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UF24 – Inspired by changemakers at the Urban Future Global Conference

Cathérine attended Urban Future in Rotterdam to find out more about the sustainable design of cities and met lots of great changemakers.

A lively and warm welcome for changemakers from all over the world

After taking part in the Urban Future Conference in 2023 as part of the Young Leaders Programme, Cathérine travelled to Rotterdam this year as an alumna for the next edition. There, together with over 2,000 other participants, she was welcomed by a lively band and then by Elina Rotaru, who at her young age is already a wonderful host.

In the opening event, she first brought Gerald Babel-Sutter, the initiator of Urban Future, on stage. He said that taking the first step is often the most difficult and it is precisely this first step towards change in cities that the Urban Future Conference intends to make easier for changemakers. Chantal Zeegers, Deputy Mayor of Rotterdam, then welcomed the attendees. Author and professor Margaret Heffernan motivated us to persevere in difficult phases and to keep going. At such points, we would discover new approaches and have our breakthroughs if we don’t give up.

Ben Collier explained how, during the coronavirus pandemic in the USA, he and other students began rescuing food that would otherwise have rotted in farmers’ fields due to the lack of an existing supply chain and start delivering it to the overcrowded food banks. With The Farmlink Project, they have since saved millions of tonnes of food through a ‘learning and collaboration mindset’. He pointed out that the system does not work in the same way in other countries and that the solution will therefore be different. However, the same questions can be asked everywhere about what is not going well in the current food system and how this could be changed.

“Dream big – start small – move fast” for implementing your ideas .

Ben Collier
Young changemakers in exchange: Ben Collier & Elina Rotaru
Young changemakers in exchange: Ben Collier & Elina Rotaru

Children are effective helpers for changemakers

Following Ben’s emphasis on the commitment of young changemakers, Erion Veliaj, the mayor of the Albanian capital Tirana, emphasised the relevance of children and young people. Politicians would be trained to think only of voters and taxpayers in their actions, forgetting other stakeholders such as children. At the same time, people would tend to be suspicious of politicians, but not of children, because they have no agenda and only take the ‘business of playing’ seriously. Children can therefore help to bring about positive change in a city because they tell their parents about it.

In this way, playgrounds were built in Tirana, a large pedestrian zone was created in the city centre and many trees were planted. It is now normal for every child there to plant a tree for their birthday. At the same time, the city has become happier, more liveable and safer. Security has nothing to do with the number of surveillance cameras, but with the people in the streets. And grandmothers who look after their grandchildren in playgrounds are much more effective than surveillance cameras anyway, because nothing escapes their notice.

You shouldn’t be betting on the next election but on the next generation .

Erion Veliaj

Changes like those in Tirana are encouraging and give cause for optimism. In the meantime, the law has also stipulated that half of the city council must be female and there is also a quota for people under 30. Erion Veliaj also emphasised that often not as much money is needed for change as many people think. All it takes is a little creativity. Some things can be ‘crowdfunded’ with the help of parts of the population or companies, for example, or instead of paying subsidies, licences can simply be sold for what is to be reduced.

Moreover, in the end it is not as relevant to change the infrastructure as it is to change people’s values and attitudes – because then the infrastructure will ultimately change anyway. It would also be important to simply try things out and then adapt them rather than thinking about them forever, or in his words: “We are brainstorming ourselves to death. Go from brainstorming to try-storming. Just try and try.”

In Tirana, there are and have been some protests by loud minorities against the improvements made, because there are citizens who are against any change on principle. It is important to persevere and to keep asking yourself whether it is about doing the right thing or what is popular. He himself would regularly be sued and yet it is more important to him to move his city forward than to let this hold him back.

“Utopias for realists” and their practical realisation

In the next session, which was wonderfully moderated by Karin Haselböck from Ashoka, we were inspired by Rutger Bregman and Claire Elizabeth Williams. In his book “Utopias for Realists” and a TED Talk a few years ago, Rutger shared his thoughts on the unconditional basic income and direct cash payments to people experiencing poverty or homelessness, offering them space for new opportunities and further development. Claire was inspired by this a few years ago and, with her later collaborators and team members, conducted the until then largest and most scientifically sound experiment with direct payments to people living in homelessness in a ‘wealthy’ country (Canada).

