Q&A: reSITE's Martin Barry on Designing Sharing Cities in Europe

Earlier this summer, I was invited to lead a workshop at reSITE 2017: In/visible City, an annual conference in Prague, Czech Republic, that brings together 1,000 architects, municipal leaders, planners, students, and investors, to discuss how to create "liveable, competitive, and resilient" cities. This has become one of the key events of Shared Cities: Creative Momentum, a four-year project aimed at addressing the contemporary urban challenges of European cities. It's a joint project of 11 organizations in six central and eastern European countries. A few weeks after the conference, I caught up with reSITE director Martin Barry to learn more about the Shared Cities project, the organizations involved, and the role of design in city planning.

Tom Llewellyn: Can you tell me a little more about the project and what you're hoping to achieve?

Martin Barry: The project was conceived on the idea that sharing is becoming inherently more viable, sort of a mechanism for living in cities. We believe that there's other spaces for sharing that haven't really been identified or maybe that exist underground in the cultural and civic sectors that haven't been commercialized yet. In our region particularly, in the cities we're working in, we have identified that there is this kind of more civic aspect of sharing that we want to highlight and that sharing, like I said, can be a really viable way of living in cities.

We're looking at not just sharing services, but sharing knowledge between sectors and across cultures. We're trying to identify new ways of thinking about how to develop the city based on cooperative or sharing models. Anything from hacking street furniture, which is happening with our partners in Berlin, to sharing knowledge to rethink what are so-called iconic ruins or industrial ruins in cities.

We're trying to now utilize data about what kind of sharing activities take place in these cities to create a kind of atlas and mark, or quantify the types of sharing activities that are occurring in each place, either through our project or outside our project.

You mentioned opportunities for civic and community involvement and data sharing led by municipalities as well as the role of technology. Can you talk a little more about where design comes in?

In Bratislava, for example, the idea is to rethink the concept of the urban square. So, utilizing community input to share stories about a place, to share resources, and identify people within a network that can then use their skills to design the place based on the inputs they get from community and other stakeholders in a particular area around the square. In that particular case, design is something of a physical space, the physical square.        

We have a platform which is connected to the Shared Cities project called the Ideas Incubator — using technology to solicit community input on public space or public development projects. We can launch a challenge on our platform and then people can then work on ideas and solutions and understanding about the site. They can contribute stories, narratives about a place that can then help inform others about how to design it, on the same platform. This is like, kind of crowdsourcing ideas, knowledge, narratives, in order to arrive at a better final design or final solution that would then ultimately be tendered.

In addition to Berlin and Bratislava, I know that Belgrade, Budapest, Katowice, Warsaw, and Prague are involved. Who else are you collaborating with?

In Katowice, the media lab are data visualization experts and they do a lot of workshops teaching the public about data and how it can be useful in design.

ZK/U, or KUNSTrePUBLIK, which is our art collective based in Berlin. They're a group that kind of occupied a former municipal building, it was a warehouse building and they turned it into an art collective and art residencies. They're focused on urban regeneration and design for the urban design for the urban environment through art and culture. Their project, hacking street furniture, which is ongoing, is about creating new models of urban street furniture, which is really interesting.

In Prague, we're mostly focused on the curatorial aspect, so we're trying to figure out new ways of seeing architecture and urbanism through the lens of sharing. That means we're creating a publication, like a major publication, at the end of the project, about sharing, which is going to be this atlas of sharing. Then there will be an exhibit as well that we're working on. Sharing is intangible, right? So we're trying to make sharing tangible and allow people to access it and see what it looks like and see what the physical space is or transactions are.

The Goethe-Institute is leading the project, which is interesting, because [with them] we have a big network of global partners that we're looking at bringing our exhibition about sharing to, so we're hoping that we can kind of expand beyond the region through them.

It seems like events which are bringing people together to learn and interact with each other and their environment are a core part of this work. Can you speak a little bit about the types of events that you've hosted and what kinds of events you plan to host in the future?

There have been about 150 events that have taken place across six cities and have reached 21,500 people. Over the course of our four-year project, we expect to have over 300 events. So this is really an exploration to find new ways of sharing.

The core part of the conference [reSITE 2017: In/visible City], which was part of Shared Cities, was a series of interactive workshops that we did which was anything from "Just Add People," which was a Berlin-based initiative, about building, using architectural pieces to create new networking, and opportunities so you have like new ways of exchanging with people, by building. ... We had a couple of data visualization workshops, which were about open data in order to help make decisions in cities and put data in the hands of, let's call them civic hackers. Those civic hackers can create new software, new applications, new websites or widgets, to help people improve their lives in the city.        

We've participated in a film festival in March where we talked about the impact of sharing and gentrification. We'll also run some kind of partner events, which aren't a core part of the project, but how sharing can reduce the impact of loneliness, so we're going to make a link between loneliness and sharing. This is kind of a sociological, psychological issue more than design.

The fact is that the paradox of cities is that sometimes you move to a big city because you want to be part of the action and have a better way of life, or have the opportunity to meet more people and often times big cities like New York, Tokyo, London, these are the cities that can be the most lonely. So, sharing can help alleviate that, either sharing your flat or sharing a car, sharing some space that maybe you have access to in the city. This can provide a whole host of new opportunities for people. So, loneliness and sharing will become part of the project starting in September. We have a couple of events coming up in Prague, Berlin, and then we'll expand to Munich as well.

