Article about social change in disadvantaged neighbourhoods: "Collective Action is not an option", in: Ciudades Cohesionadas: Co-crear agendas urbanas incluyentes. México, 2022

22 Mar 2023

This article is a contribution City Mine(d) made to "Ciudades Cohesionadas: Co-crear agendas urbanas incluyentes. Propuestas críticas desde la comunidad," edited by Karla Valverde Viesca and Dianell Pacheco Gordillo of UNAM (Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México).

full ref: Karla Valverde Viesca y Dianell Pacheco Gordillo (Coordinadoras) (2022). Ciudades Cohesionadas: Co-crear agendas urbanas incluyentes. Propuestas críticas desde la comunidad. UNAM/ SECTEI/ Unión Europea/ Editoral de Lirio/ México.

Collective Action is not an option

  • Preface

The following article is about social change in disadvantaged neighbourhoods. It grapples with ideas of collective action, community and radical change from the perspective of design practice City Mine(d). While collective action is seen as a prerequisite for bringing about social transformation, this article asks to what extent collective action can become regime confirming and convenient to the status quo, rather than challenge the power constellation that lies at the root of social, spatial and environmental injustice. The same can be argued for community, which can contribute to social cohesion, and for some groups even form a route towards emancipation, while at the same time its fragmenting character can also disperse and thus ease resistance to the dominant order. In an attempt to reclaim a form of political substance, the article identifies the need to step outside the hegemonic discourse and to identify an alternative narrative and imaginary. It proposes Complexity – the theory of complex systems – as a source of inspiration and possible lens for an alternative perspective on collective action in disadvantaged neighbourhoods.

The article consists of 3 parts with an introduction and conclusion. A first part traces some origins of design practice City Mine(d), so as to provide the needed background to two cases used as a reference in this article. Part two sets out the problem in 3 parts, namely the needs and threats of collective action; the implications of working in areas that have been under development for several decades; and the way in which the dominant ideological context numbs or hijacks radical aspirations. A third part describes in more detail the study of complex systems, and its implications -both in its meaning of ‘starting to get involved’ as well as in ‘consequences’ – for urban planning and neighbourhood development. From this some conclusions will be drawn that rather than theses to be defended are an invitation to reflection, critical thinking and sharing of opinion and thought.

  • Introduction

In the summer of 2019, City Mined was asked by Faculty of Political and Social Sciences of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) to reflect upon what it does. At the time we were working on two distinct series of activities: in Brussels the importance of energy for local development had caught our attention; while in London the future of work, we thought, opened new perspectives for the neighbourhood. The Brussels programme was called La Pile (The Battery), the London one Elephant Path. Though very different in their subject-matter, the two start from a similar reading of the city, and are fuelled by similar principles. This allows us to derive some common findings which might go beyond the particular, and have meaning more generally.

Henceforth, I will start by describing the origins of La Pile and Elephant Path, before making some reflections on conundrums both were confronted with. This analysis leads to conclusions that oblige us to think deeper about the place these programmes can have in the development of neighbourhoods and cities. Some of these go beyond the unique experience City Mine(d) has, and has had over the past two decades, and might therefore serve as a source of reflection or inspiration for other initiatives that aspire to carve out a similar space for their work. More than an intellectual exercise, this article, therefore, aspires to be first and foremost an invitation. An invitation to those who recognise themselves in the analysis made here, to make themselves known, get in touch and contribute their experience to this emerging body of lived experience and shared ambition.

  • Background

First: what happened previously. Before Elephant Path in London and La Pile in Brussels, City Mine(d) already had a lengthy track record of initiatives. City Mine(d) had crystallised in the late 1990s in Brussels around issues of social justice, spatial justice and environmental concerns. At the time, Brussels was characterised by an economic, political and institutional deadlock caused by a weak state, a fragmented civil society and a speculative real estate sector (Moyersoen, 2005). Moyersoen: “A coalition between real-estate entrepreneurs and parts of the Brussels political establishment promoted large-scale infrastructure projects in Brussels and speculated on the land value of vast areas of the city centre with little concern for the demands of local citizens. The real estate projects and the speculative developments were so devastating in scale that it disrupted the social, cultural and architectural texture of the city.” Through a combination of direct actions and arts projects, City Mine(d) galvanised a group of concerned citizens, civil society actors and researchers.

