Unlocking innovation in public space design and development

Director of Our Future Cities Rashiq Fataar describes how cities can move towards environments that promote real innovation in public spaces.

“Innovation”, is a word used abundantly and spontaneously among people who care about the design and development of cities. From experience in South Africa and elsewhere, its many meanings are often collapsed into this one unobjectionable word, allowing people to talk smoothly at cross-purposes while seeming to agree. But on the ground, there are visible distinctions between incremental innovation – especially the sort that is heavily hyped in local governments’ own marketing – and the sort of innovation that marks a real advance. By definition, the latter involves risk – both collectively and individually – for the entities and people involved, and their budgets and careers.

“Innovation-lite” often comes in the form of some sort of hub or park, funded by a technology-related company or institution, where privileged men stroll around in a campus-like environment, or work in airy co-working-style office spaces, developing new apps and preparing pitches for major funders.

Cities, beyond buildings, are made of the physical and social fabric of which public spaces are an important part.

When a journalist recently interviewed me as part of her research for an article related to innovation and public infrastructure, the timing was perhaps unfortunate. At the time, Future Cape Town was involved in facilitating a variety of creative public space projects in Cape Town and Lagos – some in the research or pre-design phase, others stuck in cumbersome application processes, in the design phase or under threat of being removed.

Her interview sparked a few questions: How could innovation be discussed when we have yet to figure out basic red tape or processes for improving public spaces? If public spaces are key to making cities work for all, why is there no task team or department dedicated to them? And lastly, how are cities geared for innovation, when even moderately creative public space interventions – already common in other cities – are seen as threats to parking and processes?

Cities, beyond buildings, are made of the physical and social fabric of which public spaces are an important part. These public spaces build cohesion, inclusivity and give tangible expression to a more democratic and equitable society.

On a global level, it should be noted that the UN Habitat III process, which was recently concluded in Quito, elevated the role of public spaces through its policy documents. They function to guide the role of multi-sector, multi-player collaboration with local government and authorities in building and operating public spaces.

When developing and improving public spaces in cities, and in particular in local municipalities, fostering innovation – or rather an embedded culture of innovation – need not rely on glamorous showcases called “innovation parks” or by launching new entities or agencies.

From our experience, it is rather through small steps that municipalities can, with time, allow innovation to be welcomed, nurtured and unleashed to the benefit of all people in the city.

The Roadmap : impact innovations in public space can be accelerated by ensuring there is a common archive or clearing house of information and knowledge

Meaningful, impact innovations in public space can be accelerated by ensuring there is a common archive or clearing house of information and knowledge about the various public space developments in a city, such as new parks, public spaces available for rent, or general public realm investments like pavements and squares. Where possible, this resource should provide information about focus areas, future opportunities and problem areas or spaces. Despite advances in technology and the tools available for both text-based and visual communication, few inroads are being made in this area.

In our engagement with local authorities, it transpired that large amounts of this sort of information already exists with detailed knowledge of the context in various neighbourhoods across the city. Moreover, it was discovered that many new public spaces and parks were being developed by local government across the city, but with no one to hold or consolidate information. This information was rarely passed on or was limited to the occasional press release and news article. What was also missing was community or NGO-led processes to improve public spaces across the city, be it through research or physical development.

The manner in which this information is made available might be a simple citywide mapping process, resulting in a publicly accessible digital map. It is immensely challenging to expect both individuals and entities to devise innovative solutions and ideas, when basic information and common knowledge are not shared.

Case study – Reinventer.Paris

Innovation as a performance goal

Fostering innovation requires key agents and stakeholders, such as department heads, to have innovation built into their performance goals or performance reviews. Consider, for example, an innovative project presented to a city official during a pre-approval meeting. Perhaps the official chairing the meeting loves the idea, and can articulate its appeal in terms of city policies and guidelines. At the same time, however, this official’s formal performance measures have neither the space nor the flexibility to make room for walking this idea through officialdom.

On the one hand, the official may not be incentivised to go beyond the call of duty, risking their job in the process. Secondly, where a champion does arise in local government (and often they do), they are doing so at risk, absorbing any potential fallout that may result from the project, thus making themselves accountable.

Walls are built up to prevent innovative public space projects from proceeding despite the best efforts of the applicant to motivate the project, without a space that encourages risk-taking and experimentation; even with a high chance of failure To some extent, the designation of World Design Capital 2014 (WDC2014) was meant to offer this space for pilot projects and experimentation in Cape Town, but the legacy remains questionable since internal departments related to WDC2014 were dissolved.

Case study – Paris&Co Incubateurs

Promote unusual and unexpected collaborations

Achieving innovation cannot rest on doing only what has worked before, with the same people in the same configurations in order to tackle the immense challenges presented in already volatile cities in an increasingly unstable world. This is where the facilitation of unusual and unexpected collaborations becomes important. Within a new environment of constrained city budgets and the rationalisation of the use and ownership of public facilities, we need new models and ideas that unlock latent energies and marshal dormant resources from other parts of society.

While public spaces are commonly only the domain of government, it is often the case that no department or task team has final responsibility for them, despite the importance of public space in the local context. This results in a run-around process between various departments, where would-be public place-makers often struggle with layers of internal communication, collaboration and competition, as they try to discover which entities, people and departments are responsible for the land on which the project is proposed. How can new forms of public-private-civil society partnerships be facilitated with more ease, rather than be met with skepticism or surprise? And how can actors in society be encouraged, rather than punished, for attempts to enrich our shared public life with better spaces?

When present and future cities require dynamic and collaborative relationships, cities could foster innovation more easily by embracing these new relationships.

Case study – Regent Road Parklet

A new framework for measuring success of public spaces

The way in which we measure the success of public spaces, existing and newly developed, requires an entirely new framework.

Consider for example the Regent Road parklet in Sea Point – a public space with free Wi-Fi, which occupied two car parking bays (leased at full cost), catalysed through the collaboration of a multiple stakeholders, namely a local property developer, Future Cape Town, a local design company, local contractor and adjacent nursery. The measure of public value stemming from this project was reduced to the number of local objections to the project after six months, which totaled two and close to 500 supported it, rather than the 100 to 200 people of all races and ages who used the space daily, or the amount of free Wi-Fi provided over nine months, or the value of a new typology of dignified and generous public space. Until its removal on spurious grounds, all this had been gained at the cost of two parking bays for middle-class shoppers, in a road with little but parking bays.

If we continue to only use outdated measures such as the percentage of budget spent, the number of objections, and broadly, the number of boxes ticked, then opportunities for innovation may be missed entirely, or an environment for innovation may be stifled altogether.

Shared knowledge, performance incentives for innovation, an ethos of collaboration and new ways to measure success, are just a few ways towards building a culture of public space innovation in cities. There are surely many more, but starting with these particular “seeds” can point local municipalities of all sizes in the right direction, to open up to innovation and the true potential of public space, to build the equitable cities we all aspire to live in.

Rashiq Fataar is the founder and director of Our Future Cities, comprising Future Cape Town and Future Lagos, promoting dialogue and action towards more equitable, progressive and visionary cities. He has just returned from presenting at the Cities for Life summit in Paris, co-hosted by the Mayor of Paris and Mayor of Medellin.

This article was originally published at earthworks 

Photo credits, Image 1 : The Cascade” by Edge Design Institute 2007, Central Hong Kong.

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