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Transmedia Storytelling: Activating Urban Learning for Slum Upgrading

CatalinaOrtiz9 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

Graphic recording of the workshop ‘Co-designing a transmedia storytelling platform’. Drawn by Melissa Avila (@MelissaDibuja)


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.

International workshop in Medellín with the new actors alliance. Photo by Sandra Tabares

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.

 

Working group discussions. Photo by Gynna Millan

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.

Twitter @COiNVITE, FB StorytellingUrbanLearning y en Instragram coinvite

 

Walkshop around Comuna 13. Photo by @Zootropico films.

References

Anderson, C. R. and McLachlan, S.M. (2015) Transformative research as knowledge mobilization: transmedia, bridges and layers. Action Research, Volume: 14 issue: 3, page(s): 295-317.

Brown,  & Tucker, K. (2017) Unconsented Sterilisation, Participatory Story‐Telling, and Digital Counter‐Memory in Peru. Antipode, Volume 49, Issue 5, 1186-1203.

Davidson, B. (2017). Storytelling and evidence-based policy: lessons from the grey literature. Palgrave Communications, 3:17093, 1-10.

Devos, T. et.al (2018) Valuating narrative accounts in participatory planning processes. A case of co-creative storytelling in Antwerp, Belgium. In: Participatory Design Theory, Routledge, 284 p.

Hara, N. (2008) Communities of Practice, Fostering peer to peer learning and informal knowledge sharing in the work place. Springer 138 p.

Hulst, M. (2012) Storytelling: a model of and a model for planning. Planning Theory, 11(3), 299-318.

Jenkins, H. (2003) “Transmedia Storytelling.” Technology Review.

Jenkins, H. 2010a. ‘Transmedia storytelling and entertainment: An annotated syllabus’. Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies (24), 6, 943–58.

McFarlane, C. (2011) Learning the city, Knowledge and Translocal Assemblage. Willey-Blackwell, 218 p.

Olesen, K. (2017) Talk to the hand: strategic spatial planning as persuasive storytelling of the Loop City, European Planning Studies, Volume 25, Issue 6, 978-993.

Pence, H. (2012) Teaching with Transmedia. Journal of Educational Technology Systems, Vol. 40(2) 131-140.

Rampazzo, R. (2013) Transmedia Project Design: Theoretical and Analytical Considerations. Baltic Screen Media Review, Volume 1, 81-100 p.

Sandercock, L. (2003) Out of the closet: The importance of stories and storytelling in planning practice. Planning Theory & Practice, 4(1), 11-28.

Throgmorton, J. (2003). Planning as persuasive storytelling in a global-scale web of relationships. Planning Theory, 2(2), 125-151.

UN-Habitat (2014) A Practical Guide to designing, Planning, and executing citywide slum upgrading Programmes, 165 p.

UN Special Rapporteur on adequate housing (2018) Report of the Special Rapporteur on adequate housing as a component of the right to an adequate standard of living, and on the right to non-discrimination in this context, United Nations General Assembly, 24 p.

United Nations (2016) New Urban Agenda, Habitat III Secretariat, 48 p.

Cinema as a vehicle for social integration in the city

MarcoTrombetta17 July 2015

Cinema is one of the least accessible forms of art. It demands a certain amount of financial investment into equipment for filming, lightning and sound, people like actors, assistants and editors – not to mention time. Nevertheless our digital world has opened new doors for visual storytelling through the democratisation and affordability of tools necessary for filmmaking [1].

Inhabitants of excluded spaces – those living outside the ‘formal’ city – are able to use the tools of the digital age, from mobile phones and affordable recording equipment, to online platforms for funding and distributing films, to tell their own stories about the cities they live and experience. Informal settlements are part of the landscape in many cities in the Global South, where for some social exclusion, discrimination, drugs and violence are part of everyday life [2].

Cinema

Mainstream cinema has picked up these themes through films like El Elefante Blanco, Tropa de Elite and recently Trash. These films have been supported by formal studios and were able to find distribution channels into mainstream cinemas.

However there are directors living in informal settlements who have created fictional depictions of life, while adopting a more realistic approach with its basis in the world within which they live. The interesting link lies more between the cinematic representations of the city than with the story. The mise-en-scène and the urban space not only imply a cinematic setting, but also indicate sociocultural context.

The realistic mise-en-scène of these very low-budget films does not illustrate absolute authenticity but is rather the filmmaker’s articulation of their reality [3]. It is an invitation for the “outsiders” – people living in the formal sector – to understand where these dwellers live and what their perceptions of reality are.

Image by Eflon via Flickr: flickr.com/photos/eflon

These types of films – similar to post-war Italian neorealist cinema [4] – privilege shooting on location and adopt a style of cinematography visually similar to a documentary. The example of Cesar Gonzalez, an Argentine film director living in the informal settlement Carlos Gardel in Buenos Aires province, is relevant.

His films are a testimony to the power of art as a tool for social recognition and integration. Cesar Gonzalez found a voice in cinema that he didn’t have before when he was involved with gangs and smugglers. He directed his first film Diagnóstico Esperanza in 2013 which was filmed with the local people from the informal settlement Carlos Gardel (the film is available to watch on YouTube).

The film depicts life in a space within the city that has its own vocabulary, its own vision of the world, its own soul. As “outsiders” we walk in the streets of this unfamiliar world. His films progressed a wider social acknowledgement among intellectuals and movie critics of informal settlements not just being seen as excluded spaces, but also replete with excluded people.

