Make space for adaptation and experimentation

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Make Space for Adaptation and Experimentation

❖ “Failure is a natural part of experimentation and innovation!” ("Berlin" Arena, 03.2021)

❖ “Experimentation often means risk, who can afford to take a risk?” ("Berlin" Arena, 03.2021)

General ambition

Adaptability within initiatives for sustainable and just cities means leaving space for careful modifications and detours along their path to fulfilling overarching visions. In other words, initiatives may benefit from continuously and collectively deciding how much they are willing to adapt their plans based on new information and circumstances.

Initiatives should be responsive to both external and internal changes ("Berlin" Arena, 03.2021). This requires regular internal reflection amongst initiative proponents on shifting political, social, ecological and economic conditions, as well as on new developments and knowledge from within the project. Long-term goals may also need adaptation to reflect the priorities and opinions of different stakeholder groups (e.g. concerns about gentrification from urban greening processes) ("Berlin" Arena, 03.2021).

Openness to adaptation entails striking a balance between sticking rigidly to pre-set agendas and a lack of persistence with former decisions. A reflexive approach to adaptability can support initiatives’ efforts to remain viable, gain influence, and stick to their transformative ideas.

In many cases, a basic level of adaptability is required to keep initiatives afloat in difficult circumstances, such as the removal of important subsidies. In others, short-term flexibility may allow initiatives to take advantage of beneficial windows of opportunity.

While this type of adaptability is reactive, many innovative experiences benefit from proactively adopting an experimental approach to project design and implementation. An experimental mindset uses a “probe and learn” approach. It allows room for mistakes and new developments, while still working towards long-term visions. Furthermore, in celebration of “mistake culture”, failure can be normalized as a natural part of experimentation and innovation ("Berlin" Arena, 03.2021)! Such a mindset can be embodied in an organization’s culture and structures. A critical mass of initiative supporters who uphold an experimental ethos will allow for more learning opportunities and creative ways to tackle seemingly unchangeable injustices and unsustainable practices.


Regeneration of a deprived neighborhood in Rotterdam

Project leaders of the Resilience Lab had an overall vision of the project development, but it was not set in stone. The project consortium was given a “carte blanche” for developing and experimenting. Whereas most funded projects are predefined and have to follow a pre-established framework, project members had the freedom to progressively develop and adapt their ideas to the local context. This freedom was crucial to the success of the Reliance Lab (Q13). The Resilience Lab was thus a test bed for new methodologies and innovative practices (Q17). For instance, the creation of a community center was not planned in advance and was envisioned and initiated by local stakeholders (Q27 & Q28).

Learn more about this intervention:

Holistic neighbourhood development Augustenborg

An experimental approach where project members were not too uptight and were open to learning from mistakes was crucial (Q20). In the beginning, many people shared this experimental mindset. However, when certain individuals were replaced by others (e.g due to changes in department heads) without this mentality, adaptivity and experimentation started to diminish. There was no longer a critical mass of people who held a shared sense of responsibility, and there was more fear of making mistakes (Q20).

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BürgerEnergie Berlin

When energy company Vattenfall filed a lawsuit against the Berlin government's decision to remunicipalise the city’s energy network, the odds seemed stacked against BEB. To stay relevant and to achieve their overarching goal of green electricity production and provision, BEB is reinventing itself and working on numerous other projects including solar energy production. A BEB representative in an interview said: “...adapting to the circumstances is very important because over time ... circumstances change a lot. You have to constantly reflect whether your vision is still relevant and up to date and do we need to adapt and can we carry on” (Q25).

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Community led affordable housing in Brussels

While they try to develop standardised procedures whenever possible, the Land Trust team finds it essential to reflect and adapt to internal learning and external change: “We are constantly reflecting on things... For every part of the operation we regularly rethink how to do it. This happens at the level of the team, and also on the level of our working groups, partner associations, experts and other stakeholders, and the level of our board." (Interview with practitioner) (Q26a). Furthermore, from the beginning, the Brussels Capital Region, a major financial supporter of the Land Trust, was responsive to the initiative’s interests, allowing it space to develop its innovative ideas (Q20).

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Co-creation of a sustainable neighborhood in Freiburg

The municipality implemented the principle of “Planning that Learns," meaning that pilot initiatives would be tested experimentally before being widely enforced. A prime example of this principle is the parking-free area in Freiburg-Vauban, which was established for only a part of the district (Interview with practitioner).

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Some action idea(s), examples, and resources from UrbanA’s "Berlin" Arena (03.21)

➔ At conferences or gatherings, discuss processes, challenges and failures instead of outcomes. This helps learn about adaptability.

➔ Ensure that co-creation processes have some structure and flexibility at the same time.

➔ Networks like ENOLL (European Network of Living Labs) connect and support 150+ LivingLabs which experiment and innovate in real-life settings:

That is not all! Additional insights from the “Berlin” Arena are included throughout this Enabling Governance Arrangement.

Relation to justice in urban sustainability governance

Adaptability in project design and implementation allows for responsiveness to changing social and economic conditions and allows initiatives to meet the shifting needs of those it serves. Leaving space for adaptation and experimentation may be a salve for unfit institutional structures. ‘Unfit institutional structures’ refers to the strict top-down approaches which limit knowledge generation and exchange, and to rigid bureaucracies and regulatory barriers which often result in sustainability policies that fail to address the realities of vulnerable residents. In lieu of risk-averse and rigid project management approaches, experimental mindsets based on ideas from various actors may allow for more innovative thinking around how to tackle injustice.

Critical reflection

When initiatives adapt too well to an environment that is structurally unsustainable and unjust, they risk losing their transformative potential and integrity, e.g. as a ‘counter model’. Calls for adaptability can also help to pursue other agendas under the disguise of vague commitments to sustainability and justice.

Furthermore, adaptations of initiative design and implementation can lead to unanticipated costs and challenges. Projects working with vulnerable groups may be more risk averse and try to minimize risk from experimentation as to avoid harming these people (i.e. low income residents developing social housing) (Interview with practitioner). Experimentation in social justice initiatives can also be a sensitive topic, since those involved already face discrimination and should not feel like they are being “experimented on. Instead projects should create arrangements where people can adapt, learn and grow ("Berlin" Arena, 03.2021).

Additionally, projects may not allow for real experimentation and adaptation ("Berlin" Arena, 03.2021). “No-strings attached” funding is rare, and instead most funded projects are predefined and follow a pre-established framework, consequently limiting adaptability.

Finally, while stoically sticking to a preset agenda might limit creative opportunities for overcoming problems, being “too flexible” could give an impression of incompetence and disarray, therefore reducing stakeholder confidence and commitment to the project. Especially with social media, some project leaders may be afraid of innovating due to negative public feedback ("Berlin" Arena, 03.2021).

Covid-19 connection

Adaptability is essential for initiatives operating in the context of Covid-19 – a time of great economic and social uncertainty. The global pandemic necessitates a basic level of flexibility, as adaptation of many aspects, from daily activities to long-term strategic planning, may be essential for an initiative’s survival. Going forward, this situation presents a strong case for building-in opportunities for flexibility by leaving space for contingency plans, and encourages an experimental mindset to explore new ways of flourishing under vastly different circumstances.