participation – to be continued. a proposal by christian hjelle

the online experience

To be part of the digital lab and the online workshop “public space and people” have been a great and interesting experience. Working as an architect and planner, I am accustomed to use different types of digital tools, but by joining this workshop, these tools have been utilized to a greater extent in order to communicate and share information between the workshop participants.

Living in a information society means that one is always confronted with challenges of sorting information between relevant and irrelevant, good and bad, true and false etc. The ever present massive and accessible information can easily lead to information overload, which implies the risk of both loosing the overall picture and the de-qualification of information in general.

Motivated by shared interests, different people with different background are making up the online groups. The exchange and communication between the online participants may represent a way of accumulating qualified information, contrary to the risk of de-qualification. It can also result in increased capacities and improved navigation skills when working on selected issues inside the information society.

When you are part of these kinds of online network, to work for yourself means that you also work for the others. The greatest outcome may therefore be the efficiency, the surprises and the relevance of the material that is produced, shared and communicated. This collective working process among people I have never met or known before, therefore implies a great potential for innovative and critical activities.

the project: “participation – to be continued”

– framing the questions

A participation process can have multitude meanings and be implemented in different ways. The many appearances of the term, however, often reflect both different levels of ambitions and different motives for implementing such processes. Which frames the first question; what is the role of participation processes related to the very moment of decision making?

A conventional participation process is implied before and until the moment of decision making (policy, planning, architecture, design). Relating to this simple timeline, what is called institutionalized participation can have a variation of different appearances: announcement, information meetings, collecting remarks, dialogue meetings, idea workshops, assessments groups etc. These institutionalized participation activities represent (top-down) processes that all have in common the fact that the participation process is limited in time and the final decisions are taken by some others than the participants. These reveals the next questions: Are there possibilities of proceeding aspects of the participation after the decision making is implemented?

The Norwegian legislation and the new law for planning and building sector (from 2008) has emphasized the importance and increased the ambition level for participation in all new projects compared to the former legislation. This can be understood as ways of highlighting democratic aspects and securing legitimization between people and decision making processes. Further, it can be interpreted as trying to achieve increased correspondence towards people’s preferences, needs, wishes, ideas. This idealistic goal, however, reveals a distinct challenge: How to meet an ideal goal of correspondence when people’s preferences, needs, wishes are constantly changing in a culture of migration and mobility?

A central challenge related to participation is further about information overload and the capacity and need for decision making: how to handle the information that have been shared and collected, the ideas which are produced and the needs and preferences that have been communicated through the participation process? The answer to these questions is framed by the ambition level, which again is limited to available resources and political will.

– alternative perspectives and strategies

Since many of the abovementioned questions are pointing forward and beyond the conventional participation timeline, I have been interested in investigating the following question: in which ways can different aspects of participation proceed and extend after the conventional moment of decision making?

My working methods have aimed at articulating and identifying alternative perspectives, and then trying to exaggerate these towards targeted strategies. This has resulted in the following six alternative strategies:

1. ongoing correspondence

To meet the ambition of correspondence between peoples’ preferences and the plan/architecture, the process of participation should be repeated on a regularly basis. This can be done similar to the political elections every 4 year, and will secure the highest possible correspondence between peoples dynamic preferences and their physical environment. The plan and architecture will be designed by architects, but should have a design that makes it suitable and flexible for transformation every 4 year the election and new participation process is carried out.

2. individual misreadings

According to Barthes, every reading or interpretation is a misreading which transgresses the original intentions from the author/architect/planner. In this sense, the act of misreading is understood as a form of participation, since each reader/user will misread differently according to personal preferences. This means that the text or architecture can be almost irrelevant in order to generate a meaningful (mis)reading. The plan and architecture can therefore consist of an almost arbitrary pattern of contextual materials. The diagram above shows the QR code which is generated from the text “you decide”. This is projected on site and made up of the available, simple and contextual materials asphalt and grass. This strategy is not depending on a conventional participation process in advance, but is solely based on the participatory act of individuals misreading their environment.

3. proactive misreadings

Similar to previous point about Barthes, every reading is a transgressive misreading. Similarly to previous point, the diagram shows the QR code which is generated from the text “you decide”. Instead of a plan-pattern without specific programs, there is carried out a participatory process in advance in order to collect a multitude of ideas. Since the act of misreading is emphasized, the collected ideas are all treated of equal value, abstracted and organized arbitrary on the plan-pattern. The complexity in the plan-pattern based on collected and abstracted ideas are intended to both facilitate for a certain recognition, and thus result in a greater number of readers, but also to produce a greater numbers of misreadings.

4. do it yourself

According to Foucault, people/actors can reproduce or challenge existing norms, praxis and behavior depending on the level of understanding of the system and accessible tools or means. Instead of architects designing the plan and architecture, the “do it yourself” strategy will promote and facilitate for people to share their ideas and realizing them themselves on site. The first step is to arrange a DIY-center where both ideas and information is shared and materials and tools are accessible. At the same there will be a spectator corner for people that not yet are ready to participate can observe the activities, and later join in when ready for this. The DIY strategy aims for a self-grown structure consisting of a great number of different activities: playing, socializing, meeting, plants and foods growing, cabin living, sporting etc. In addition to the DIY-center and the spectator corner, the only facilitations on site consists of distribution points for water, electricity etc.

5. conflict of interest, or what people want

A participation process can reveal conflict of interest between (groups of) people which are not necessarily compatible. This is resulting from an honest exponent of people’s preferences and needs, in other words: what people want. Instead of attempts to construct compromises or hybrids, this can be solved the same way as political positions are shared after an election: by a quantitative distribution of m2 to the different ideas/interests to the different groups of people. This will give different zones with different programs and activities which are not connected in other ways than by shared borders.  The size of each zone reflects the numbers of people supporting or representing each interest/need. By this strategy one will avoid the problem of architecture designed by architecture that people not necessarily wants. And instead: “what people get, is what they want”. The hyper realistic aspect of this strategy, makes is also possible to categorize as a socio-political art project.

6. capacity training-center

Independent of the final decision making and its outcome, the implementation of a participation process will generate a multitude of increased knowledge and capacity training for its participants. This knowledge and skills are of great value and should be communicated and made available to the public in general and for participants in other future processes. A permanent capacity training-center established on site could serve these functions of increased interest for participation processes and civil empowerment.