His latest film “What can a body endure?” (Qué puede un cuerpo?) was made possible by crowd-sourcing funds and then released online via Youtube. It has currently more than 200,000 views. His two films so far have gained critical praise and have been screened in a very prestigious local cinema in Buenos Aires [5]. The National Institute of Cinema and Audiovisual Arts (INCAA) is currently funding his third film.

Cinema has been historically involved with political contexts, helping to contribute to a collective perception of reality, and reflecting the state of society at that time. As the example of Cesar Gonzalez has shown, not only can films become a vehicle for telling a story in an artistic way but also as a tool for social recognition and integration – breaking down some of the physical barriers that seem to divide the city.

References


Marco Trombetta holds an MSc in Environment and Sustainable Development from the DPU. He was involved in local politics in Argentina, participating in several NGOs and international forums such as the G20. He has a passion for Cinema and he writes film reviews in his blog Red Curtain Cinema.

Breaking the Ice: how digital technologies are trickling down globally

AlejandroEcheverria Noriega3 March 2015

The past years have led to one of the most dramatic transformations in how we create, manage and deploy information. In fact, a large percentage of all the information generated throughout human history has taken place in the last five years.

This can be attributed to one thing: the rise of digital technologies, its accessibility, and dwindling implementation costs.

Yet changes have been so rapid, that it is difficult to see how the advent of digital technologies are changing our daily lives and what the future will look like in the next 10-20 years. One thing is for certain, these technologies aren’t going anywhere.

Image by the Beyond Access Initiative

Image by the Beyond Access Initiative

A Digital Revolution, not just in the ‘developed’ world

While much of the talk around this so called “digital revolution” has traditionally come from the developed world, we have started to see the unexpected: that digital technologies are also surging in the developing world.

From mobile micro-financing to platforms empowering voices and public discord through social media, digital technologies are no longer an exclusivity of the developed world.

Enablers of social mobilisation

These changes have come too fast and too soon in the eyes of many. As I was undertaking postgraduate studies at the DPU in 2010/11, I remember how commentators and analysts began to realise the power of digital technologies as major enablers of social mobilisation. And it was only a matter of time before these technologies played a greater part in major events such as the Arab Spring.

Markets were flooded with the tools for communities to effectively communicate, organise, do, deploy (and son on) and to reach out to the highly connected and globalised world. In essence, millions of voices now had channels through which to make their concerns heard.

Social movements like this might have been an easy sell. However, many people havesince questioned real use of these technologies when it comes to policy and building for a better future. Mainly because, as it goes, communities, cities and regions, need basic services to grow economically and socially, services such as water, roads, legal and political frameworks. Following this logic, infrastructure for digital technology comes as a low priority in many contexts.

Opening new channels for citizen engagement

As a technophile running a social media platform during the last three years to promote sustainable development, I have noticed that some digital technologies are already enabling communities in cities across the world.

Firstly, in the areas of policy and citizen engagement, we are experiencing direct lines of communication between citizens and authorities; most common practices are usually riddled with red tape processes wherever you are.

Citizens are voicing their concerns, they are more active than ever, better organised and participating in the public debate in real time like never before. So far I’ve seen grassroots projects from Copenhagen to Durban and from Lagos to Medellin that are bypassing traditional channels and actually achieving their goals; people reporting potholes through photo sharing platforms, crowdfunding for public space improvement, data sharing for traffic reduction, and so on.

Can everybody be connected?

Secondly, hardware has flooded the market, be it for the good or for the bad. It is not by coincidence that mobile phone manufactures and digital giants are trying to reach every single person on earth and have them connected within the next two decades – think of latest comments by Facebook and Google.

This may seem an overstatement, but look at the numbers and where the industry is growing: 14 out of the top 20 countries with the highest mobile phone penetration are so-called developing nations. Additionally, getting connected to the network is not the expensive endeavour it was in the 90s.

Telecommunications, mobile phone manufacturers and tech giants are deploying “off the grid” solutions to reach the furthest corners of the world. This is a game changer if you think of education, health checks, access to information and having a voice in the ever increasingly connected world.

Digital tools are not silver bullets

Thirdly, social media, Internet of Things, smart cities, the Mesh, etc, are being evangelised as the tools to end all the world’s maladies. But the truth of the matter is that they are buzzwords that get everyone excited without having full understanding of what they mean or do; at the moment they are just tools that enable and should be treated as such.

The Internet and web platforms won’t build the cities of the future, won’t solve social issues, and certainly won’t make the most pressing matters go away. They are excellent channels that act as enablers and policy makers, practitioners, businessmen and women, community leaders should understand that.

Here to stay

Digital technologies’ role in our daily lives will only continue to grow as demand increases, prices drop, and as their distribution channels expand to reach most of the world’s population. I don’t believe this trend will disappear as is clearly indicated by the ways in which governments, private enterprises and others are including these into their agendas.

Whatever angle, be it bottom-up or top down, developed or developing, Global South or Global North, city or region, digital technologies are here to stay.


Alejandro has been working for the past 3 years with This Big City, a online social media platform for the promotion of sustainable development in cities across the globe; to date he has helped over a dozen grassroot projects achieve scale. He works for the Mayor of London’s office on economic development issues through innovation and consults European cities on creating long term cultural visions for urban regeneration purposes as an independent professional. He also enjoys playing video games.

Alejandro graduated in Urban Development Planning from the DPU in 2011. Follow him on Twitter @thisbigcityes