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Collaboration as key: No “us and them” philosophy

Collaboration is the most critical part of building urban resilience. It can make a big difference when it comes to mastering challenges, such as pandemics, climate change or simply creating healthy and liveable cities.

City of Leuven, Belgium. In Leuven, there are many projects that call on city residents to participate in urban design. © Tobias Cornille on unsplash




Collaboration is the most critical part of building urban resilience. It can make a big difference when it comes to mastering challenges, such as pandemics, climate change or simply creating healthy and liveable cities. However, when Gerald Babel-Sutter, CEO of Urban Future, speaks of collaborations he thinks of the truly working together, a form of collaborating that allows new ways of doing things to take shape.

2020 was a stress test. Being hit by a global health pandemic caught every individual and every organization totally off guard. While some succeeded, others failed to do so. Companies went out of business, families broke apart, and some governments were shockingly ill-prepared to do anything but point the finger at others. As coronavirus sees events unfolding rapidly, you are either prepared, or you are not. So how come some appear to have mastered this ‘stress test’ so much better than others?

Let me make the case for one key ingredient that I believe has made the difference: collaboration. Yes, I know what you might be thinking: “Seriously? Aren’t we all collaborating already?” In a way, we are. But I’m not talking about only communicating with each other or sharing information, something often confused with collaboration. I’m referring to true collaboration that includes not only the critical skill of genuinely listening to each other in conversation, but also allowing for new ways of doing things to develop. For me, collaboration is the most critical part of building resilience.

Collaboration as the most critical part of building resilience

Let’s look at cities – highly complex systems with many stakeholders. How else would you be able to get anything done in a very short time if not with collaboration? Yet, to an alarming number of cities, it is nothing more than lip service. But there are some cities that have embraced a different approach, with huge payoffs. Take the Belgian city of Leuven, for example. 20 years ago, they started “Stand up for your Neighbourhood”, a programme that saw the municipality collaborate with citizens to design and implement all kinds of community-driven projects. In 2019 the city of only around 100,000 inhabitants launched “Leuven co-create”; another such project, which was basically an open call to citizens to submit their ideas on how to make Leuven a better place to live. An amazing number of 2,000 proposals were received. Even more amazing was the fact that around 1,000 of them were funded, supported and implemented!

Power to citizens

Apart from the projects, the most crucial benefit of their 20 years of community driven action was that citizens, experts and politicians learned to work together. They learned how to articulate ideas, how to defend them among peers, how to be open to evaluation and to ideas for improvement. Leaders learned how it feels to step back and give power to citizens and teams, who in turn quickly realized that their involvements pay off and that their ideas can make an impact. When the coronavirus crisis hit in 2020, this was the foundation of Leuven’s resilience. Only days after the lockdown started, citizens had come up with solutions to some of the most pressing challenges, asking the city for technical support to launch “Leuven Helps”. This online platform connected residents in need with volunteers ready to help. Not only was Leuven the first city to set up a platform of this kind in response to coronavirus, but it was also adopted by roughly 280 cities around the world.

Connecting change makers from around the world

I am convinced that collaboration can make the difference when it comes to mastering challenges. I have experienced this firsthand. My team and I organize an international conference – and while many in the event industry did not survive the crisis, collaboration saved our company, making it even stronger. At our events, thousands of the most passionate urban change makers come together. There is a unique spirit of sharing authentic experiences, both the good and the bad. When coronavirus hit us, we were so shocked that we basically froze until our partners started to reanimate us. It was our partners who help ed us develop new perspectives on what we do: connecting change makers from around the world. So now, more than ever, I am convinced that in order to prepare yourself, your businesses, your community or region for a crisis ahead, make sure you know how to truly collaborate.

GERALD BABEL-SUTTER is a passionate change-maker. As the Co-founder and CEO of Urban Future, he brings together the world’s most passionate urban decision-makers. Babel-Sutter studied at Karl-Franzens-University of Graz, Montclair State University, New York University, Columbia University and Harvard Business School.

Read this article in topos 114. Read another “Edge City” column here.

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