When Akbar Modan and I moved to Malmö / Sweden some years back we landed in yet another city being formed by the global trends of globalization, urbanization, and migration. What is more is that Malmö is acutely aware of its challenges including a housing and refugee ‘crisis’ and is looking to do things differently. Akbar Modan and I thought that maybe the skills and experiences we gathered from working in the cities of the global south would be applicable in the global north too!
And we started to say ‘yes!’ to everything that came our way. Something will lead somewhere we thought, but little did we know that just the fact of being part of all these projects and processes at the same time is what makes our work so fruitful. Each informing and even strengthening the others directly and the whole particularly!
That is ofcourse not strange. Collaboration between diverse actors such as knowledge institutions, private and public sector, civil society and the people of the city is seen as an important part to finding solutions to our complex urban challenges in cities around the world.
From being engaged with exactly these tools and processes in this intersection between the actors in Sulangan/The Philippines, Cairo / Egypt, Port Au Prince / Haiti, etc. we ended up in this intersecting space in Malmö / Sweden too. Although our overall aim of a more just city remains the same, the platform, the International Non-Governmental Organisation (INGO) or similar agency we used to work from, has been replaced by a MESHWORK** from which we a couple of boundary workers with one foot in each sector and our fingers in many pies operate!
MESHWORK is both the name of our new company (thank you Kartik for the spot-on name!) and the way we visualize what we do. The mesh spans between the various organizations where we are found employment, consultancy assignments or voluntary engagement but also beyond the professional realm, into the informal and laypersons space!
A couple of boundary workers
I never had a word for what we did. I learned about Boundary Work from the academics I recently wrote The Guidelines for Urban Labs with. The Guidelines advocated for an Urban Lab to actively engage in boundary work. It continues, “boundary work can be done by individuals, for example, the lab coordinators, or by the urban labs as (temporary or institutionalized) boundary organizations.” It defines boundary work as ‘transcending boundaries created by different interests, values, knowledge domains and institutional logics.’
As I wrote, Akbar Modan and I used to work in the international development and humanitarian sector and there our platforms were mainly NGOs. In this sector, these types of collaborations (or multi-stakeholder processes as we called them) are a common practice in urban development, housing, and reconstruction projects. These multi-stakeholder processes could if successful make your budget go further, further local ownership and above all empower the marginalized communities that you were there to support. The NGOs became this boundary organization (or what we called broker and process manager). NGOs or similar agencies are helpful as they more than maybe other organizations are rights-based, independent, often an outsider of the context, and flexible in the way that they operate.
one foot in each sector …
As we said “yes!” to all opportunities that came our way, we quickly found that we had a foot in each sector;
Public Sector = Malmö Stad (the local authorities) – 50%
Civil Society, Non-profit = RÄDDA BARNEN (Save the Children Sweden) , Van Alen Institute – 20%
Knowledge institutions = Malmö Högskola (Malmö University) – 30%
Peoples organizations = PLANAS – in our spare time ..
and our fingers in many pies!
It is easier to be and remain connected to people similar to you, i.e. other professionals … in this way, keep all your fingers in the same pie. It is easier for reasons such as they speak the same professional language, you meet them during working hours in an office environment, they have an interest in the subject and are paid to meet with you, .. etc. Having your fingers in more pies is a little bit more tricky but possible. Having your fingers in both the professional pie and the laypersons’ pie is trickier again.
It is therefore important that we remind ourselves to remain true to our own purpose: that all, including the critical and marginalized, are equal parties in an urban development process. For this to happen it is important not to get to sucked up and spend all our time in meetings and conferences talking about these actors – which can easily happen! Making equal time to talk directly to the non-professional actors is, of course, a step in the right direction towards true partnership in urban development.
**MESHWORK: “By this I mean an entanglement of interwoven lines. These lines may loop or twist around one another or weave in and out. Crucially, however, they do not connect. This is what distinguishes the meshwork from the network. The lines of the network are connectors, each given as the relation between two points, independently and in advance of any movement from one toward the other…the lines of a meshwork, by contrast, are of movement or growth. They are temporal ‘lines of becoming’…Life is a proliferation of loose ends. It can only be carried on in a world that is not fully joined up. Thus the very continuity of life – its sustainability, in current jargon – depends on the fact that nothing ever quite fits..” Tim Ingold, ‘Lines and the Aether’, Vital Beauty, 2012