Transmedia Storytelling: Activating Urban Learning for Slum Upgrading
By Catalina Ortiz, on 9 May 2019
By Dr. Catalina Ortiz and Gynna Millan
A research collaboration between The Bartlett DPU staff, UN-Habitat, United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG), Habitat International Coalition (HIC), Cities Alliance, the Municipality of Medellin and six grassroots organisations part of Movimiento de Pobladores and Sandelion – a local transmedia production organisation- to co-design a digital platform that helps to learn about slum upgrading strategies.
For a Spanish version of this blog click here
Learning across cities is vital to building cities ‘that leave no one behind.’
Global slum dwellers have grown on average six million a year since 2000, and by 2030, about 3 billion people will require proper housing (UN-Habitat 2014). Leilani Farha, the UN Special Rapporteur on adequate housing, expressed to the UN Assembly that “the living conditions in informal settlements are one of the most pervasive violations of human rights globally and yet this is being ignored by most and exacerbated by many” (2018:1). In this context, slum upgrading “remains the most financially and socially appropriate approach to addressing the challenge of existing slums” (United Nations 2014:15). World leaders have committed to ensure ‘access for all to adequate, safe and affordable housing, basic services and to upgrade slums’ as well as to ‘strengthen global partnerships to support and achieve the ambitious targets of the 2030 Agenda’ (UN Habitat, 2016). Following this, SDGs 11 and 17 as well as the UN-Habitat New Urban Agenda highlight the need for people-centred approaches and peer learning platforms as crucial preconditions to engage stakeholders across cities to implement international agendas locally, particularly about Slum Upgrading Strategies (SUS).
Even though learning about SUS across cities is imperative for urban governance and planning in contemporary cities, how such learning occurs and the types of knowledge that are valued, documented and circulated have been less scrutinised and understood. The research project “COiNVITE: Activating Urban Learning for Slum Upgrading” financed by the Bartlett ECR-GCRF, led by Dr Catalina Ortiz -@CataOrtizA- and Gynna Millan -@Gynaji- (PDRA) at The Bartlett Development Planning Unit (DPU) aims at finding alternative spaces and methodologies to recalibrate the debate on slum upgrading policies and the role of the circulation of urban knowledge across cities through new visual and digital tools. To achieve this, COiNVITE will deliver the prototype of a Transmedia Storytelling Platform co-designed by multiple urban actors.
Transmedia Storytelling for Learning
Storytelling has been as a powerful tool for planning practitioners to connect with more human-centred approaches to urban development. Storytelling is emerging as a key tool to raise public awareness (Anderson & McLachlan 2015; Cities Alliance 2018), policy advocacy (Davidson 2017, Brown & Tucker 2017) and peer to peer learning (Hara 2008, UCLG 2018) since generating emotional connections is essential for triggering social change. In this light, urban planning in itself has been described as a ‘performed story’ (Sandercock 2003:13) and storytelling in the field has received recent attention as a means for persuasion and empowerment (Sandercock 2003; Throgmorton 2007; van Hulst 2012; Mager & Matthey 2015; Olesen 2017; Devos et al. 2018). In sum, storytelling helps to foster empathy, to understand the meaning of complex experiences and to inspire action.
With the rise of the digital era, new digital technologies at hand have redefined the way we tell, connect and engaged with stories. The world of entertainment and the field of media and communication studies have framed the emerging strategies of communication as Transmedia Storytelling (TS). Transmedia implies using multiple channels to tell a story from different angles in a coordinated and unified way. It also offers as an expansive and immersive experience using multiple platforms where each media provides a unique contribution to the development of stories (i.e. community radio or newspapers, WhatsApp, Instagram, cartoons, etc.). This new way to engage with storytelling is “by nature fluid and fragmented… in transmedia, meaning changes with exploration… this suggests that knowledge is fluid; it changes with time” (Pence 2012:137). In that way, TS offers new avenues to mobilise learning.
In urban learning codified knowledge is more easily expressed since it is written, and tacit knowledge –the one that often communities have- does not travel as well and is more difficult to communicate (McFarlane 2011). Transmedia helps to translate tacit knowledge and make it travel in different formats. Henry Jenkins, who coined the term, argues that TS “is the ideal aesthetic form of collective intelligence”, that is to say, “those new social structures that facilitate the production and circulation of knowledge within a networked society” (2007: 1). That is why, TS, translated into the development and planning field, offers enormous potential for the circulation of diverse urban narratives and alternative tacit knowledges that reside in local urban communities.
