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Redesigning Neighbourhood (Photo by Harry Merten)

An elder Dutch resident picks up an axe and start hacking at the weeds and roots to help transform shrubs in a derelict lawn of the Mosque into an Oasis herb and vegetable garden with a greenhouse, benches, and stone pathways only using local resources, skills, talents, and tools from the community.  “I think you always have an inspiration calling, once someone says ‘come on, let’s do it’ people start to move” says the man. He admits,  “A lot of Dutch are still afraid of foreigners. We Dutch are too shy to cooperate with each other, but the more you work the less you are aware that there are limits”.

Sowing vegetable seeds for community garden (Photo by Harry Merken)

A passionate group of volunteers from around the world led by the Brazilian team from Elos united to awaken and cultivate community spirit by realizing dreams through hands on work in a marginalized Dutch neighbourhood.  De Kleine Wereld translated “This Small World” positioned by a large motorway on the North side of Amsterdam has a diverse range of inhabitants.  An array of cultures and countries are represented – with residents coming from dozens of countries a large proportion are new immigrants or refugees.  The district is dull, with busy roads, tall buildings mostly of inhumane scale and a major intersection with a bar, a few shops and a mosque.   A young boy Ahmed from the neighbuorhood notes, “there was recently a stabbing and a shooting. There are few activities here, and people often move to another neighborhood.” He comments, “actually this is a really nice area but people do not know this anymore. ”

Oasis in Dutch Context

While the Netherlands is a country that is considered to be leading in terms of sustainability, innovation, and provision and access to social services there is a deeper and more intangible kind of poverty – one of social fragmentation and isolation. Integration is seen here as the immigrant’s responsibility to learn the language, adapt, make friends, and create a life for oneself while services are doled and playgrounds built. Currently, there is growing fear, resentment and mistrust between Dutch communities and a discriminatory politician was just recently elected third for the country.  Rarely are residents adequately included in a process let alone thought of as the primary actors in their own development of public space and services. This creates a sense of apathy, mistrust, and an unwillingness to engage with the expectation that government will do something yet meanwhile frustration builds when this doesn’t add up.

While the Oasis Game was developed in the Brazilian context of favela communities and natural disaster devastation to awaken and cultivate hands on action to realise collective dreams the Dutch believed it could offer something unique in this alternate context.

The Dutch invited Rodrigo and Paulo from Elos to support a different kind of transformation – a reverse development they saw could use the Brazilian inspiration.  “The Dutch have often lost their sense of community and neighbourliness and have unlearned how to deal with each other. While we cannot help build better houses or find funds we [the Brazilians] offer ‘warmth between people, the joy of working together and sometimes a good hug” says Rodrigo Alonso.

Oasis Beginnings …

Rogrigo Alonso and four friends who had recently graduated from Architecture School were united together in the 1990’s with the joy of inspiring dreams and realizing them with benefits for everyone. As they saw the results of beautiful and safe neighbourhoods where people would no longer wait for the government to improve their lives they were fuelled to spread this process and energy.  This morphed into the creation of the non-profit Instituto Elos and the quick spread of the Oasis Game throughout Brazil from a mere few to 100’s of transformations within a few years time.

The name Oasis was inspired in the History books. An Oasis offers hope, refuge and stability to the tired traveler in the desert. The main idea is that our world is full of vast “deserts”: regions and communities where social and environmental vitality has been destroyed. Nevertheless these places still hold points of light full of hope, beauty and joy.  The Oasis Game had the intention to reveal these points of light around the world, and to stimulate the culture of daily care with one another and with the place where one lives. A community can work together in a cooperative, imaginative and rapid way to build in one day a modern oasis: a physical space that promotes life, joy and restoration.

Ahmed's Interview amongst garden building frenzy (Photo by Harry Merken)

Whole community get hands-on for collective build

In De Klein Verld first the children arrived and they came in droves, collecting stones, picking up trash, digging up weeds, making paths, and beginning the spiral herb garden. They meticulously painted a mural of the flags of the community’s residents on a blank wall considered ‘the most dangerous place in the community’. Many adults remarked they never knew the neighbourhood has so many children. One child enthusiastically boasts, “We’re making a playground of old stuff and we’re nearly finished making a football field and a swing from an old tire.”

Newly created Zip Line gets tested out by tarzan swinging experts (Photo by Harry Merken)

Three girls were singing while painting a dark and dirty tunnel. In painting a colorful mural of flowers and plants, the passage quickly transformed into a bright gallery of magic.