One of the topics dealt with was the installation of the European Institutions in Brussels’ Leopold, Jourdan and Stevin neighbourhoods. The mismatch could not possibly be larger between local residents occupying houses that had been in the family for generations, and the supra-national state apparatus claiming a space to touch the ground. Residents were angered by incidents like finding their bathroom windows closed by a brick wall because its view on the construction site was a potential security hazard. Developers on the other hand were too caught up in their strategic game of building a parliament that-dare-not-speak-its-name, with all the stakeholder engagement that required as well as increasing security demands. (For details on this read “Community organisation in the European Quarter in Brussels” Geens, 2014).
To break the stalemate, a group that would later become the nucleus of City Mine(d) decided to organise a series of initiatives that would put the issue on the public agenda, bring disparate grievances under one umbrella, and create a channel and place for debate where different sides of the argument could meet and deliberate. As a headquarter, a circus tent was raised on a derelict piece of land at the heart of the developing institutions. The campaign, called Sens Unique, made its way up through the different scales of politics, until the European Commissioner responsible for the EU infrastructure, Erkki Liikanen, accepted the invitation to step into the ring. His presence obviously shifted the position of other stakeholders, and paved the way for a consultation body in which local residents were guaranteed a place and voice.

This unique way of breaking a local status quo through positive actions became the hallmark of City Mine(d) early on. It gained recognition from local authorities, researchers, but also activist groups. In 2001, during the EU’s Laeken Summit City Mine(d) contributed actively to the occupation of the Leopold Station, right in front of the building designed-to-be-the-European-Parliament. It offered a headquarters to the post-Seattle post-Genua very vocal anti-globalist resistance, yet managed to turn the destructive energy into creative outbursts like street parades, performances and debates, which managed to link global discontent to local issues.

From an architectural point of view, the work was referred to as a spatial practice. In their seminal work Spatial Agency, Awan, Schneider and Till (2011) refer to City Mine(d)’s work as “highlighting problems in spatial structures” as well as “highly politicised and intended to influence policy”. Interestingly, at the time of publishing the book, City Mine(d) was struggling with the significance of its work in public space. The lemma City Mine(d) in the book (page 121) reflects this unease. It speaks of “temporary interventions to re-appropriate public space,” yet it also explains Micronomics: “an action-research on the role of small-scale economies in resisting capitalist forces, and questioning markers such as growth and productivity to measure the success of economies.” The foundations of Micronomics were a publication City Mine(d) had issued called “Generalised Empowerment (City Mine(d) 2006),” which was informed by a series of workshops done in parallel in Brussels, London and Barcelona (where City Mine(d) had permanent offices at the time). Generalised Empowerment was very much inspired by the fact that public space (its traditional site of action and for which it had been invited to work in cities from Belfast to Istanbul and from Rotterdam to Milan), was increasingly being taken over by state-sponsored city-marketing driven festivals. Frustrated by the fact that its language had been adopted, while its more critical content was ignored, City Mine(d) aspired to raise its head in structural debates, like the urban economy.

Micronomics was not City Mine(d)’s first foray in local and territorial development. Researchers like Frank Moulaert and Erik Swyngedouw very early on saw in its approach a way to address uneven development. It was Moulaert (2010) who coined the concept of “bottom-linked social innovation”, describing initiatives that are not directly taken by those immediately concerned with specific social needs. “Bottom-linked” addresses the issue that although you are not poor yourself, your initiatives can still address poverty. Further still, in some cases such intermediate organisations are needed, because those concerned lack the social capital to table their needs in the right fora. This put to bed a long critique of City Mine(d) not being a grassroots organisation and accusations of being “astroturf” (the fake grass carpets that are used to green concrete space and which obviously have no roots either). A critique that did not keep the European Commission from publishing Micronomics as a good practice: “At a time when economic fundamentals have been shaken drastically worldwide, Micronomics was able to bring out not just optimism in the face of difficulties, but also true alternatives combining entrepreneurship, social responsibility and sustainable development. (European Union, 2012).”

