The PUBLIC Symposium:

International change makers & their transformative ideas

There is a deep yearning for shared experiences and shared conversation as well as desire for projects, places and platforms where such encounters can unfold. It focuses our attention on the great virtues of ‘being public’.

18 international change makers gathered in Perth to discuss transformative ideas and the future of our cities and to recapture what it means to be public for our communities and what its impacts can be.

‘Public’ is a rich concept with countless associations and numerous manifestations. It is ‘for the people, ‘by the people’ and ‘with the people’. Applied to cities it seeks to foster a social life conducted in an open, accessible public realm as a means of connecting communities of difference. Here a city comes together. This creates better cities, yet most of the cities we have do not meet this aspiration. There is a physical public sphere, which creates good conditions for encounter, gathering and exchange, but also an invisible one where the predominant culture of place is open, engaging, involving with a flourishing atmosphere for discussion.

The PUBLIC Symposium dived into this complexity bringing people together from across the continents who had made a difference to their city and cities in general. Be this establishing the idea of open data that has spread across the world like a rash so helping to reinvent democracy; or dramatically shifting the city of the car to one of bikes, buses and walkability, here provocateur projects like ‘parking day’ or ‘parklets’ recapture car space as people space so helping shift our mindset by highlighting ‘what could be’; or ‘restaurant day’ where now 1000s of self-made restaurants invade cities across the globe; or new forms of social housing agencies that understand what comprehensive regeneration means; or creative bureaucracy projects that remind us that public administrations and officials exist whose approach is ‘to allow, if’ rather than ‘forbid, because’. Often these are ‘guerrilla bureaucrats’.

We saw the triggers, the catalysts and the game changers that helped to shift communities and standing back a change-makers eco-system became apparent – at times an individual or smaller grouping, at others an advocate or organization and even an imaginative bureaucracy. A future task is to explore how they can coalesce to accelerate change processes.

Taking an eagle eye view of the content of PUBLIC whose speakers were global, national and local we can detect a set of overarching threads and themes. Most significantly it explored, let us experience and fostered exchanges about an emergent, evolving and unfolding world. Periods of history involving rapid, mass transformation can produce confusion; a sense of liberation combined with a feeling of being swept along by events. It can create a heady giddiness and it takes a while for the contours of the new to take firmer shape and ethical stances to take root or to establish a more coherent world view. For example, the link between the individual and the group, which together are the public, is gradually being reconfigured as former bonds to traditional communities have fractured, even weakened by increasing mobility. Yet new communications can also counteract this.

The old and the new worlds live side by side and there is resistance to this emergent, reshaped world as new ideas never have majority support. Here there is less linear thinking, less rigidity, less pre-judging and prejudice about new ideas, less believing in the tried and tested and there is more openness to the under-explored possibilities, more believing in the potential of people and a willingness to harness that potential. There is more encouragement of a start-up culture, more change in education where the self is treated as a learning resource. There is a massive resource waiting to be unleashed if conditions are right. Here ordinary people can make the extra-ordinary happen if given the chance.

There is more relaxing into ambiguity and not hankering too quickly after certainty. This emergent world has a different logic, where for instance, giving things away for free can be a way of making money and where the seemingly illogical becomes logical. It does not say ‘what is possible’ but what ‘should be possible’.

This world needs to be strategically principled and tactically flexible. The direction of travel is clear, although we are unsure how to get there. And this world is potentially exhilarating. It encourages ‘civic creativity’. Here individual self-interest is wrapped into a bigger public purpose and the privates understand that public good activities can help their private interests; here the public sector understands that the bureaucracy can be more entrepreneurial within accountability principles and equity concerns. Overall this will create an atmosphere of civic generosity so encouraging a virtuous cycle of reciprocity. And to do this requires a reinvigorated democracy and it is struggling to burst through.

The new bureaucracy and democracy can then create the conditions, the mechanisms, the regulations and incentives regime and the platforms for people and organizations to think, plan and act with imagination.

Place matters in this new context as by living life in public you care more for it, engage with it. What this needs is a different new look city with an enhanced quality of place in order to foster ‘talent attraction and retention, engagement and opportunity’. This requires adopting a sensory perspective that understands the emotional effects of both the aesthetics of places as well as how the urban design is put together. The city is like a living organism that communicates through every fibre of its being for good and for bad.

To put this city together requires a different form of planning where traditional concerns like spatial configurations, mixed uses and functions are combined with a more exploratory planning focused on prototyping and strong urban R&D initiatives. This makes planning more responsive. To do this well planning requires new skills such as mediation and communication. Thus the planner of the future will need different characteristics.

Concluding we need to switch the question. Not ‘what is the value of creativity, culture, design, or risk taking’ and instead ask ‘what is the cost of not taking culture and creativity into account’. In sum in this evolving city citizens demand more from their city. This rich register of potential experience might be characterized as developing: places of anchorage and thus belonging, the familiar, traditions and heritage, identity and distinctiveness; places of possibility, options, choices and ‘can do’; places of connections internally and to the wider world; places of learning that enable personal growth and finally places of inspiration. To make this happen means raising the quality bar of physical infrastructures as well as the cultural offer. Or put another way the challenge for every city maker and the goal of planning is to get people to fall in love with their city and this could help make our cities ‘living works of art’.

*Charles Landry; jetlagged in transit in Hong Kong airport on Sunday, 19th April 2015.

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