Photo above: Community meeting at the Ubuntu Park in Soweto, SA, 2014

Text by Marjetica Potrč, published in The Neighbourhood as Global Arena / Reader, The Israeli Center for Digital Art, Israel, Vol.3, Infrastructures and Methodologies, 2015, pp.1-11.

Self-Organization Where the State Has Withdrawn
A Participatory Society

Not long ago in Berlin, I met with friends from the Israeli Center for Digital Art to discuss plans for “The Neighborhood as a Global Arena,” a workshop and gathering scheduled later in the year. During the meeting someone mentioned that, unlike Germans, Israelis find it hard to self-organize. This may be true, but in my experience, self-organization by communities who want to change their culture of living – always a political effort – is essential to any participatory project.

I am a strong advocate of participatory projects. They create places where people can organize and build communities, a process I call “social architecture.” They are laboratories where the residents of a place try out new ideas and skills, to reimagine the cities where they live. They are playgrounds where residents learn what it means to participate in governing and how such participation can be used. Again and again, in collaborations with local residents in different locations around the world, I have seen that people want to be involved in governing their own environments, as a surplus of their personal or community engagement; they want to be responsible for the place they inhabit. In a participatory project – an optimistic endeavor on the participants’ part – ideas and practices can grow from a community garden to the surrounding neighborhood and then to the city, always with the intention of reaching the level of government. Here, however, this bottom-up process too often fails – at a certain point, it is co-opted by interests other than those of the residents’. In this sense, the government – the state – fails the citizens, generally because the relationship between state and citizen has already been broken. But is this relationship in fact necessary for these projects? Or conversely, can participatory projects help restore this broken relationship?

Today we can think of the participatory society in two ways. First, participatory projects provide communities with the opportunity to develop new ideas for the city they live in – a bottom-up strategy. Second – a view from the top down – the state proclaims that we are already living in a participatory society and that residents need to be more self-reliant as the welfare state is on the way out.[1] This recalls the “Big Society” political ideology developed in Britain during David Cameron’s first government, which envisioned the empowerment of local citizens in a sort of direct democracy while relying on social solidarity and the free market to step in where the state withdraws.

In any case, the withdrawal of the state is clearly happening. As the welfare state scales back in Europe and elsewhere, it is important to understand why societies with a broken relationship between residents and the state resist self-organization and how they can eventually self-organize, as I saw first hand in very different communities in Serbia and South Africa. My experience in such projects has shown me that the kind of self-organization that leads to the participation of citizens in the governance of their city, to a new social agreement, and eventually to a new citizenship and a new relationship with the state, is strongly tied to a physical space. Through the use of relational objects and performative actions as tools for self-organization and rituals of transition (e.g. naming) residents claim ownership of a particular space, which is then transformed into a place – their place. And this happens by means of a social agreement.

Here I will try to present my understanding of self-organization based on two recent participatory projects in which I was involved. I describe the process we engaged in and, importantly, the new vocabulary we developed in the realization of these projects, which are, after all, about “learning by doing.”


Two Projects: Savamala and Soweto

Over the past four years, I have worked on a number of participatory projects with my students in the Design for the Living World class at the University of Fine Arts/HFBK Hamburg.[2] Two of them in particular seem relevant here, as they show how local residents can overcome a broken relationship with the state by transforming derelict public spaces into a place for the community.

In the project Savamala – A Place for Making (2013), we worked with the residents of the Savamala neighborhood in Belgrade, Serbia, to organize a shared working space, Studio KM8, for use by local architects, artists, and artisans, and to turn a century-old derelict steamboat, called Župa, into a community space for sharing skills and knowledge.[3] When we arrived in Savamala, we saw that public spaces were neglected and run-down buildings were not being maintained. Our project produced new public spaces that were organized and managed by the local community. Additionally, it led to the formation of a community association through which Savamala residents could preserve Studio KM8 and Župa as places for the neighborhood.