Fast forward to 2019, and in the wake of Micronomics, City Mine(d) combines local development with issues of social and ecological transition. Yet, to tell its story, City Mine(d) borrowed vocabulary from technology and business management. From Vermaak (2012) it adopted the concept of Tough Issues. Lack of green and public space, loss of affordable housing, gender imbalance, decolonisation, urban transport and mobility are instances of ‘tough issues’ because they are complex in their subject matter (multi-factor), in order to be addressed they need the collaboration of many stakeholders (multi-actor) and they touch upon different levels of policy- and decision-making (multi-scalar). (For more details see Segers, 2019). From Suchman (2002), the concept of Prototyping was adopted. In technology a prototype is “an exploratory technology designed to effect alignment between the multiple interests and working practices of technology research and development, and sites of technology-in-use.” More recently, the term Boundary Object (Star 1989) from Ecology and Sociology is being used to describe the same qualities. Particularly Wenger’s (1998) description of boundary objects as “entities that can link communities together as they allow different groups to collaborate on a common task” describes very well what City Mine(d)’s work aims at.

  • Issue

Both Elephant Path and La Pile adhere to the concepts mentioned in the previous paragraph. That is, both address tough issues –in the case of Elephant Path the barriers to work in London’s Somers Town area; for La Pile the role of citizens in the rapidly transforming energy sector focussing on Brussels’ Midi neighbourhood. Both areas are not coincidently among the more disadvantaged in their respective countries. And both put forward ideas of boundary objects. Elephant Path explores ways of organising a “micro-jobs cooperative” in a way that workers remain the full owners and beneficiaries of their work, without frogmarching them down the path of entrepreneurship and start-ups. La Pile works towards becoming one of Brussels’ first “integrated energy communities”, which implies that local residents can produce and share production of electricity locally, but also keep financial and other benefits (governments subsidies, sale of surplus electricity and so on) local. (For more on La Pile see Segers 2019b). Despite their differences, both Elephant Path and La Pile have a several things in common. Though there are more, I would like to highlight 3 common features here, as they all are problematic in their own way.

Elephant Path and La Pile are both clarion calls. They are calls for action, rather than blueprints waiting to be executed. This ties in very much with its notion of boundary object, in the sense that both programmes put forward ideas that require buy-in from many different agencies (public authorities, private individuals and institutions and so on). Each of these agencies in turn shapes the final outcome of the programme.
This will link to point 2 below, but also to a problematic nature of collective action. Beyond the issues already highlighted by Oslon (1965), there are more recent political or ideological concerns with collective action. Olson argued that individuals in large groups attempting collective actions will always have incentives to “free ride” on the efforts of others. A solution would be to limit the benefits to active participants, but in the case of local development that seems quite impossible. Still, from speaking to people on the ground City Mine(d) has learned that incentives are often too small and the neighbourhood too large to act in the common interest.
Yet, there is also an ideological footnote to make to initiating collective action. To what extent is collective action a vehicle for radical change, and at what point does it become a mere means of dealing with the failures of the market mechanism. I will develop this point further in point 3, but largely it comes down to collective action being harnessed for state-led, and in some cases even private development. It will remain impossible to understand to what extent state and market actors have actually adopted the logic of co-creation from a moral perspective –as in John Dewey’s famous quote “All those who are affected by social institutions must have a share in producing them and managing them” – or rather from an opportunistic efficiency point of view – taking their cue from Pahalad and Ramaswamy (2004) “companies can no longer act autonomously, designing products, developing production processes, crafting marketing messages, and controlling sales channels with little or no interference from consumers”, basically arguing that companies better start co-creating with their customers, or they will end up losing money. But maybe accepting the notion of collective action as a subject of debate is already co-opting a narrative and thus a mode of thinking that separates citizens in good - those active in the community - and bad - those who retreat behind their own front door. Maybe a different narrative, or a different imaginary altogether is what is needed.

Both Elephant Path and La Pile are developing in disadvantaged neighbourhoods. Linked to point 1, Rendon (2011) remarks “area-based approaches in low-income neighbourhoods are increasingly trying to activate residents that have been overlooked and even displaced. However, in some cases the previous urban renewal policies and interventions have resulted in residents’ lack of trust and disengagement.” This is a point made to City Mine(d) by local residents on their doorstep in both neighbourhoods in London and Brussels: many have seen different regeneration schemes come and go, none of whom managed to make a significant dent in deprivation statistics. From her study of regeneration programmes in Rotterdam’s Tarwewijk, Rendon concludes that “result has been a neighbourhood that is far from being integrated and perhaps even burdened with a negative reputation due to the public attention on its problems. Within the implemented strategies there are usually associated practices, which are related with harassment, eviction of certain groups and constant patrol, followed by encroachment of the media and finally drop in real estate values. Public programmes and local plans advocating neighbourhood restructuring through residents’ engagement have run side by side with authoritarian strategies of neighbourhood restructuring, both supported and led by the state and the real estate sector.” Unfortunately, this analysis goes for many disadvantaged areas throughout Europe, and explains why many of its longer term residents have grown increasingly cynical about public ambitions to improve the quality of life.

