Nabeel Hamdi’s Small Change

8739095A wonderful book on creating place — it resonated so much with all I have learned in years of working and planning with community, and it is so good to see so much of it thoughtfully consolidated and codified. Especially in such different contexts.  It calls to some extent on popular education figures I know like Freire and Illich, but to a much greater extent on figures from the development and planning world who I do not yet know and am looking forward to meet.

My principle critique is how this deals with neoliberalism — and I do not join the voices who critique this kind of approach as in itself neoliberal. I think this is how change has to happen, with people owning it, transforming themselves as they transform their lives and take power over their communities. That said, it is up to us I think to help people see how this connects to more fundamental overturnings of unjust power relations. He has this lovely quote from Calvino (I don’t much like the rest of the book):

However, it is pointless to try to decide whether Zenobia is to be classified among happy cities or among the unhappy. It makes no sense to divide cities into these two species, but rather into a different two: those that through the years and the changes continue to give form to their desires and those in which desires either erase the city or are erased by it.
–Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

We hope to create places that allow us to achieve our dreams. Instead, looking at the barren but massive new developments occurring in London (and elsewhere), it seems clear that the desires of capital are to erase the city of all that does not maximise profit — and thus erase the city itself. And us. We live our lives within these larger forces, and our lives are destroyed by them — so we cannot allow this small scale work to be coopted, rather ensure it is feeding the resistance against destruction. I won’t get started on his example of selling water.

Still, for early steps, for nuts and bolts, this is good (if this work is accompanied by a constant critical questioning of why this is our reality, how did it get this way, what is preventing us from changing it, how ultimately do we create lasting change):

development, like all human processes, needs designed structure with rules and routines that provide continuity and stability and that offer a shared context of meaning and a shared sense of purpose and justice. To these structures we ‘give up some of our liberty in order to protect the rest.’ The question facing practice is: how much structure will be needed before the structure itself prohibits personal freedom, gets in the way of progress… xvii – xviii

This is always the tension I think. I like the idea of ’emergence’ that runs through everything. Inspired by studies of slime molds which aren’t perhaps the most inspiring of creatures, I do love this idea of horizontality and networking and allowing things to emerge from the collectivity as they are needed (and will look for Emergence by Steven Johnson where much of this thinking comes from). At some point, of course, these horizontal emergings will run smack into the wall of hierarchical power which is rarely on the side of true ‘progress’. And they will have to fight. I believe they can, they are not necessarily subsumed into another level of support, bribed and coopted by such power that often made their organising necessary in the first place. But they can be. We are right to be cautious.

Still, back to what I liked and the thoughts driving the book:

intelligent practice builds on the collective wisdom of people and organizations on the ground — those who think locally and act locally — which is then rationalized in ways that make a difference globally. In the language of ’emergence’, ‘it’s better to build a densely interconnected system with simple elements and let the more sophisticated behaviour trickle up.’ In this respect, good development practice facilitates emergence, it builds on what we’ve got and with it goes to scale. xviii

And I love thinking, have been obsessing over, the importance of dense networks in all aspects of life and health.

Practice, then, is about making the ordinary special and the special more widely accessible — expanding the boundaries of understanding and possibility with vision and common sense. It is about building densely interconnected networks, crafting linkages between unlikely partners and organizations, and making plans without the usual preponderance of planning. It is about getting it right for now and at the same time being tactical and strategic about later. (xix)

I also find quite useful these precepts he gives us to remember and to guide practice (and to support those of us who work this way naturally in defending such practice in the face of those who much prefer structure, plans, controlled process and etc):

Ignorance is liberating

Start where you can: never say can’t
– ‘can’t because’ has to become ‘can if’, if we are to avoid paralysis given all the obstacles in the way (133)

Imagine first: reason later
we are too often confined by our own experience — ‘Practice, and in particular practitioners who are outsiders, can reveal these other worlds and, in so doing, can disturb people into reconstructing their situation, bringing them to a new awareness of and, therefore, power that increases their freed — which is what development is all about.(134)

Be reflective: waste time

Embrace serendipity: get muddled

Play games: serious games

Challenge consensus
Consensus gains the passivity of people not their active participation. It is in this sense exclusionary and encourages independence rather than interdependence. In encourages non-participation. (137)
— He quotes Kaplan — ‘creativity and life are the result of tension between opposites…[where] harmony is attained not through resolution bet through an attunement of opposite tensions… (138)

Look for multipliers
— Consensus planning looks for common denomibators. Instead, look for multipliers…ways of connecting people, organizations and events, of seeing strategic opportunity in pickle jars, bus stops and rubbish cans and then going to scale. It means acting practically…and thinking strategically… (139-140)

Work backwards: move forwards

Feel good

I particularly love that he challenges the consensus model. We are different, we do not always have to agree to work together or let important issues be subsumed or relegated to the future because we are a minority.

I also like this idea of outsider as catalyst for change, and how this change connects to wellbeing.

