Posted April 1st 2010 at 2:22 pm by
in CoLab Philosophy

To People Interested in Collaborative Planning

During the past few months at CoLab we have been talking about knowledge co-creation and collaborative innovation in communities. Because of that, I’d like to share some reflections about my experience planning with small cities and communities in Latin America. It was fifteen years of intense work with many dozens of cases, working with restricted financial and professional resources.

In each case, a precondition for planning was the creation of a civic space, where representatives of all social and economic sectors could talk on a leveled ground, as equal citizens despite their different positions in wealth and power. The functioning of those civic spaces required shared interests, rules of mutual respect and common language.

My contribution as a planner was in three aspects:

1. To help local people to retrieve their knowledge about history, problems, resources, economy, and actors, making the asset of local knowledge explicit to local actors. My premise was that local knowledge was their most important resource.

2. To help local people to access external knowledge about the national and regional environment of the city, or community, such as economic and market trends, spatial specialization, and public policies, making the systemic conditions clearly visible to local actors.

3. To offer a method for moving their minds from the past to the future, to re-interpret their situation from that new perspective and explore new ways of thinking about their possibilities. My method was based more on aspirations and opportunities than on problems or conflicts.

In my work, instead of being a technical adviser, my effort was to use all my technical knowledge and methodological skills to help local actors to become informed and make decisions by themselves; aware of the possibilities they were creating and risks they were taking.

In many aspects, this is the approach I continue using as part of CoLab team.

Sebastiao Mendonca Ferreira is a Visiting Scholar at CoLab.

4 responses to “To People Interested in Collaborative Planning”

  1. Alexa Mills says:

    Sebastiao, I love your post. I have two questions for you:

    1. Do you think there is potential for this kind of urban planning philosophy, where “my effort was to use all my technical knowledge and methodological skills to help local actors to become informed and make decisions by themselves; aware of the possibilities they were creating and risks they were taking.”, has the potential to become a movement? Do you think it is even wise that this style of planning become a movement? Or are there certain areas where centralized, top-down planning is the best approach?

    2. Could you share a story of a place where you used this approach, and what happened?


  2. Amy Stitely says:

    Sebastiao, I would love for you to elaborate on the method you use for moving peoples minds from the past to the future. I want to know how you draw out aspirations and move discussions away from past problems.

    Yesterday, a young man came into the colab who had no affiliation with MIT. He presented us an aspiration for the future involving high speed rail. It was an ambitious dream that had not been tempered with doubt. I realize now that I had a difficult time communicating with him on these terms. My own doubting tendency kept getting in the way, so I just kept quiet. Thank goodness Carlos was there to respond.

    Carlos was energized by the man’s presence – thankful that someone had come to share a dream instead of a problem. So many people at MIT focus their research and learning around problems or questions. Dreams are not always easily accessed. In fa

    What does it mean to move to an aspirational framing of issues? Can we do this in an academic setting or is this for “practice” only?

  3. Alexa,

    If that planning philosophy could or should becoming a movement is a hard question.

    What I know is that this planning philosophy relies more on collective intelligence than on individual expert knowledge, and that approaching problems from multiple perspectives is being more and more recognized as necessary for sustainable designing.

    Authors such as James Surowiecki, (Wisdom of crowds) Eric Von Hippel (Democratizing innovation) and Elinor Ostron (Understanding knowledge as a commons) are stressing the importance of working with distributed knowledge in a collaborative manner.

    Let me tell a brief story. In 1997 I was working with local leaders of Tambo, a very poor city in Ayacucho, highlands of Peru. They were exploring pathways to get out of poverty. We were doing a planning workshop with the most important local institutions and leaders. In the workshop there were also diverse technical assistance organizations, each one with a different option: product for exportation, technological diffusion and training, promotion of organic agriculture, etc. Each one was convinced to have the right solution for Tambo progress. How could the local leaders evaluate the best approach or combination of approaches for their situation?

    We started by mapping with the local leaders the experiences of economic successes and failures in Tambo to discover some patterns behind the cases. Once these patterns were identified we had a reference to evaluate the diverse technical options. Additionally to making better informed decisions, local leaders could generate hypotheses for continuing learning from experience.

  4. Amy,

    To move from the past to the future is always challenging. Making decisions based on our knowledge from the past give us a feeling of confidence. Making decisions based on possible futures is requires explicitly accept uncertainties, and this increases the feeling of being at risk. It is difficult to change something we know by something we don’t know.

    The method I used to do with people is iterative, of gradual encouragement: (1) I invite them use their imagination and get glimpses of desirable futures, (2) based on those glimpses they come back to the present and reassess their situation, (3) based on this new assessment I invite them to expand their glimpses into more developed ideas.

    Having expanded our ideas of future we feel more confident to criticizing our own traditional beliefs. The discovery of new futures may trigger a whole set of processes of reframing, or re-understanding, of our situation. To see our present from the perspective of new possible futures can be very transformative.

    This is the rationale of the process. The specific methodology for doing that will depend of the concrete situation.