VISION | Impact, futuring & resistance

Posted on 21/10/2011

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A good morning for excellent conversation and ideas. This morning as I tracked with a #futrchat on Twitter, a precursor to an online gathering next week, then breakfasted on the bounty of email and newsletters, I noted a few significant thoughts. I am presently working tangentially in an environmental/social impact context, and as I scanned the #futrchat tweets, I considered some issues around ‘hacks’ (let’s say disruptions and innovations) in process and implications of these processes from a futuring or foresight perspective. This  prompted thinking about how some of these impact assessments are predicated on ideas of ‘more of the same’ or ‘business as usual’ (impact on the here and now) rather than considering the ways in which large scale projects have such an ‘event-like’ quality that can alter the lived and aspirational dimensions of communities. Futuring and foresight, then, becomes an important and necessary aspect of impact assessment. Plus, a well of distrust seems to overflow.

While many regions, cities and neighbourhoods have undergone their own visioning and planning processes, some have not. Therefore, I would think, that some of that consideration of impact must be directed towards addressing the ability of a community to realise that vision or aspiration in a complex context. Adaption and resilience are fairly important considerations in this mix. I’ve not seen such considerations – probably a function of foresight – addressed in the social impact context despite all the buffering around approval conditions, impact mitigation and the like. The closest was some work led by a colleague on community wellbeing in mining impacts communities. This has significant implications for the processes of community consultation. For me, it seems to indicate a need to rethink these processes and requirements (as statutory requirements) in the context of larger systems. It needs other kinds of storytelling and sensemaking; such as ethnographic fictions or design fictions.

Another news item which attracted my attention was the release of The Saint Index, which “delivers wide-ranging insights into what is happening in the politics of land use”. The sixth annual Saint Index identifies important trends in American attitudes about real estate development projects. While I have not read the entire report as yet, I did not that there has been an increase in ‘NIMBY’ attitudes (yes, I dislike this terminology as it is dismissive and I don’t think it captures the complex motivations for opposing redevelopment). However, that kind of stereotyping seems to work for some and I noted with interest that the Property Council of Australia recently hosted seminars with Bernard Salt who attacked what he described as prevailing NIMBY and BANANA mentalities. Attitudes tend to be closely related to emotions and values – this is a cultural dimension that needs to be better understood. The Saint Index found that “Americans’ opposition to new local development actually intensified for the first time since 2008. Cynicism about how and where development takes place is pervasive when Americans consider their own communities. Politics will continue to influence the development process, the results show, as Americans place high importance on a candidate’s position on growth and development issues when considering candidates for local office.” Energy developments, including renewable energy and natural gas drilling, also face strong opposition. Linear developments, like railways, electricity lines and gas pipelines, aren’t favoured either. There is also a view that local government does a ‘fair to poor’ on growth issues. I can’t assume any of these results correlate with the Australian experience. However, based on my own observation, I am seeing a rising tide of complex resident and community opposition to all kinds of development, energy and resources projects.

People and communities define their self-interest in perplexing, even strange, ways – while generally softening up to big box and quarry development, they are hardening on their views about other aspects of economic and property development. In America, suburbs are experiencing increasing poverty as a result of, I would assume, a whole series of system failures including investment, policy and development priorities, which catalysed a turn of tide from suburban to urban. Interestingly, however, as was reported in Grist today, a 2009 PEW Research Center poll that found that 46 percent of the public “would rather live in a different type of community from the one they’re living in now — a sentiment that is most prevalent among city dwellers.” Yet, as the findings on development opposition indicate, people do fight to protect where they are living now. And they do so for a range of reasons and motivations.

Earlier this year, Harbinger Consultants undertook a survey on Community Attitides to Consultation and Engagement. In that, we found there was significant cycnicism and distaste for these processes among respondents. When I consider those findings against The Saint Index, I am realising this opens into some serious questioning about the interplay of corporations, governments and citizenship. This interplay was also addressed, in part, in my earlier research on community benefits agreements in the USA. This is indicated most dramatically in the drift from the Arab Spring to the London Riots to Occupy Wall Street, a wave of self-organising communities rippling across the world and expressed as a demand for democracy, livelihood and participation (a future) against the ossifying corruption of corporations and the dithering of governments (which offer no future). Clearly, there is a significant misfit in the relations and aspirations across these three stakeholder groups, indicating, as #OWS illustrates, an approach to governance that does not broadly or inclusively reflect values, aspiration or deliberation.

PS. As I have been writing this, I’ve had a small exchange with José Carlos Mota on facebook. I don’t know José personally, but he seems to have a rare commitment to cities as a scholar. We’ve been exchanging links and ideas, starting with an article by Zygmunt Bauman, followed by an post in The Economist’s Democracy in America blog. I was particularly taken with The Economist’s observation that “the mode of governance is the message.” It reminds me of the political ethos and imperative of social sculpture and flash mobbing as ethical self-organising creativity and momentum – tactical and improvised. José notes that with #OWS, the next steps will be harder, and cites Bauman’s prediction that it ‘will take time, and lot of thought, debate, patience and endurance to accomplish’. He said that we need to create other ‘social settings more amenable to their production’ and posed the question of local neighbourhoods as a possibility. My own response to this is to recognise that #OWS, London Riots and the Arab Spring are telling us that there’s never been a greater need for the ‘town square’ – whatever that means to us now – and that the ideals and ideas of that need to ripple through everything and everywhere. It’s not only at the ballot box that elected officials are held to account and neighbourhoods might well be the foundation for this. How can we design this back into communities, polities and economies?

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