A third characteristic that both programmes share with all types of initiatives aiming at social and political change, is that they do happen in a specific context. In The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, Karl Marx (1852) famously puts it as “Men (“Die Menschen” in German) make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves.” The vast majority of today’s actions and practices that propose social change and ecological transition are situated within the context of modes of thinking that have become so dominant that they can confidently be called hegemonic. This is expressed both in the options they see, words they use and results they obtain. Those modes of thinking have an economic flank – that considers the free market as the best way to allocate resources in society which includes making state responsibilities and social practices tradable goods–; a political flank – that aims at shrinking the state and contract out the services it normally provides or make them subject to internal competition–; and all this shored up by an ideological flank – claiming that economic, political, and social relations are best organised through formally free choices of formally free and rational actors who seek to advance their own material or ideal interest (Jessop, 2002). Together they combine into the edifice often referred to as neoliberalism. Its acceptance and even enthusiastic adoption by almost all governing agencies, from supranational bodies like the IMF, Worldbank, WTO and EU to most nation-states, the regional and even metropolitan and local level, has turned neoliberalism into an all-pervading ideology and makes it very difficult to think, let alone act, outside this framework.
It is therefore, understandable that social actors start to adopt this framework. Jessop points out that within the neoliberal frame of mind, “community” (or rather several self-organising communities) is promoted to deal with the failures of the market mechanism. Those failures are for instance inequality, environmental degradation, poverty and so on. Gough (2002) goes further to say that “communities” (which he calls “socialisations” to refer to all non-market cooperations between social actors) have internalised neoliberal social relations and often deepen social divisions. He explains: “Racial” differences are the obvious example, but differences of gender have also been crucial: in the west end of Newcastle upon Tyne, the efforts of women to organise against joy-riding and to use area regeneration money have been actively, sometimes violently, opposed by men. There have certainly been community initiatives of the poor that have challenged power, but the initiatives sponsored by the state and capital have largely been able to head off such radical dynamics. individualism and sectionalism that weaken radical community action.” An individualism captured magnificently by then UK Prime Minister, standard-bearer and angel annunciator of neoliberalism Margaret Thatcher, when she said “there is no such thing as society, there are individual men and women.”
In the same spirit of elimination, Margaret Thatcher is also known for having campaigned under the slogan “there is no alternative (to the free market model)”, thereby not only firmly establishing the neoliberal modes of thinking, but also heralding a post-political era. Post-politics, according to Erik Swyngedouw, is characterised by the conversion of politics into “technological forms of management or organisation, a process which leads to the effective silencing of genuinely political questions'' (Oosterlynck, Swyngedouw 2010). Politics is reduced to institutionalised social management, whereby all problems are dealt with through administrative-organisational-technical means; questioning things as such disappears. These post-political dynamics add to the inescapability of neoliberalism, in the sense that the arena of public government becomes excluded and off limits as the place to propose radical political alternatives.

Reflexions like these on the neoliberal context pose some startling questions for initiatives like Elephant Path, and even La Pile. At what point do the initiatives become the mere shoring up of a political ideology that could well be at the root of the grievances it wants to address? And what role does bringing people together and forming a local community play in this? To what extent is it still possible to be radical?

To further their cause within the context described above, initiatives to promote social change, include marginalised groups and even ponder a radical alternative, need to adopt the language of the powers they speak to. They start to talk the talk but pretty soon also walk the walk. Cognitive linguist George Lakoff wrote profusely about framing, about the way language carries and invokes ideas. “Framing is about getting language that fits your worldview.” As a cognitive scientist, he claims that there is a crucial logic to the way the brain works with respect to public discourse, from which he derives a number of point: “ The conservative turn in America has come from the constant use of conservative language in public discourse. So much so that progressives have often adopted conservative language, thus helping the conservative cause.” and “Because of the effect of language and imagery on the brain, the constant use of one ideology’s language over the other’s has an enormous effect on our politics.” As mentioned in point one, in this case also a different narrative and imaginary impose themselves as first steps in a different direction.

