I was interviewed by Ilse Akkermans, editor from the Eigen Huis (own home) association magazine about the practice of participation exercises. The Eigen Huis association is there for anyone who wants to buy or own a house. They strive for sustainable and affordable home ownership.I told in the interview practical experiences about participation sessions.
I’ve pioneered an approach over the years that seems to be working. This approach revolves around listening, summarizing, exploring the assignment and determining options. I try to solve problems in short but intensive processes. In addition, I experience that the way we think about things influences how we feel emotionally. We can think about problems differently, by talking about them in a different way.
I always make as much material as concrete as possible in design drawings. I find that essential: I encourage participants in citizen panels to think about acceptable consequences and a vote is taken on solutions. By making it concrete, the noncommittal nature disappears. You vote on a (preliminary) design, not a concept idea. Ideas are useful, but drawings are more important in architecture and urban design. By viewing drawings, people experience the concrete spatial consequences of all solutions. A shared risk arises; the risk of making the wrong choice. Because of this dependence on each other, trust grows between people.
There are two situations to effectively fail a citizen panel (or a participated design). Situation 1: no equal and open communication. Parts of the group that receive more information than others erodes trust very quickly. For example, because people think they are more or less worthy. Situation 2: only have a say in the implementation of a solution selected in advance by another party, and not be allowed to comment on which solution will be forthcoming.
Both situations are not workable for me. It leads to the experience of loss of control. Loss of control leads to stress: people feel threatened. If people feel threatened, these processes stop.
There is a paradox in this: the government will have to let go of control – no matter what. The government can of course always put things on the agenda, advise and explain. And policymakers do this extensively at every consultation. With a good participation process, policymakers and urban planners experience more stress than the citizens who participate. That is a sign to me that it is working.
That stress is also welcome. It ensures that citizens experience that “the government” in practice consists of hard-working men and women just like themselves who are trying to make society better. Citizens can experience that a process is also exciting for “professionals”. Building trust is accompanied by uncertainty. For everyone.