The effect of these payments (approx. €5,000 per person) was incredibly positive. Most of the people quickly found shelter again and were able to establish themselves in a new life and still had large sums of money left over after a year. Above all, however, they felt better because someone finally trusted them and gave them the confidence to take control of their own lives. Our other social systems – where they exist – are usually very paternalistic and deny people their free will. If you are interested in the topic, you can read more about it.

Karin (left) interviews Claire and Rutger
Karin (left) interviews Claire and Rutger

Claire also emphasised the relevance of our language. Instead of talking about ‘poor people’, ‘addicts’, ‘homeless people’ etc. in the form of labels, it is better to talk about the fact that these are people who are experiencing such situations. Language is also important in addressing other people – some are more likely to understand facts, others feelings, others could be reached for change by wanting to leave a certain legacy. In general, as changemakers, we can have an impact simply by the way we deal with other people.

Together with Rutger, she pointed out that we should not regard any approach as ‘a silver bullet’, but always only as part of a range of possibilities. The direct payments would be helpful for many people in a situation of homelessness or poverty, but not for everyone. I (Cathérine) found this emphasis very important because, especially among changemakers, we sometimes tend to think our own solution is the best and start to ‘fight’ other solutions, even though we want to achieve the same or a similar goal, and thus often overlook the fact that the approaches are complementary.

Ultimately, they told all changemakers – like Margaret did – that change often takes longer than we would like and that we need to look after ourselves during the process. Because we often try to tackle issues that are so much bigger than ourselves that they are often not solved in our lifetime. It therefore takes patience, breaks and the joy of being part of a valuable whole, without perhaps seeing the goal achieved in your own life.

Language determines our reality and influences our imagination

A recurring theme in my sessions was clearly the impact of our language. In a session on climate adaptation moderated by Philipp Bouteiller, Marco te Brömmelstroet gave a varied speech on how language influences our reality and our thinking. I would like to go into this in more detail below. Language leads to the simplification of reality, leads to the decisions we make and shapes our reality. As long as we don’t govern systems such as a forest, we don’t have to simplify and thus need no language for it. However, if we want to govern something, we need a language. Language then quickly becomes performative.

I.e. from a complex system like the rainforest, which is very lush and unmanaged, we then move through performative thinking and the corresponding language to unstable managed systems like commercial forests/forestry. Marco is mainly concerned with mobility – he is also known as the ‘cycling professor’ – so the rest of the talk centred on the connection between our language and the resulting transport system.

Streets were actually not managed until the 1920s and were simply the ‘rest’ between the buildings. The introduction and spread of the car perpetuated a language of efficiency, control and freedom for motorists. Le Corbusier even spoke of the ‘death of the street’, which for him only served to move from one place to another as quickly as possible. Many people in our culture are still trapped in this way of thinking – our language limits our imagination that things could be different.

Traffic engineering emerged as a solution for managing the road. As this job did not exist before, it was initially carried out by water engineers, who planned roads in the same way as they had previously planned the sewerage system: roads should never become blocked. It should be obvious that a road and a sewerage system fulfil different functions, but this was and is ignored.

This also gave rise to the ‘biological’ language used for transport. The circulation of the traffic shouldn’t be stoped as the blood in the arteries hast to flow, else there would be a traffic gridlock/infarct… [Addition from me: Nobody dies because they are stuck in a traffic jam – but rather the people who are allowed to breathe in the exhaust fumes or who are run over by a car. But that is less in our language and imagination.]

In addition, people would hear the traffic news on the radio every half hour and who had to wait where on the motorway and for how long. At the same time, more urgent topics would be reported much less frequently and there would never be a report on how long people had to wait in the supermarket, for example. This greatly overdramatises the ‘congestion problem’ in the minds of (car-driving) people.