As part of The Soweto Project (2014), we co-developed with local residents a community-organized public space in the Soweto district of Johannesburg, South Africa; the residents named this space Ubuntu Park.[4] Before the project began, this was a neglected plot of land in the midst of an otherwise lively neighborhood. Filthy and full of garbage, it stank in the summer heat and was dangerous in early morning hours, when women crossed through it on the way to work. It was basically a no man’s land. Significantly, the trash in the space came from the residents themselves, who had been using it as a dumping ground for more than forty years. But when the community became involved in the project, the dumping ceased and the land is now being gradually transformed into a neighborhood park managed by the Ubuntu Park Committee, a group made up of local residents.


Living in Neighborhoods without the State

In neither Belgrade nor Soweto had residents taken measures to change a situation that endangered the very existence of their neighborhoods. In Savamala, the local population faced aggressive urban development that for many would mean relocation, while in Soweto, people lived alongside unsafe and unhygienic public areas. Surprisingly, in both neighborhoods the residents had resigned themselves to the status quo and were doing nothing; there were no attempts to get people together to improve the situation. Sadly, there was no one around who could respond to the anger and frustration people felt or offer ideas for moving forward. In Belgrade, the government agencies that were supposed to regulate development were instead serving the interests of the developers’ and ignoring the residents. In Soweto, municipal trash collection happened sporadically, if at all, and it seemed impossible to challenge the status quo. “That’s just the way things are,” people said. In both cities, the government was simply not there to serve them; essentially, the state had withdrawn, and although people silently acknowledged this as a problem, they also accepted it as a given. Not only did they not organize to address their situation, they resisted the very idea of self-organization. At a deeper level, they had become paralyzed in inaction because they perceived the public space as a space of trauma. Observing their attitudes, my students and I said it was as if they were living Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, in a kind of theater of the absurd.


Public Space as Trauma

For the people of Soweto and Savamala, public space is a trauma. The Sowetans’ story is especially telling. During apartheid, the black population was excluded from the public space and the public sphere. The exclusion is still felt as a painful loss, which has been internalized and translated into disregard and neglect of public space. This was evident, even twenty years after the end of apartheid, in the continued dumping of garbage on the land that became Ubuntu Park.

In Belgrade, meanwhile, after the political changes that swept through Eastern Europe in the early 1990s, residents had experienced the loss of the public space, which under Communism was a political and ideological project representing the equality of all and the leading role of the working class. Such socialist ideals, however, were soon replaced by a rampant neoliberalism as the private sector began to supplant the dwindling public sector both in the political discourse and in everyday practice. Instead of fighting for the preservation and maintenance of public space and public rights, the people of Belgrade, not unlike the Sowetans, internalized their loss as they watched the gains of the former social agreement disappear. They themselves withdrew from the public space and the public sphere, which had once been theirs but were no longer.

As in Soweto, the neglected public space in Savamala became a theater of the residents’ failed relationship with the state. The only way to overturn the established paradigm and heal the trauma was to self-organize in a physical space, and thus construct a new social agreement. The true success of Studio KM8 in Savamala and Ubuntu Park in Soweto is that they began a healing process for the trauma experienced by local residents.


The Role of Participatory Projects in the Self-Organization of Communities

As outsiders, my students and I could see a way to move out of the status quo; in fact, it was not hard to guess. Working with the residents – not for them – we started a process that led to a self-organized community, which in turn started to heal the trauma around public space. The participatory projects we initiated resulted in Studio KM8 and the Župa boat in Savamala and Ubuntu Park in Soweto, all of which are public spaces organized and managed by the local community and governed by a social agreement. I should note that places governed by a local social agreement are shared by the particular community but not necessarily by the wider public, although in Savamala and Soweto the community kept the borders “porous” to welcome outsiders. In the case of Ubuntu Park, residents created the Ubuntu Park Committee, an oversight body that takes decisions about the park and is responsible for its maintenance, security, urban agriculture program, the children’s playground, and the cultural program. The committee has sought and received recognition from the local government, thus fulfilling the main condition of placemaking – recognition by the society at large.[5]


The Four Steps of Participatory Design

The participatory design we practice in our projects follows four steps: talking with the local residents before making any definite plan; involving the community in all decision making; involving the community in all construction work; and finally, transferring responsibility for the project to the community so the work continues to benefit the population after we leave. If done correctly, participatory projects address the unwanted situation and bring about desired social change. For my students and me, the most important of these four steps is the final one, in which the residents themselves are expected to continue organizing and maintaining the project. As the students came to understand, a project is not successful until we who are the initiators of the project become irrelevant. We are aware that our involvement is only a small part of a lengthy process that will eventually lead to social change. Participatory projects take time.

