X Close

The Bartlett Development Planning Unit

Home

Collective reflections about development practice and cities

Menu

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.

Experimental modes of urban design research: BUDD in Cambodia

GiovannaAstolfo2 June 2015

The BUDD Fieldtrip engages with urban challenges in informal settlements in Cambodia by experimenting a different mode of design research. A mode that is embedded, relational, and therefore also active, reflexive and certainly collective. Embedded refers to the learning and knowledge production which is seen as a process integrally related to the practices and lived experiences of people in specific contexts. The work on the field starts from the understanding of the unique needs, abilities, aspirations, and forms of resistance of urban dwellers. Participants focus on how people shape and reshape space and how their specific forms of life shape and produce the everyday.

As it is an immersion in life, the research is also necessarily relational – recognising that knowledge production and learning are defined within relative positions, and in conversation with existing discourses, social and material processes.

Active refers to a practice that is engaged with material conditions and social and political complexities, while reflexive acknowledges the contexts in which the research is produced and challenges hegemonic outcomes.

It is precisely in the apparent contradiction between active and reflexive that an ongoing balancing act between withdrawing from taking action and engagement takes place. Withdrawing from taking action implies a humble, flexible and reflexive approach against the risk, inherent to design, to get trapped into solution-delivery, and prescriptive and exogenous plans.

What follows is a visual account of the process to which BUDD students are exposed to and contribute to shape during and after the fieldtrip. It makes sense of the word collective, as the essential attribute of the above mentioned design research. The work developed during the fieldtrip is two times collective: in recognising that space is collectively produced by multiple subjectivities and therefore in pursuing the production of knowledge as a common endeavour.

Embedded in the present text there are some students’ notes developed during the fieldtrip and posted in the BUDD blog as part of the reflexive praxis of the course.

Image: Snapshot of the activity in Beoung Chuk Meanchey Thmey 2. The video by David McEwen is available at https://youtu.be/1r9PQ1KcMlM

Image: Snapshot of the activity in Beoung Chuk Meanchey Thmey 2. The video by David McEwen is available at https://youtu.be/1r9PQ1KcMlM

In Cambodia BUDD students were divided across three sites, working with Community Architects Network (CAN-Cambodia), CDF (Community Development Fund), GDH (General Department of Housing) representatives and Khmer university students. The fieldwork unfolds similarly in the different sites following a modus operandi that is now consolidated.

During the first days, after being introduced to the community members and leaders and have met local governmental officials, participants indulge in observing, surveying, mapping and interviewing, to grasp an understanding of the context, in its physical and social construction. Collective activities aimed at gathering information, identifying issues and developing proposals follow one another filling a very dense agenda.

They are also aimed at mobilising the community, reinforcing the cohesion when present, and building a relation with the materiality of the living environment. For instance, collective mapping of boundaries, landmarks and households; enumeration; focus groups; participatory exercises – such as the ‘dream house’ and ‘dream community’ exercise; design workshops as the ‘re-blocking workshop’; and even more playful activities as the ‘talking jacket’ and the ‘participatory massage’.

  Image: The 'dream house' exercise is a collective activity that involves the co-creation of 3d models of incremental housing units at 1:50 scale. Using plastiline for the furniture and cardboard for walls, rooms and roof, all removable, the community members supported by the students managed to imagine new spaces for living. (copyright: Cristian Robertson De Ferrari).

Image: The ‘dream house’ exercise is a collective activity that involves the co-creation of 3d models of incremental housing units at 1:50 scale. Using plastiline for the furniture and cardboard for walls, rooms and roof, all removable, the community members supported by the students managed to imagine new spaces for living. (copyright: Cristian Robertson De Ferrari).

“Housing is conceived from inside to outside scaled by the households through the scale of the body, its shapes, its dimensions. The house is understood far away from stereotypes repeated as a stamp, seeking an average family or an ideal life standard acquirable as commodity. The exercise challenged concepts repeated and taught in Universities as a mantra: The house is clearly not “a machine for living in”. The body, the people and their social relations are in the centre.

Before the exercise, we were afraid to invite the community to dream a house far from what was possible to achieve by them in the reality. We discussed about the risk of the exercise in the creation of false expectations. However, during the activity, we discovered once again that people knowledge is linked with the reality and experience. The outcomes of the exercise were projects feasible to be built in the future.