Since the road traffic regulations came into force, people can no longer simply walk, but have to become ‘pedestrians’ in order to be able to take part in traffic in accordance with the rules. The (flawed) image of homo economicus also plays a role here. We have created a (seemingly) productive road parallel to the (seemingly) productive forest. The focus on shortening journey times then leads to ideas such as the Hyperloop or self-driving cars, which do not help us as a society at all.

We are now travelling faster to more distant places, even with such approaches – but this has only meant that we are travelling more overall, not less. In addition, we are moving further and further away from each other, both geographically and emotionally [note: see populist and conservative election results in the European elections]. Even cycle highways etc. therefore do not ‘solve’ our mobility issue. However, as the most mindful and environmentally friendly means of transport after walking, the bike can help to bring us closer together again and personal interaction with our surroundings is possible through leisurely cycling.

Marco describes why the focus on CO2 is too narrow
Marco describes why the focus on CO2 is too narrow

Overall, we should thoroughly scrutinise our mobility-dependent perspective and our narratives as well as their underlying assumptions. It is also important to talk to people with different linguistic backgrounds, as they would automatically have a slightly different perspective. Linguistic diversity is valuable. It is also important not to insist on good or bad narratives, but to be able to change positions in order to view topics from different angles. This is how we can move towards thriving, vibrant cities.

Collected experiences of changemakers from different cities

After Marco’s presentation, Maria Vassilakou, former Green Deputy Mayor of Vienna, and the Climate Resilience Manager of Regensburg, Katharina Schätz, shared their experiences with us. Maria followed on directly from Marco and Erion in the morning with the advice to start designing cities with children and to describe and design a city of joy. In the next panel, moderated by Katharina Moser, Janet Sanz from Barcelona, Ulli Sima from Vienna and Lan Marie Nguyen Berg from Oslo reported on the changes they have already achieved as (deputy) mayors in their cities.

In addition to their great examples (superblocks, traffic calming, climate budget in the household, etc.), the personal level on which all three shared their experiences with us, as Katharina and Maria had done before, was particularly interesting. Women in exposed and politically important roles in particular are often discredited – often on a more personal level than is the case with men. They told us how they deal with such attacks, protect themselves and still keep going full of motivation. Thanks to the commitment and support of many kind people and self-care, they are all happy with their roles and would do it again.

Katharina (left) with her guests Ulli, Lan and Janet (from the left)
Katharina (left) with her guests Ulli, Lan and Janet (from the left)

After I took part in an exciting workshop on the design of roofs organised by people from the municipality of Rotterdam and with examples from their partner city Velje in Denmark on the following day, the next panel, moderated by Katharina Moser, was again about the personal level of the changemakers. This time, Claire was joined by Elena Doms from EarthPlus, who want to cleanse the world of so-called ‘forever chemicals’, and Jorn Wemmenhove from Humankind, who has worked a lot with young people, to talk about their visions and challenges as changemakers.

After all, it’s not about presenting everything as shiny gold, but also about showing yourself to be vulnerable and human. Personal crises often play a role in helping people to focus more on their own resilience, inner connection and well-being on the changemaking journey and thus to be healthier and more joyful in the long term.

It is precisely this connection that is at the centre of all our activities at WeMaCo and, above all, the CREATE Convention (for the first time on 27-30 June 2024). We are happy to exchange ideas at any time. Questions and comments on the experiences described regarding the Urban Future Conference are also very welcome.

Further reflections on this can be found on LinkedIn:

  • Article about the design of our spaces and events for highly sensitive and neurodiverse people
  • Post about key learnings of Urban Future including links to all persons mentioned

Finally, on Friday I took part in a guided tour by Sofie van Brunschot, who showed us buildings designed by women. Although the gender distribution of architecture courses has been 50/50 for many years, the number of registered female architects is closer to 25% and those with their own architecture firms is even lower. As a result, there is a lack of role models and a lack of balance in this and other sectors. Sofie has therefore set herself the task of mapping these buildings in Rotterdam and beyond and offering such guided tours in her spare time. A very important project, in my opinion! (The site is in Dutch so far, but the browser translates it nicely most of the time ;-))

Ideas for the use of roofs in a catalog that you can find as inspiration here as a PDF in NL/ENG

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We are looking forward to meeting you.