The four steps of participatory design are not a new method, but the practice tends to be dismissed by neoliberal policies in cities that view themselves as fast, global and unpolitical. On the other hand, it is gaining ground as people desire more resilient cities, slow cities that think in the long term, are focused on local situations, and are political. Here residents use participatory projects to empower themselves politically


Artists and Designers as Mediators

In participatory projects, the researchers, artists and designers – all those who engage in critical artistic practice – are co-authors and mediators. The sharing of ideas and practices with local residents happens in a non-hierarchical exchange, on an equal level. Everyone is an expert, contributing knowledge according to their abilities. But as artists and designers, we do play a special role: we mediate between residents and institutions, including government agencies, and bring them together in a working network. Equally important, we mediate the kind of society residents aspire to. The construction of the future is especially important for residents who live in places where the state has failed or withdrawn. But our goal is not to act against the government or the state. We do not create “alternative” projects, which by definition exist only on the margins of the society and usually remain there.

From the student’s perspective, participatory projects are about learning by doing, and less about theory and learning from books. Today what we need most is not the self-indulgent critical eye but direct action and concrete proposals. When we work with a community we make sure they understand that they themselves are responsible for the project. From the very beginning we tell them: “This is your project, not ours.” We know that they will have to take over the project when we leave. My students say, “What we design is a process of working together,” by which they mean that in participatory projects people come first, before any object or action we might create.


Relational Objects and Performative Actions – Acting in Space

Our focus is not the design of objects. We do use objects and they do play a role, but they are not self-referential works designed by an author: they are relational objects designed in a process of collaboration and co-authorship. Relational objects are tools that participants use to create relationships with a particular place and with the city they live in. Examples are the theater stage in Ubuntu Park, which was built by the students and local residents working together, and – a less ambitious undertaking – the furniture that was constructed for the shared working space at Studio KM8. But a relational object does not have to be a physical object – it can be a performative action such as a community meeting or a parade. The Soweto Street Festival, co-organized by the students and residents, is a good example of this.

We can think of relational objects as “nouns” – active nouns, since they create relationships – while performative actions are “verbs.” A performative action is an activity carried out in public which then has the potential to become a collective action. The Australian designer Tony Fry referred to collective actions that demonstrate the process of cultural remaking as “redirective practices.”[6] In our practice we have learned that relational objects and performative actions are useful communicators, and what is more, they are crucial elements in the creation of a self-organized community. The social change desired by local residents cannot be realized simply by talking about it. People need to get their hands dirty – clearing garbage, building tables, planting vegetables. Self-organization does not develop unless the members of the community act in the space, whether this is simply arranging the chairs for a community meeting or constructing a platform in a park. At the core of the process is the concrete physical space, which over time becomes a place. And those who participate in the making of the place can then say: “This is ours.”


Public Space Is a Social Agreement

Public space is, no more and no less, a social agreement. Without the social agreement there can be no public space, and when the social agreement deteriorates, public space becomes a dangerous no man’s land. An example of this is post-apartheid downtown Johannesburg, where even today there are frequent muggings and people can be attacked for no particular reason. As Giorgio Agamben writes, it is people who give meaning to the “empty throne” – the abandonment of state power.[7] It is important to keep in mind that a social agreement is a temporary consensus and may change.

Successful participatory projects reinvent the failed public space by creating a community space, a space of open possibilities. This place is governed by the community itself; essentially, it is a new kind of public space, which is made possible by a new social agreement. In both the Savamala and Soweto projects, the public space was transformed into a community-organized and community-maintained public space.


We Are Not Liberated from Space and Objects

We are not liberated from space. Even in an age when we inhabit digital space and speak in abstractions about private and public space, we are nevertheless dependent on physical space. As sociologists have pointed out, any group that strives for recognition requires a physical space. Placemaking is the creation of such a space. This is where the social reality is constructed – in a place.

