Facilitating communities of action for the common good and the interests of the Polis

Imagine the City started in 2009 aiming to redefine the processes and relationships that shape the image and experience of contemporary Greek cities. An informal, open team of young people interested in design and architecture started to host weekly meetings to discuss issues such as: What are the criteria that define public works in Greek cities? Why do public spaces and urban environments in our country not reflect the creative human potential we have in the fields of design, architecture, and urban planning? How can we change the way citizens interact with and take care of the public space?

In the past 7 years, the project has created a social platform in physical spaces, where citizens have the opportunity to be informed, discuss and consider the possibilities of improving their quality of life and imagine their city in a different way, with the higher aim to participate in decision-making processes about urban infrastructure and public works. Imagine the City develops public exhibitions in different Greek cities in which local architects, designers, urban planners and artists showcase their proposals, ideas, solutions, and plans for each city, enhanced by a series of parallel urban events.

After the success of the first exhibition in the city of Chalkis in 2009, instead of accepting invitations to organize similar exhibitions in other cities, we created a digital manual documenting our experience, tools and guidelines, which was made openly available to other local teams to use and develop. The result is that Imagine the City has organically been developed in 13 Greek cities by interdisciplinary teams that bring together local authorities, businesses, universities and civil society groups. Exhibitions have hosted over 400 proposals by 650 creators. Two hundred parallel events have taken place and over 100.000 citizens have participated in the different activities. The manual is being evolved and includes from branding guidelines to fundraising and public engagement tips.

The exhibits consist of material that participants have developed as students and researchers in the framework of academic projects in Greece or abroad, or as professionals with a social responsibility or interest to promote their work. The proposals suggest aesthetic and functional improvements of cultural, touristic or environmental importance through sketches, videos, and 3D models. The parallel urban events are developed exclusively for each city, focusing on the dissemination of information, knowledge, and perceptions to the local community, encouraging the participation of youth and children to experimental efforts to transform the urban space. Through debates, presentations, workshops and urban interventions we release knowledge about urban development, shed light on unknown sides of each city and create common ground for new partnerships to emerge at the local level.  The trans-local and self-organised character of Imagine the City has activated the dynamic involvement of academic and public institutions, formal and informal teams, local businesses and simple citizens.

Beyond the discussions on local issues, Imagine the City has provoked a public dialogue of the political decision-making and planning processes in Greece, it has questioned the way we inhabit public spaces and has promoted a different urban culture in which citizens propose, evaluate, co-decide, activate and take care of the public space.

At the same time, the community created the ground for a series of spin-off projects: From IDEATOPOS, the first panhellenic conference on Place Marketing and Branding to SynOikia Pittaki, a participatory light installation that became a landmark of Athens, to Politeia 2.0, a platform for political innovation to redesign the Greek Constitution from the bottom-up. The need to scale up these projects led to the creation of the non-profit organization Place Identity, which acts as a cluster of projects for urban regeneration and political innovation.

I initiated Imagine the City as a young designer interested in strategic and participatory design. Since then, it has evolved from a “think tank” to a “platform” to a “trans-local community”. Myself, as the initial “caller” and “facilitator” and other people that got involved in the project coordination, allowed for systematic experimentation and risk-taking. The collectives that gradually joined our mission gave an unexpected dynamic to the project. Every now and then, we attempted to identify and showcase the ingredients and values that released creativity and joy within our network, causing a multiplier effect in local communities.

Throughout the years, we experienced many difficult moments and failures which nevertheless shaped our success. When we failed to gain official partnerships with Municipalities and Universities, we decided to reach directly to the academics, students, and citizens. When we failed to launch the digital Imagine the City platform, we decided to focus on the relationships and processes that are required in the physical space and it turned out this served our local teams better. Every collective challenge can become a step to a new collective insight and result in practical social innovation.

In order to change the image and the experience of a city, you have to observe an entire system and not be afraid by its complexity. You need to face the public procurement processes for urban works, architecture competitions, political decision-making and the separation of powers. You need to rethink your role as the citizen, to understand deeply how a Democracy ought to function, to establish the political rights that you are not aware of. Otherwise, the city (polis) becomes an arena of conflicting material and psychological interests and soon gets out of control.

