changing the appearance of work; it is necessary to change the logics that guide work. There is real need for meaningful inefficiencies, which are systems deliberately designed with slack in order to hold space for a diversity of stakeholders. Like a well-designed game, these systems have clear goals and room to play, so that people can explore, discover, and build mutual power. Meaningfully inefficient programs and processes not only make engaging experiences, they also serve as the foundation for trust-building and relationship formation necessary for communities and organizations to thrive and care for the issues that matter to them.

This is exemplified in the current debates around the smart city. The shuttering this April of Google’s Sidewalk Labs initiative in Toronto is instructive. The single provider model of a smart city, where Google transformed an industrial area of Toronto’s waterfront into a completely digitized, responsive, and smart environment, was an impressive vision of future urbanism. Its highly efficient infrastructure, near complete social connectivity, usable interfaces for information access, was a compelling representation of a smart city. Sidewalk Labs even held design workshops to involve members of the surrounding community to help shape outcomes. But as Shannon Mattern suggests, these workshops were largely performative, and the well-funded operation overlooked the relational work necessary to distribute a sense of ownership in the process and build trust with those who had every reason to believe that their participation would not translate into having any real impact. Without an opportunity to be heard and have impact on the outcomes, it is not surprising that, within the social restructuring prompted by the pandemic, this model of a future, smart city, would prove not to be desirable. The logics driving the vision of the future city were focused on optimizing for efficiency around understanding human behavior and were largely absent of values that would lead to a city built on trusting relationships and systems of caring for civic issues.

Cities, when they work well, have long been meaningful inefficiencies. Urbanists like Jane Jacobs and William Whyte located the real energy in the city in the disorganized spaces of New York sidewalks, where serendipitous encounters and unpredictable flows were important factors in the logic of the urban system. And yet, since the beginning of professional planning in the early 20th century, the impulse has been to remove those inefficiencies by installing highways, strip malls, corporate office parks, and now networks of sensors to monitor everything from air quality to traffic and crime. This drive for enhanced efficiency, often veiled (or not) forms of racist control of urban environments, is once again primed for scrutiny. The future of the city will need enhanced efficiencies. Mobility and communication, education and resilience to shocks, require them. But as we now know, it will also require meaningful inefficiencies that offer opportunities to build relationships. For people to trust in the potential outcomes of the systems they occupy, for people to trust that everyone is not only invited, but heard, will necessitate the deliberate design of inefficiencies that prioritize encounters over flows. This is a paradigm shift for public serving organizations. And as we stare down what may be a long road to “building back better,” we’re optimistic that the historic appetite for change can be harnessed for this transformation.

Featured image: photo by Julius Jansson via Unsplash

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