In participatory projects, the place becomes a laboratory where people experiment and play. It is also a theater, where a particular drama finds its own catharsis. Unlike an actual theater, where the drama is squeezed into a couple of hours, the drama in cities evolves over a long period. It can take as long as it did in Savamala, where for years the residents did nothing to change an unbearable status quo, or in Soweto, where for four decades people were trashing their own public space. When residents use relational objects and performative actions, they perform a ritual of transition, a redirective practice that leads to a new culture of living and a new social agreement. Such a contract is a binding agreement within the community and is always a political and engaging act. What’s more, it can often influence people outside the particular community, as we see in the proliferation of community gardens throughout Europe. Social change is primarily a spatial condition.

But just as we are not liberated from space, nor are we liberated from objects. Public space and public objects are here to stay, but their meaning has changed. Public space has been transformed into community-organized public space, and objects are transformed into the relational objects, constructing new relationships both within the community and between the community and the state.


Tools of Engagement: Towards a New Social Agreement

“Relational object” is only one of the terms in the new vocabulary we use to describe our participatory practice. Others include “performative action,” “rituals of transition,” “redirective practice,” “public space as trauma,” “placemaking,” “naming” and “community-building.” These are tools of engagement by which residents transform their social and spatial conditions. But while these new terms conceptualize society as an organism, they also describe the construction of society as a political project. Participatory projects are, indeed, political classrooms, not the performance of a natural society. Here, the social agreement that happens in a particular community and a particular place is a small-scale endeavor. But there is always a tendency for it to grow to a larger scale, to expand to a larger community and a wider territory. After all, it is basic human nature to tell others what you have learned.

One project that had such success is the Prinzessinnengarten project in Berlin, where participants practice urban agriculture right in the heart of the German capital.[8] As in Savamala and Soweto, the Prinzessinnengarten project transformed a derelict public space into a community-managed space. In this case, the community organized itself as a non-profit company, thus obtaining a high degree of self-organization and independence. Although small in scale, their self-generated economy, which includes a garden café and simple restaurant, allows them to be financially independent from the city. Project participants raise local awareness about this new culture of living by bringing knowledge about creating gardens to Berlin schools. They also organize tours for visitors from near and far who want to change their own culture of living and visualize a more self-reliant and resilient city where they live. In addition, the project participants organize gatherings and lectures through their Neighborhood Academy. In short, Prinzessinnengarten is a political schoolroom. Through their various activities, they are creating change in the governance of their city.

Another example where a new social agreement has developed a new culture of living, from small communities to the regional government, is found in the Brazilian state of Acre. In the early 1990s, the Acrean government and the people of the Amazonian forest developed the concept of extraction reserves as sustainable territories. The goal was to put an end to the unregulated, profit-driven exploitation of the rainforest and establish sustainable living in the forest through a de-growth economy. The continued deterioration of state territory, which was felt as a long-standing and unbearable status quo, had disastrous consequences for the forest communities. The situation, however, led to new ideas about development as a collaborative process between the people and the government. Since then, more than half of the state’s territories have been distributed to local communities, who are now responsible for organizing and maintaining their own lands. The connection between the well-being of local communities and the preservation of economic resources has a simple logic, as Acre Governor Jorge Viana noted: “If people can survive in the forest, the forest will survive as well.”[9]

Two decades later, the political and economic transformations are being developed successfully. Recently, I came across an article that analyzes these changes and notes that neighboring states now seek advice and expertise from the Acre government.[10] In Acre, the participatory society transformed the state itself: a government spokesperson has described the government’s role as that “of a coordinator, rather than a regulator.”[11] In rural Amazonia, the new social agreement – which has been called Florestania, a citizenship that takes account of the local conditions of forest communities[12] – happened simultaneously with the de-growth economy. In a learning-by-doing process, the project of sustainable territories transformed the relationship between the government and the citizens. In a similar way, participatory projects have the ability to bring change to urban communities where the state’s role has receded. This is a hopeful message for people living under the neoliberal socio-economic agreement. The current political system is unable to change the consumerist culture into a new culture of living by relying on top-down strategies. It needs politically empowered citizens to come up with new proposals.