Mural of De Klein Verld's flags get painted by residents (Photo by Harry Merken)

Young and old, black, brown, and white, everyone seemed infected with the Brazilian optimism. As Moroccan women pulled a stubborn stump out from the ground she remarks that the men from the mosque are supposed to maintain the garden. In an area where she used to feel unwelcome she has committed to maintaining the vegetable and herb garden and to cooperate with a group of women from Somalia, Turkey, and Pakistan. They seem motivated by the fact that they can reinvent this spot into a key public space for the whole community while providing nutritious vegetables for their families.  A Dutch and Nigerian woman with green thumbs already have the new greenhouse built from recycled materials under their wing.

As inspiring as this has been it doesn’t surprise me so much as furthers my faith.  I strongly believe that everyone has the urge to contribute to something larger than themselves we are just waiting for the right opportunity to believe it is possible. Through working on hands on projects collectively diverse groups are reminded of what is possible when they start cooperating to create their common dreams – it may actually come true! Rodrigo and Paulo from the Instituto Elos shared their philosophy of not only working towards a ‘better’ world but also aiming to co-create the ‘best’ world possible.

Dancing and signing to brazilian rhythms (Photo by Harry Merken)

Brazilian fire has been lit and the final celebration tops it off!

As the weekend’s work in the De Klein Verld wrapped up it had to end in typical Brazilian form with a decent celebration – this one Oasis style packed with local talents and donated food. People danced and sung in a large circle on the street, kids played soccer in their newly created nets, and Alonso strums the guitar. This community has certainly been ignited with the Brazilian fever.


(Re)designing the Regions – a four day learning experience to engage, share, and learn from a number of small and large scale systematic transformation projects across Europe.  (Re)designing the Regions offered a unique perspective rarely tackled – to bridge micro-experimentations with macro-transformations. The format was interactive, varied series of learning journeys highlighting small scale experiments showcased either through a consistent format of presentations or site visits in Malmo and Copenhagen, alongside presentations and discussions about macro-frameworks from some forward-thinking organisations.

The criteria for selecting the conference participants followed the logic of Karl-Henrik Robert founder of the Natural Step and MSLS who stated, “I don’t believe that the solutions in society will come from the left or the right or the north or the south. They will come from islands within those organizations, islands of people with integrity who want to do something”.  Along the same lines, the conference brought together an intimate group of activated citizens who believed in the power of design and innovation irrespective of their position.  The gathering united people from an impressively wide range of disciplines and organizations including policy makers, government actors, public sector consultants, health care innovators, social and service designers, community development practitioners, as well as sustainability, and innovation organisations.

The seminar sought to shed light on a couple of thought-provoking questions:

–       Can ‘acupuncture’ of micro-projects achieve systemic change in a city or a region?

–       What tools are needed to activate and support local projects?

–       And how can design-based approaches enable planning by project?

While the sheer amount of interesting case studies from participants was astounding, the pressing question for me was  “how can we instill a sense of resourcefulness and collaboration to achieve both the local benefit and the large-scale impact?” something we so urgently need today.

I confirmed that creative communities are already showing their ability to innovate as they face the brunt of mainstream development and the socio-ecological crisis.  Despite adversity, citizens are taking ownership over their communities and creating relevant, forward thinking solutions of local scale.

The organization ‘Businesses for Local Living Economies’ (BALLE) provides a great example of this by demonstrating how local businesses can benefit from the local stewardship of the natural environment by promoting fair wages and smarter budget allocations that account for local needs. Additionally the trend of local living and sharing learning at a larger scale is gaining momentum through initiatives such as Transition Towns, la 27e Région’s Territoires en Résidences, Global Ecovillage Network, Slow Cities, Design of the Times Festival (DOTT), Urban Villages, ICLEI, the Oasis Game, Bioregionalism just to name some of the most inspiring ones.

Unfortunately, the connection between initiatives is often lacking. This creates the perception that only spontaneous disparate projects, rather than a systematic shift, is underway. There is enormous potential in open source technologies and developments hold incredible potential to share learning’s to propel society towards the thriving society of its dreams.