Part of the funding for this project has come from the European Union. What about this project has piqued their interest? And what aspects do you think will be relevant to other cities in Europe and beyond?

The project is 50 percent co-funded by the European Union, so the total of 3.2 million Euro, 50 percent of that is coming from E.U. sources and all partners are required to fundraise independently, either through grants or like in reSITE's, most of the co-funding comes from the private sector. The export value is pretty high. I think the European Union is particularly interested in how the project was going to deal with technology ... when we applied for this grant the first time in 2014 and then again in 2015, it was clear that sharing was starting to have a big impact in cities and the easy cases, which we all talk about, are on the housing market. I think the European Union was keen to see, to understand what other models of sharing were out there.

It's a cultural project ultimately, so the idea is that were not really looking to export policy initiatives or finance initiatives. Of course, we talk about those things through the project but for European Union I think the idea was that they were interested in helping facilitate a conversation on sharing not only across cultures and transnationally, but what kind of solutions that we were going to come up with through our research, through our events, through our exchanges, that could impact their policies.

Sharing, as Jean-Louis Missika said at reSITE conference, is the future. Cities and municipalities will die if they don't learn how to share their own data and share their stories and allow citizens to share their stories with their politicians. It's really imperative that we learn how to do this properly, particularly in an age where we're more and more separated and segregated.

This project seems like a pretty massive undertaking, what are some of the challenges that you're either currently facing or have faced and what have you done to work through them?

There's several layers of that. I guess the one that we face is sharing amongst ourselves. It's easy to talk about sharing, maybe it's easy to write about it, but it's tough. We have 11 partners across seven cities in six countries. 65 or 70 people are working on this project and we've had 42 internal meetings over the last 12 or 15 months, two workshops, tons of Skyping and digital video conferences and it's tough to connect. Particularly because we all have a little bit different view on sharing or what the project means. For us [reSITE] as the curator and kind of program director or collaborator, it's hard to get everyone on the same page. So, just as an organizational perspective these projects are really hard, to not only talk about sharing to the public but to share internally. The collaboration has been amazing, but it's a tough thing to do to get so many organizations together to be behind one kind of shared mission.

The advantage we have, I think, is in being in Central and Eastern Europe a lot of the cities that were working with have a relatively similar story. Relatively inefficient municipalities that are not very open-minded. We all experience the same challenge of talking to our municipalities. It's maybe an older mentality of not wanting to be open, not seeing the value of sharing, not seeing the value of collaboration, not seeing the value of participation in the city making process. That's tough.

When we look at cities like Amsterdam, who are much more advanced in terms of city making and bottom-up initiatives, sharing even, it's a little frustrating for us to see that we have a lot more work to do in our cities. We all share this kind of Central European diaspora; I guess you could say. Which for me, as an outsider, it's tough also because I didn't grow up in this region so it's a personal challenge, I have to get up to speed really fast on what everyone is trying to deal with so that we can try to help in the best way.

I think that one of the biggest challenges in this space is trying to get people past the baseline conversation. When you're talking about the sharing economy or sharing, everyone, I even brought it up, everyone brings up Uber and Airbnb. These companies have dominated the conversation. I tend to play down the middle with most things, so I can see many sides of this argument for positive and negative effects of these companies, but I think it's tough to get people beyond the conversation. They'll be talking about the sharing economy to people, politicians and they either say, "Oh, I hate Airbnb." And you're like, "Well, our project is not really like that." Or they see the value and they say, "Airbnb has really changed our town, what are your activities doing?" So, it's good and bad, but it tends to be hard to get past that initial bump of talking about sharing, because everyone wants to focus on the activities of kind of the biggest players on the market.

We face a similar challenge of moving the conversation beyond that baseline conception of the "sharing economy." But the fact that there are household names — these few examples that are talked about a lot — has been a great inroad to build awareness around truly shared spaces, shared mobility, and shared governance. But, as you say, they can also can hold back the conversation. Is there something on the horizon related to this project that you're most excited about?

We're in the process of building a shared space in Prague in the kind of tourist center of the city, and we're going to try to introduce a new kind of public and cooperative space. It will be centered on culture and food. It will be kind of a food market with some of the best chefs and most interesting chefs and restaurants in Prague, and then reSITE, along with the Goethe-Institute and a local company called Aerofilms will be curating a cultural program there, which will take place every day.

Programming will range from workshops on sharing and cooperative living, to cooking, (because our space is based on food) and how food can impact sharing in cities and lifestyle, and loneliness. We have a couple of events on loneliness in the space too.

Because we have a film partner, we'll be showing a lot of films. So we're going to try to curate a selection of films that weaves these trends or strands of urbanism and design and sharing. This dovetails into the next project I'm excited about, which is a film that we're creating. I don't think I want to divulge many details on that, but it's a series of short films on sharing in cities that we're hoping will be a feature, not a documentary. We hope that it will bring sharing into the living room of everyone. People can sort of understand its impact on their lives. I think we can tell interesting stories through sharing, from love, to envy, to thrill. We can show a lot of different stories through the lens of sharing. We felt like maybe we could draw more emotion out of a feature than a documentary. So, this is what we're starting to work on now, which is super exciting. That will also show in our space. We plan to release this in 2019.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Header photo of Prague by Jaromír Kavan via Unsplash

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