We have learnt that development is ongoing, a process in which occasionally and from outside, some form of intervention is useful to open up opportunities, to facilitate access to resources, to act as a catalyst for change. there is no beginning and no end, no single measure of progress, no primacy given to any one set of values, at least not on paper. Human wellbeing is as important to economic growth as growth is to wellbeing. We find that trust and mutual respect now feature as criteria with which to judge the appropriateness of projects. Interdependence, not dependence, is what we seek, between people, organizations and between nations. (15)

It is clear that process is more important here, a very interesting critique of planning and its modernist heroes, a support for those of us who oppose these kind of schemes:

The problem with these thinkers was not that they had a totalizing vision or subscribed to master narratives or indulged in master plannning. Their problem was not that they had conceptions of the city of the social process as a whole. Their problem was that they took the notion of thing and gave it power over the process. Their second flaw was that they did much the same thing with community. Much of ideology that came out of Geddes and Howard was precisely about the construction of community, in particular about the construction of communities that were fixed and had certain qualities with respect to class and gender relations. Once again the domination of things seemed to be the general flaw… (46, quoting David Harvey, Justice, Nature and the Geography of Difference)

I also like a snippet of Sennet, who I have never really struggled with (and my short-lived embarcation on one of his books was a bit of a struggle), but he discusses three forces that challenge mutual respect: unequal ability, adult dependency and degrading forms of compassion. ‘Respect,’ says Sennet, ‘is fundamental to our experience of social relations and self.’ (50)

I feel like that is one of the things poor people always fight for and never get and so this is the most obvious thing in the world, but few others understand it, much less respect people who are not of their class (or skin colour or gender or sexuality or…).

There are some interesting developments of different forms of community:

community of interest — issues of common concern or common advantage

Community of culture — more homogenous, shared values and beliefs, often need to be disturbed ‘in the interest of reshaping power relations…in our search for equity in gender relations, in democratizing government, in our emphasis on participatory planning and our notion of what makes good governance’  (68)

Community of practice, work — sharing a joint purpose over time becomes a bond — Capra notes the more developed and sophisticated networks are, the more resilient and creative. Hamdi writes ‘The sense of a city being alive resides in its communities of practice, as does its intelligence. (69)

Communities of resistance (term from West) created in face of external threat, times of social unease, or dominance

Communities of place

1. all communities spatial, but in cities this is more through networks, porous and not confined

2. place assumes more importance than space, particularly for vulnerable like elderly or disabled — security and accessibility precedence over use value or identity

3. there exists a relationship between place and identity, where place is often appropriated to empower community, coded

4. spatial sense of community can change over times of day and over time more generally

And I like these problematisations of the constant use of the word community, often masking its complexity:

Whatever the type, community is mostly an ideal in development that we evangelize, something good and worthy…but community can be as much a part of the problem as a panacea. (70)

The treatment of local areas as communities of homogenous interests, said Lisa Peattie, way back in 1968 ‘can result in severe damage to the interests of the weakest inhabitants’. There is an emerging consensus that we bypass the notion of community altogether in favour of a more direct link between household and civil society. (72)

Which means our work is to create an architecture of possibilities — I quite love that idea, especially in thinking how public life and public space come together:

As we set about planning we are, by now, cautious of pre-emptive community-building. Instead, we seek to build an architecture of possibilities in the broadest sense of the term and give this shape, spatially and organizationally. Later, we may attach to it rules or codes of conduct which we will develop with others… (73)

It is again working through how we balance structure and freedom, such a difficult thing but so rewarding when done right. Nabeel Hamdi quotes Capra again here:

The designed structures are the formal structure of the organization (city)… the emergent structures are created by the organizations’ (city) informal networks and communities of practice… designed structures provide the rules and routines that are necessary for the effective functioning of the organization…Designed structures provide stability. Emergent structures, on the other hand, provide novelty, creativity and flexibility. They are adaptive, capable of changing and evolving…The issue is not one of discarding designed structures in favour of emergent ones. We need both. (97 quoting Capra  The Hidden Connections)

More lessons about taking time, building slowly and surely …

Instead, in practice, we need often to act spontaneously, to improvise and to build in small increments. First, spontaneity, as a quality of practice, is vital because most problems and opportunities appear and disappear in fairly random fashion and need to be dealt with or taken advantage of accordingly. (98)

…and creating a community of learning that transforms those involved:

The community-based action planning workshops and events we had adopted served to offer an early insight into the organizational capabilities of community, the responsiveness of planners and government authorities to ideas, the appropriateness of standards, the potential for partnership and the resistance those in charge to adapt. They explored the willingness of people and their local organizations to disturb their habits and routines. They are vehicles for learning and for identifying institutional capabilities and training needs, as much as for getting organized, getting going and solving problems. (100)

So we return to practice, and these final thoughts capture for me what practice should be for committed intellectuals and ‘experts’:

the art of making things possible, of expanding the boundaries of understanding and possibility in ways which make a tangible difference for now and for later, making expert knowledge more widely accessible, turning it all into common sense and common sense into experts’ sense, coupling knowledge with power (Shovkry), creating opportunities for discovery (Chambers), finding creative ways of making one plus one add up to three or even more. (116)

Practicing is about opening doors, removing barriers to knowledge and learning, finding partners and new forms of partnership, building networks, negotiating priorities, opening lines of communication and searching for patterns. it means designing structures — both spatial and organizational — and facilitating the emergence of others, balancing dualities that at first seem to cancel each other out — between freedom and order, stability and creativity, practical and strategic work, the needs of large organization and those of small ones, top and bottom, public and private. (116)

The goal of becoming wise…I wish we taught more students this way, they are instead content to be clever. But then, so are most of their teachers.

This cycle of doing and learning, learning and doing, acting and reflecting involves a kind of ‘activist pedagogy’ which is systemic to becoming skilful and wise. The purpose them of teaching, given this setting, ‘is fundamentally about creating the pedagogical, social, and ethical conditions under which students agree to take charge of their own learning, individually and collectively, to create their own knowledge, much in the same way as later, in practice, we would expect people to take charge of their own development (127)

(Hamdi, Nabeel (2004) Small Change: About the Art of Practice and the Limits of Planning in Cities. London: Earthscan.)

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