I came to (Re)designing the Regions as a recent graduate of Masters in Strategic Leadership Towards Sustainability with a thesis directly on ‘Collaborative Services: Communities Innovating Towards Sustainability’.  I was fresh with insights about the lack of vision and foresight that often prevents these interesting mini projects from being replicated. Very rarely are these experiments conceptualized in a broader framework/ region/ network.  While I did not come away from the program with any precise answers to my difficult questions I did leave with a renewed sense of possibility.  The plethora of projects, combined with the willingness to learn from each other in order to become more sustainable and cooperative are further proof that community-designed solutions are on the leading edge of the most effective and viable ones for the future. The examples presented over the course of the four days were some of most progressive across Europe – from the DOTT Festival in the UK, Young Foundation’s LaunchPad and Social Innovation Exchange, Sustainable Everyday Research and DESIS network, WWF One Planet Mobility, UK Building Schools of the Future programme, and Inciative Joven from Estremadura region in Spain to stimulate youth enterprises for public sector, in addition to all the different local living labs for social innovation such as Medea Lab’s “Living Labs” in Malmö and CopenhagenMind Lab a Danish Ministry do-tank, and MidtLab.

The demonstrated potential to foster social cohesion was for me an exciting element of the micro-project examples. Visiting a number of interesting grassroots initiatives around Malmo such as a community garden, community centre, and cohousing apartments it became clearer that participants in these service innovations rely upon each other in order to maintain it.  While a question reemerged for me that we had looked at in our research: “how could the longevity of the service be instilled when the success is often so tied to one charismatic committed leader?”. Our thesis research identified how integrating a core team of 5-7 individuals who practice alternative forms of servant and active leadership for the whole community, who plan from the outset their own demise it can help avoid burnout, over-dependence, and service breakdown.

These services can help foster sense of collectivism by encouraging people to work together for a common goal, sharing resources and tools, often without realizing social ties and trust are built and strengthened.

I was also enthused with the growing nature of participatory bottom up innovation, which beyond existing are being increasingly recognized, illuminated, and connected to larger frameworks. A positive indication was the way the movement is beginning to be supported on multiple levels by municipal, regional, national, non-profit, corporate, European, and international institutions. I believe it is this intersection for collaboration where change occurs and offers the most potential, scaling up, and keeping pace.  A number of experts my thesis team had interviewed provide insightful additions in this regard. Philine Warnke (senior researcher at Competence Centre Foresight Innovation & Technology Management) explained these community-initiated projects are a major indicator of social innovation and technology, but are yet to be funded/ fostered as such. As Rob Hopkins (founder of the Transition Towns movement – which aims to equip communities with the dual challenges of climate change and peak oil with socio-economic relocalisation) discussed collaborative services and social enterprise is the next step for transition towns and he feels is the only way the movement can grow in the communities it can offer the most for and far into the future. Charles Landry (urban innovator and founder of Comedia Consultancy) coined the phrase “creative bureaucracy” a concept referring to an enabling policy that allows making mistakes and experimenting (while using municipal resources). Landry’s concept of a creative bureaucracy refers to the idea that having successful community initiatives supported by municipalities often outweigh the price of wrong turns along the way. As these experts and others at the seminar agree we are only beginning to explore these unique partnerships between bottom-up, public sector, governmental, and strategic.

Participants and presenters discussed the importance of having overarching systems and frameworks and a shared vision.   In my discussions with participants I found there was discrepancy amongst the understanding of what exactly this would mean on the ground and how it could be fostered. I would like to support a comprehensive call to arms for the various projects to coalesce around cooperation and to showcase the potential for systematic transition towards sustainability.  My research had focused on applying strategic sustainable development lens with the objective of discovering what advice could be offered to communities wanting to cultivate successful Collaborative Services that move society towards sustainability. We focused on creating assessment and evaluation tools for communities and uncovering some of the ‘ingredients’ to support a more strategic approach in the shift.  In remembering the constraints and set backs of some of the initiatives we studied I am still curious after seeing these impressive projects at the seminar if the projects had clear definitions of sustainability?  If not how is the initiative sure it is supporting a move in the right direction, that it offers a flexible platform, and that it provides sufficient return on investment (in a holistic sense of community capitals or well-being for example)? What are the collective tools for dialogue for groups and communities of practice to create a shared vision of success and collectively determine strategic guidelines, actions, and tools to follow through on it.

Redesigning the Regions provided an uplifting journey I look forward to continuing.  The conference opened up many interesting potential partnerships. Thank you to all the participants, presenters, and organisers who made these days so memorable and inspiring!

This summer 2010 I will embarking on a learning journey with fellow change agents and social pollinators called Curb to Curb * City-to-City which is part of a larger movement we are calling Curbside Conversations. We will be seeking unusual conversations in public spaces to stimulate meaningful collective action towards sustainability. I am very interested in sharing with and learning from the progressive and passionate individuals and organisations I have met while attending (Re)Designing the Regions and feel it is just the beginning of witnessing and supporting macro-transformations initiated by the ingenuity of communities creating micro-experimentations.


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