Through communities of care that work for a common cause, you learn how to trust the other, and thus one’s self. Unfortunately, in our country, we show to one another and to our society more suspicion and blame than trust and empathy. Maybe we keep reflecting society whatever we fail to manage within us. Maybe this is why Greek society still fails to “grow up”.

A community of change can only be facilitated if you are open, transparent and if you manage to demonstrate collective audacity while remaining the custodian of a team’s shared values. When success triggers humility and difficulties spark evolution.

If you ask me about the future of Imagine the City, personally, I would like it to see it evolve into something I cannot even imagine today, just the way I could not imagine the way it would evolve to date since we first started. I wish it could catalyze holistic solutions for the challenges faced by contemporary cities. As for now, Imagine the City has reached the closure of a first cycle. Interest from new cities to join has decreased significantly and those teams that have been activated in the past are unable to scale their activities without systematic organizational and financial support. Due to the financial crisis, local businesses cannot afford financial or in-kind sponsorships to fund urban activities. At the same time, larger sponsors are not interested in supporting projects in smaller cities due to limited promotion opportunities. However, there is a growing interest in research and training opportunities related to Imagine the City and the processes that could truly empower and scale our trans-local community.

We are considering to launch the Imagine the City Academy: a trans-local training program that will support local interdisciplinary teams who develop prototype urban regeneration projects focusing on citizens’ engagement. Building on past experience and existing local teams, we wish to promote action research on new models of managing public works to design holistic solutions that respond to the real needs of cities and local communities. The Academy could offer administrative, educational and financial support for local teams to exchange know-how, apply participatory tools, develop policy proposals and materialize prototype urban interventions. This program has been budgeted at 270.000€ for a period of 5 years. The first year would focus on mapping the results and analyzing the needs of local teams so far, as well as process design for the program. The second would entail an open call, dissemination campaign and activation of cross-sector partnerships at the local level. The actual training program and project development phase of local projects would be in years 3 and 4. In the last year, we would evaluate results of local projects and make participatory policy proposals to tackle the systemic issues that suffocate creativity and participation in urban planning in Greece.

I work as a freelance designer and have a small company, theSwitch, which I co-founded in 2005 with a group of friends. While working on branding and designing professional spaces, I started working on methodologies of strategic and participatory design and I got involved in a series of social projects. In social projects, by design, I try to apply principles of self-organisation, self-sufficiency, sustainability, and independent financing but for the moment I cannot claim that I have managed to achieve the results I aim for… I think that in our country it is even more difficult due to the financial breakdown and the close networks of power. Often, sponsorships tend to manipulate projects or connect them to certain political agendas. We have also experienced funding programs that can destroy something truly innovative through their bureaucratic mechanisms or to make it easier for society to digest. I consider as my main personal goal to be professional, financially and politically independent so as to be open to collaboration, respecting a predefined set of values and encouraging substantial progress.

My involvement in public affairs started from my teenage years, in the city where I grew up where I was part of the scout’s community and a student magazine team. I have spent innumerable hours volunteering in my life, yet I am against “volunteering” as an end in itself, or as a “culture” that apparently needs to be cultivated. I believe that Greece was never short of “philotimo” (love of honor) and “meraki” (love in doing), solidarity and social care actions. However organized civil society is not recognized in our constitution and our institutions, its positive impact neither being acknowledged nor encouraged.

What we need to cultivate today is a culture of holistic and creative problem-solving. Communities do not need volunteers but of citizens committed to solving problems – not just pointing out issues and ideas! I mean, solving problems in practice. If we do not take the responsibility of applying what we believe in, even in pilot projects, if we do not create new paradigms and do not experience political maturity, then we can keep talking politics (“politika”) but we cannot live as citizens (“polites"). Before sticking to political identities and ideologies, we need to achieve political rights and the freedom that will enable mixed policy and governance models. Instead of allowing closed networks of power to define our lives, these governance models could facilitate communities of action for the common good and the interests of the Polis.

Are more photos of interventions available?

@Imagine_the_City hi. Thanks for being so generous with your thoughts, especially as a newcomer to this platform. If you are based in Thessaloniki (or are you in Chalkis?), you probably know the ladies at @Tópio who are working with schools on creative redos of public spaces?

How do you manage to stay independent if you’re involving such different groups and people? After a while if your “recipe” for events is compelling and people self-organise to follow it, your events will have a life of their own and may be able to move off the grid. Do you coordinate in any way?