Going beyond the ‘best practice’
Urban decision-makers look for best practices to inspire action and speed up effective urban interventions. The research project uses as a pilot case the city of Medellin, Colombia that has been considered a benchmark for urban transformation and social innovation becoming an inspirational case for Global South cities dealing with entrenched violence and informality. Medellin has shown a decisive convergence of extended practices of strategic planning, urban design and architecture, which have focused local state interest and public investments in traditionally excluded peripheral neighbourhoods. These spatial interventions have included expanding the interconnected transit system (i.e. metro, tramway, cable cars, BRT, and so on), the generation of public spaces and the construction of multiple iconic public facilities.
Medellin demonstrates that ‘informal settlements’ of global South cities are sites of urban planning innovation and collective agency, thus challenging orthodox urban planning narratives that argue otherwise. Learning about the conditions under which transformation is possible goes beyond only listening or praising official narratives about success. For this, TS helps to build a more comprehensive picture of the plurality of stories and learnings that have produced the city and the trade-offs of slum upgrading strategies. In this sense, the main objective of the co-designed Transmedia Storytelling Platform is to make visible those alternative –but often ignored– voices, memories, and learning spaces that have disrupted upgrading urban practices. Thus, the project challenges the notion that slum upgrading is an expert-driven and state-led activity by engaging with community-led processes in the epistemology of knowledge co-production.
COiNVITE: Building a strategic learning alliance
‘Convite’ is a word in Spanish that designates the celebration of collective actions that result from solidarity and empathy networks among urban dwellers. In Medellín, ‘Convite’ has been a social, cultural and technological tool to build urban infrastructure at the neighbourhood level with a city scale impact. During a ‘Convite’, learning and knowledge exchange is essential to achieve common goals. In a ‘Convite’ everyone has knowledge and expertise that can be shared and transferred through storytelling and collective practice, something like “doing while telling”. Medellín is a city that has been transformed significantly by urban ‘Convites’. As a result, we named the -digital and social- platform after this meaningful practice.
A key challenge for effective urban learning is the ability to bring together multiple actors operating at different scales and times and who often have confrontational perspectives. Building on this, COiNVITE’s methodological approach was to first established a learning alliance with multilateral agencies and global coalitions –UN-Habitat, Cities Alliance, UCLG, the Global Platform for the Right to the City and the HIC–, along with the Municipality of Medellin, National University of Colombia, Los Andes University, University of Colorado Boulder and several grassroots organisations linked to the social movement ‘Movimiento de Pobladores’ in Medellín, to shape the content of the Transmedia Storytelling Platform and provide their knowledge and expertise in a collaborative way.
On the other hand, one of the significant challenges of assembling a platform for urban learning is the expertise that it requires. This journey cannot be made without the alliances between usual urban actors but neither without a team that can translate urban knowledge into the technicalities that make possible the new digital environments. This is why we collaborate with a local transmedia production organisation – Sandelion Productions @SandelionPro – an expert on linking co-creation processes, storytelling and transmedia experiences. Creating a transmedia experience is a complicated endeavour, as they involve multiple dimensions such as narrative, cultural and historical contexts (Rampazzo 2013). For Jenkins (2010), this is in part because transmedia represents the intersection between fields that are typically separated. To ‘fast’ prototype a transmedia platform is even more complex as it goes against the long periods that can take generating multimedia material that is this case should be meaningful human centred stories. To overcome this, we partnered with the NGO Mobility / Movilidad that since 2012 has been producing what is now an extensive archive of stories about dwellers’ struggles in Medellin informal settlements. This combination of actors made it possible to assemble a strategic learning alliance to explore the potentials of bringing TS to processes of urban learning.
The exploration of a methodological repertoire and the encounter of the multi-actor alliance took place between the 27th March and 2nd April and was hosted our partners at Exploratorio – Parque Explora and Moravia Cultural Centre in Medellin. The international workshop served as a disruptive action to bring about innovative urban learning strategies for: a) fostering togetherness across partners under the equalising notion of ‘we are urban storytellers’ and bonding through creative thinking activities; b) sensitising about the key learnings on local slum upgrading using character-driven stories; c) experimenting with unconventional methodological tools for creating transmedia storytelling; and d) linking partners’ initiatives working at different scales on slum upgrading to act collectively.
In sum, from The Bartlett, we are leading an effort to co-design a learning TS platform as methodological experimentation to localise critical targets of the Sustainable Development Goals 11 and 17 as well as the UN Habitat New Urban Agenda. COiNVITE will deliver a fast prototype of the platform that will be publicly tested in June 2019. If you are interested in any way about this project, get in touch by email or by following any of our social media channels using @coinvite.
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