Projecting the dream house was an exercise of reality, affordability and hope. The dream house is not a luxury mansion impossible to build, maintain or inhabit. People dream, but with open eyes : small steps, flexible projects, and reality. All the houses, created with individualities, were proposing improvements and new realities. ” (Cristian Robertson De Ferrari, MSc BUDD student, 2014/15)

  Image: the presentation at the municipality in Kompong Thom. A community leader is explaining to the vice Mayor a map of the context developed by the students, including the current location of the community and the possible relocation site, while the rest of the community members is actively participating to the discussion (copyright Sri Suryani)

Image: the presentation at the municipality in Kompong Thom. A community leader is explaining to the vice Mayor a map of the context developed by the students, including the current location of the community and the possible relocation site, while the rest of the community members is actively participating to the discussion (copyright Sri Suryani)

After the initial observation, survey, mapping and participatory activities, the group of students start working along with community members to jointly envision and materialise a proposal to be presented to the local authority, either at the municipal or district level. It is of crucial importance that the presentation is led by the community. This is in fact a unique opportunity for them to share their story and upgrading aspirations.

“Together with university students, ministry representatives, CAN Community Architect Netwwork, CDF Community Development Fund, we facilitated community to open communication with local authorities. We could have called it an ‘urban forum’, where the community became visible and openly spoke out their proposal to government.

Their agency to act and bring something on the table was important to build trust and recognition as equal partner for government in shaping the environment. Collective agency, then, means everyone who presence in the forum understand their capacity to act, listen, and speak for themselves. Knowledge was produced both about space and positionality. We spoke in different language, but actually our meaning was mutual.” (Sri Suryani, MSc BUDD student, 2014/15)

Image: an idea of the whole process, aimed at a incremental investigation of Cambodia's transformation, through defining and redefining, building and rebuilding an incremental understanding. Prior to the fieldtrip, students analyse Cambodia in a time of transition and elaborate on the definition of transformation as main general framework for the analysis, drawing from readings, seminars and data collection.  Furthermore, they create action plans aimed at guiding the design research in Cambodia. In order to get a full understanding of the sites, students are split into report and site groups. Report groups work together in London, site groups in Cambodia; each report group includes two representatives from each site groups, in order to think across different sites and ground the overall research question into the different locations. During the fieldtrip students have the possibility to contextualise their definition and test their design research methods.  Back in London, students can integrate the information obtained before the field work in order to re-problematise their notion of transformation, while grounding the site findings into design strategies for city wide upgrading. (BUDD students)

Image: an idea of the whole process, aimed at a incremental investigation of Cambodia’s transformation, through defining and redefining, building and rebuilding an incremental understanding. Prior to the fieldtrip, students analyse Cambodia in a time of transition and elaborate on the definition of transformation as main general framework for the analysis, drawing from readings, seminars and data collection.
Furthermore, they create action plans aimed at guiding the design research in Cambodia. In order to get a full understanding of the sites, students are split into report and site groups. Report groups work together in London, site groups in Cambodia; each report group includes two representatives from each site groups, in order to think across different sites and ground the overall research question into the different locations. During the fieldtrip students have the possibility to contextualise their definition and test their design research methods.
Back in London, students can integrate the information obtained before the field work in order to re-problematise their notion of transformation, while grounding the site findings into design strategies for city wide upgrading. (BUDD students)

Proposals, interventions and strategies developed with the community are refined during the last days of the fieldtrip and presented to the vice governor in Phnom Penh. This is a further opportunity to exchange the learning and outcomes; it is also aimed at making visible the presence of such enormous capital in the communities, the ‘people technology’. Capitalising on the site work, back in London, BUDD students share once again their outcomes in a final presentation that concludes the Cambodia fieldtrip project.

Image: strategies for city wide upgrading (BUDD students)

Image: strategies for city wide upgrading (BUDD students)

Contemporary urban challenges call for a deeper reorientation of design research. The BUDD mode – embedded, collective, relational, active and reflexive – aims to do so. Immersed in the tradition of action learning of the DPU, these pedagogical dimensions foster a constitutive role for urban education in addressing urban exclusion and inequality, and global disparities in the production of knowledge and space.


Giovanna Astolfo is a lecturer on the MSc Building and Urban Design for Development, she recently joined students on overseas fieldwork in Cambodia. This is the second year that the MSc BUDD has visited Cambodia, continuing a collaboration with the Asian Coalition for Housing Rights that previously saw the programme conduct overseas fieldwork in Thailand in 2011-13.