#18: Luca Bertolini on... creating systemic change by learning from urban experiments

We spoke to Luca Bertolini, professor of urban planning at the University of Amsterdam and a world-renowned urban mobility expert, in Spring 2021 about the link between urban mobility experiments and urban sustainable transition. Luca’s research and teaching focuses on the integration of transport and urban planning for humane, sustainable and just cities, and on concepts and practices to enable transformative urban and mobility change. He also explores ways of enhancing collaboration across different academic disciplines and between academia and society. Luca is currently leading the EXTRA project project, funded by JPI Urban Europe, at the UvA and participating in the CLEAR and SET projects, funded by EIT Urban Mobility. Read on to hear more about Luca’s perspective on urban mobility experiments, his core belief in the need to learn from them to bring about systemic change, and his view on the relationship between the pandemic and sustainable transition.

There's too much going on right now around experimenting for the sake of experimenting, or even innovating for the sake of innovating. Experiments should be used to understand and identify potential barriers and enablers to system change. And not just any system change, but system change in a certain direction, away from something and towards something else (hopefully a better world). In the case of street experiments, this sentiment is captured in the slogan that we use in our recent article “from streets for traffic to streets for people”. Of course, this is simplistic but it's a useful way of looking at it. 

A niche is a protected space in which alternative arrangements are set up that contrast with the status quo of the dominant regime. What happens in a niche is experimental in the sense that it can fail, it can be successful, and it's above all an opportunity to learn. The important point is that it gives you a way to actively explore a potential to system change.

Urban experiments are something you try out because you don't know something, and you want to learn more. But they’re not by definition connected to systemic change. By putting urban experimentation within a transition research framework (like I do), you're forced to be much more precise and analytic in terms of identifying how such experiments could trigger system change. 

Recent research shows that transformative capacity – how much so-called urban experiments really contribute to potential systems change– is not assessed during most urban experimentation projects. This is kind of surprising when you consider that the point of experimenting is to learn! We need to create more urban spaces in which you can learn by doing and, crucially, monitor the whole process to produce more fundamental learnings about how to bring about systemic change.

 

So, we need more focus (in terms of more multi-level resources and requirements) on learning for systemic change - on the potential of experiments to ignite systemic change. If you take seriously the sorts of challenges we currently face (social, economic, and environmental), which are very complex, you cannot just “scale up” successful initiatives or make something that is temporary, permanent - for example, replicating street experiments across a city. Of course, that could be part of the process, but it is more important to understand in detail the drivers and enablers of a transformation because it's not just about the how but also about the what.

Too many of these processes assume that we all agree on what needs to be done and who should do it, and it's just a matter of finding out how exactly to enact systemic change and then doing it. Everybody will win. But it's not that simple. When you see how these things play out in a real world, you realise that there are always winners and losers of systemic transitions – think of the gilet jaunes and other movements. What they are in fact telling us, is that there is much we still must learn, and that we will only learn it by engaging with different others.

The problem with most EU and national funding programmes for urban experimentation is that they are made for institutionalised actors: local governments, universities, SMEs, established NGOs, and so on. As a result, there's very little room for less institutionalized actors – those usually with more radical ideas  - to be involved. This is counterproductive because these actors are the gatekeepers of places where real alternatives might emerge. So, the question remains: can we expect regime actors like the state to be receptive to more “radical” actors and ideas even if they undermine the state’s position or force them to become something else?

True systems change requires institutionalised actors to give away power – to accept a role where they create the conditions for others to do the experimentation, rather than doing it themselves. There is a big question mark over whether these actors want to or even can do this. It’s very political. There are conflicts and winners and losers (and different ones depending on the direction of change). So, we need to devote more time and space to figuring out how we create space for political deliberation. Transformations, or transitions (whatever you call them) are inevitably political and about redistributing costs and benefits. So, the point is: how can we create more space for dialogue about this with different actors?

A lot of resources and effort are put into setting up urban experiments but very little is spent on thinking about how to continue when the experiments officially end. So we need to place more emphasis on what happens after an experiment or programme stops (for example, when a European funding programme ends). We need requirements and resources to ensure that experiments can impact the long-term and lead to systemic change.

For me, a successful research innovation project is one that, at the end of this process, has opened up the imagination of all the people involved, including us academics, about what is possible. The point with urban experiments is not just to understand what kind of experiments or even what kind of city we want or need. The point is to enlarge peoples’ imaginations and make them act on these new visions. That’s the major achievement - not how many experiments you’ve done, or how many temporary street arrangements have become permanent, or how much of your research has been taken up in policy. Of course, these things are relevant and important. But the main goal should be to enlarge peoples’ capacity to imagine and also to act upon their imagination.

 

The true value of experimentation lies not in materially achieving things, then, but in enabling people to experience things firsthand. Urban experiments offer a safe, temporary space to try something different. You can change a street for a month, or even just a day, and people that would never normally consider parking their car further away will do it because it’s temporary. By experiencing that the street could be used in a very different way, they see that another world is possible - maybe even desirable – and this can bring about more long-term change than the pure material act of transforming the street itself.

The COVID-19 pandemic could be characterised as a landscape change: it’s not an experiment, it's a change in the landscape that opens up windows of opportunity. The regime cannot function as it used to, so you have to try different things – like working from home or taking calls online instead of in-person. Now that the pandemic is (maybe) coming to more of a close, either we can say “let's go back to where we were” or we make an explicit choice to see it as an incredible opportunity to explore a possible system change: to learn what a world with heavy constraints on mobility - on traveling far and fast - could look like.

For me, the tragedy of this moment in many fields, but certainly in the urban mobility field, is that I really don't see enough learning or exchange happening. It’s not a question of just simply "will this become permanent or not?" but will we learn from barriers and enablers that this experience has shown us? And you really have to want to learn. Whether the pandemic triggers a system change from streets for traffic to streets for people depends on many different factors – maybe we will have different trajectories in some places that will ignite some system change, and in others no changes at all. But to enact a fundamental change, we must build and examine the experiences we’ve had (the evidence or data we’ve accumulated during the pandemic) to understand why there have been changes in some places and in others no change at all.

We should use the experience built up during the pandemic to learn and, from that, create a better, more sophisticated idea of how we could live well in a world with less mobility. Lots of people say that only technology will solve the problems we face – climate change, etc. – and that's not trivial, because our lives are dependent on technology (for example, technology that facilitates our mobility), especially now that we live in a globalised world. But it is not only about technology, it is also, and perhaps most of all about our lives. How do we carry on moving in more sustainable ways? Can we maybe live better while moving less? What would we need to allow that? Which brings us back to the real challenge: how can we enable people to imagine and then create a better world? The pandemic is teaching us something. But the question is: are we learning from it?