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Community Engagement, People, Urban Design

Towards Collective Action for Better Cities

With every passing decade, we are becoming an increasingly interconnected civilization, and this enables us to race along in our growth trajectory spurred by a rapid flow of information and communication. Technologies as well as trends grow exponentially today, feeding off of this massive potential for making connections between events, processes and thoughts that emerge from geographically and culturally disparate locations and people.

Whether we realize it or not, we all play a role in creating a momentum of growth, in one direction or another, through the choices and decisions we make. So this interconnected network of information (and therefore action) that we are all a part of can be an invaluable tool to influence the changes we want to see in our cities, neighborhoods and communities, if as a collective we can find a way to work together to realize this potential. Operating as a collective enables us to steer towards changes that are much greater in magnitude than our individual impacts and isolated efforts. Since these changes can cause the shifts we want to see in the processes around us, taking on large or systemic issues (sustainability, equity etc) as a collective is beneficial to all of us in the longer term.


Visualization of wiki structure using prefuse visualization package” by Chris Davis at en.wikipedia. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons

An important piece in this equation is the term ‘collective’ – what does that really mean? A dictionary definition would be something like – ‘ of, done by, or characteristic of individuals acting in cooperation’. These could be not-for-profit organizations, citizens groups, professional bodies etc. It is safe to agree that a key aspect of the functioning of a collective is cooperation between individuals. However, it is one thing to define it and quite another to see it through in practice.

The Challenges Involved in Working Collectively

Screenshot from “F.R.I.E.N.D.S – Season 5, Episode 4 : The one where Phoebe hates PBS”

Screenshot from “F.R.I.E.N.D.S – Season 5, Episode 4 : The one where Phoebe hates PBS”

Despite the increasing prevalence of positive intention as well as the alignment of views in several key issues which motivates people to come together for a collective purpose, working as a collective can be a challenging prospect. This is simply because most often, while people want to help, there is also a self-serving motive behind most actions which might include recognition, control, or even just validation (I know I am often guilty of the last). As the character of Joey Tribbiani argues in the popular show ‘Friends’, even a completely selfless deed to help someone else is done to make one feel good and can therefore be thought of as selfish. But this is okay. This set of contrary behaviors – to want to collaborate while also look out for one’s interests – is natural in humans and is described by several scientific studies. In the practice of working as a collective though, this could lead to personal differences and conflict due to unrealized expectations, that can be counter-productive to collaboration, even when shared views and ideologies between individuals exist.

And so for people participating in collective action, it is useful to have a set of broad principles of engagement – not policies (that need to be policed) but etiquette and courtesies that will help to further the goals of the group but also enable each one of us to know whether we are in a position to get personal benefit in the short term from cooperation or not.

1. Be selective and aligned
To participate, it is essential that individuals be aligned to the objectives and purposes of the collective. But in addition, to be effective the collective will have to operate on certain basic frameworks that set out the agreed manner in which individuals operate and decisions be made. It is all too easy to get involved with a group, with certain expectations in mind, only to have disagreements later.  So before signing up to collaborate, we need to be very clear about what the purpose is, what the frameworks are to operate within the collective and whether we are / can be aligned with these ideas. This is not only important for the collective to work well towards its purpose, but also to ensure that as individuals we get what we need out of it. It is okay, even important, to have a wishlist of personal outcomes and to be selective on that basis, as that will avoid potential conflict later.

2. Be communicative and respectful
Regardless of whether we choose to be a part of a collective or not, we need to always communicate respectfully and offer the courtesy of listening to others’ point of view before making a judgement. This might seem like an obvious thing to say but it is all too easy to be aloof, unheeding, inflammatory or even abusive in the name of voicing one’s opinions – certain threads on social media show us this over and over again. Having said that, it is also important to state our case when it is valid, to ensure that what we have to say is heard and discussed.  At the end of the day what matters is communication that is constructive and takes discussion forward, rather than statements and opinions that lead to a stalemate.

3. Be active and productive

As part of a collective, it is completely okay for individuals to have different levels of involvement over different periods of time. Sometimes all that’s needed from some people is subscription to the ideals of the collective or support in numbers. But in many cases just signing up to show support is insufficient to realize a goal. If we choose to participate actively, far from absolving us from responsibility or agency, the collective actually increases it. What that means is, it is important to be self-motivated, to take ownership of agreed responsibilities, to be ethical and be committed to seeing it through just as we would with any important task. Especially because of its inherent lack of rigid hierarchy, the potency of the collective comes from the numerous actions of many individuals coming together. It is effective because of  cooperative actions, not just shared intent.

4. Be introspective and flexible

Finally and most importantly, it is necessary to accept that there will be differences within any group, no matter how homogeneous. What matters is not who is right but whether anything positive comes out of the exchange. Regardless of any expertise we have claim to (whether we have a lot of it or none at all), the process of collaborating with others will lead to exchanges that can be beneficial and that can add to or modify our thinking. We need to be flexible enough to accept that and introspect and adapt when necessary. Sometimes we might have to make small individual compromises to stay aligned with the larger vision. And while it is necessary to give credit where it is due, if we agree to work collaboratively, we need to leave personal egos out of it as they are counter-productive and get in the way of achieving a truly collective movement towards a shared vision or purpose.

If put to use well, these principles of engagement can help individuals to perform in the best manner available to them, to further their own goals as well as to enable meaningful collective action. While it can be a challenging proposition, the potential that collaboration offers to generate purposeful and meaningful change and exchange is worth the effort of following these courtesies and attempting to get along. The spirit of the collective should be that at the end, what matters is that everyone is treated with respect and enabled to work together to produce the maximum benefit for all.

Working with Urban Design Collective

As an organization, the UDC subscribes to this idea of the Collective. We serve as a collaborative platform for design professionals – who otherwise as individuals get excluded in the city building process – to work in collaboration.
As we are getting into our fourth year in 2016, these reflections on collective action represent who we are and some of our aspirations for the future. So come join us and contribute to this effort. A good place to begin is right here, with your thoughts and ideas on what it means to participate in the collective!


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