Only primitive societies exist without a state.[13] In Soweto, Savamala, and Acre, however, the society is not primitive. In Savamala and Soweto, where the state’s role has been missing or ineffective, residents enacted their failed relationship with the state by vandalizing public spaces. But all these communities are now building relationships with the state. As I was writing this text, I realized that during the same period when social and economic transformations were happening in Acre, the unbearable status quo remained in place in Savamala and Soweto. Cities, after all, are weighed down by the civilization they have created and so are slower to develop sustainable and resilient communities than, say, remote rural Amazonia. But like the extraction reserves in Acre, our participatory projects in Savamala and Soweto served as tools that the residents used to institutionalize social change in a bottom-up process. And it is important that we recognize the efforts of all three societies to construct new social agreements that benefit their communities and their lands.


September 2015

[1] See, for example, reports on the inaugural speech of the Dutch King Willem-Alexander in 2013, such as Harriet Arkell, “‘The welfare state of the 20th century is over,’ says new Dutch king in his inaugural address,” Daily Mail website, 18 Sept. 2013, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2423751/Dutch-King-Willem-Alexander-declares-welfare-state-20th-century-over.html, and Henry Farrell, “Is this the End of the Dutch Welfare State?” Washington Monthly website, 20 Sept. 2013, http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/ten-miles-square/2013/09/is_this_the_end_of_the_dutch_w046972.php.

[2] In my class, students engage in participatory practice during long-term residencies. For information about our past projects, see our website, http://designforthelivingworld.com.

[3] See the presentation of the project on our website, https://designforthelivingworld.com/2013/04/10/savamala-a-place-for-making/

[4] See Marjetica Potrč and Design for the Living World, The Soweto Project (Berlin: Archive Books, and Turin: PAV, 2014), as well as the project presentation on our website: https://designforthelivingworld.com/2013/04/15/soweto-the-soweto-project.

[5] The term “placemaking” refers to the process by which people claim a space for themselves and are recognized by the society (e.g. by the local government).

[6] Discussed in his book Design as Politics (Oxford, UK: Berg, 2011); see especially the third chapter, “Redirection, Design and Things.”

[7] Giorgio Agamben, The Kingdom and the Glory: For a Theological Genealogy of Economy and Government (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2011); see especially the chapter “The Archeology of Glory.”

[8] The project was developed in 2009 by the German group Nomadisch Grün (Nomadic Green). For more information, see their website http://prinzessinnengarten.net/about.

[9] Quoted from notes I took during a residency in Acre in 2006 as part of the São Paulo Biennial. For more on Acre, see my article “New Territories in Acre and Why They Matter,” e-flux journal, no. 0 (Nov. 2008), http://e-flux.com/journal/view/10. Viana was governor of Acre from 1999 to 2007.

[10] Marianne Schmink et al., “Forest Citizenship in Acre, Brazil,” in Pia Katila et al., eds., Forests under Pressure: Local Responses to Global Issues (Vienna: International Union of Forest Research Organizations, 2014), pp. 31–47; available online at http://www.iufro.org/fileadmin/material/publications/iufro-series/ws32/ws32.pdf.

[11] Monica De Los Rios, quoted in Tommie Herbert, “Setting up Nest: Acre, Brazil, and the Future of REDD,” Ecosystem Marketplace, 22 July 2010, http://www.ecosystemmarketplace.com/articles/setting-up-nest-acre-brazil-and-the-future-of-redd/.

[12] In 2006, Acre Governor Jorge Viana made the statement: “We cannot accept the concept of citizenship, because it reminds us of cities. We are people of the forest and we protect Florestania – the citizenship of people of the forest. Florestania is happiness, respect for the environment, and making money from the forest without destroying it.” Quoted from the notes I took during my Acre residency.

[13] As Pierre Clastres notes in Society against the State: Essays in Political Anthropology (Brooklyn, NY: Zone Books, 1987): “Primitive societies in the main are devoid of real political organization” (p. 21).