  • Complexity

If you look at a school of sardines, they give you the impression that they are executing a well-prepared plan. When threatened or migrating South, they form huge almost perfectly round balls that can measure up to 20 meters in diameter and can last up to 20 minutes. Tens of thousands of fish swim in unison because it makes them look bigger than the shark that wants to have them for lunch, to improve their hydrodynamics –in other words consume less energy going forward–, and increases the likelihood of meeting a mate. What is more striking still, is that there is no larger plan, or a central command controlling shape and direction of the ball. It just emerges from the actions of each individual sardine. The balls take shape because each individual fish adapts its behaviour to its nearest neighbour. The formation has no leader, making it a self-organising system.
There are other systems in nature that display similar properties. The most famous one probably is the army ant (after it starred as one of National Geographic’s Most Deadliest in the eponymous wildlife documentary series). The army ant lives in the Brazilian Rain Forest in colonies of about half a million entities. Experiments have shown that if you isolate 200 of them, and put them on a table, they will purposelessly walk around in circles until they die. However, as a colony of 500,000, they are lethal to anything they find on their territory, and that includes snakes and scorpions. And again, their maraud is not orchestrated by any central intelligence. The ants self-organise. Their deadly force emerges from that fact that each one does his tiny bit.
The field of research that studies these phenomena is called complexity, and refers to them as complex systems. We are confronted with them more than we think, or even would like to. At the very large scale the weather system is one of those complex systems consisting of many small and interacting elements that all contribute to rain or shine; the internet is a global complex system of interconnected networks of 100 million servers hosting roughly 1,5 billion websites. Again, without a grand scheme or coordination behind it. But also on the very small scale our lives are affected by complex systems. Human biology has some striking examples. The nervous system consists of the interplay of many cells called neurons, or “nerve cells”, which like the earlier mentioned sardines or army ant perform their tasks unconcerned by the bigger picture, yet from their workings emerges consciousness and sentiments. Another example propelled in the global consciousness by the planet-paralysing pandemic that at the time of writing still rages, is the human immune system. This system inside the human body keeps it from getting sick and consists of trillions of cells without any leader or central control. Like little soldiers these cells move around in the body trying to find germs, bacteria, funghi, and virusses and defeat them collectively. Interestingly, measures of dealing with the pandemic (from lockdowns to tier systems and quarantines) as well as strategies towards finding the much-anticipated vaccine rely heavily on complexity theory. Other examples of complex systems are markets with buyers and sellers, an economy as a whole, the political behaviour of societies, the list seems endless.

Two main characteristics stand out when it comes to complex systems, and which will be of interest to us later. One is “self-organisation”, they can perform rather sophisticated tasks without central control or leader. The other is “emergence”. Emergence has colloquially been described as “the sum is more than its parts” but is probably best understood by the example of the physical phenomenon of wetness: the individual H2O molecule does not have wetness as a characteristic, many H2O molecules do. Or more succinctly even, at what point does a collection of grains of sand become a pile? According to Mitchell (2009), this logic flies in the face of science as we have known it since Descartes. Reductionism, as the way Descartes practiced science, built upon the belief that a whole can be understood completely if you understand its parts. This no longer holds in Complexity, which could be seen as a terrifically liberating finding.

In his introduction to Complexity, Holland (2014) draws a distinction between on the one hand Complex Physical Systems (CPS), which consist of different fixed elements whose behaviour can be fairly accurately described and predicted in mathematics through partial differential equations; and on the other hand Complex Adaptive Systems, in which agents learn or adapt in response to interaction with other agents, which makes their behaviour entirely unpredictable. Not incidentally, the distinction is mirrored in its application in mathematics and computer science on the one hand, and social sciences on the other. This can lead to interesting and most revealing disagreements. Take for instance the debate held on the BBC Radio 4 show “In Our Time”. In its programme on Complexity of 19 December 2013, Professor Eve Mitleton-Kelly, Director of the Complexity Research Group at the London School of Economics and a Social scientist, is asked to explain the difference between complex and complicated. Complicated systems can be designed, predicted and controlled, she says. Take for instance the jet engine, it has many parts, it all looks very intricate, but it is not complex. Complex is the opposite of these things, take human societies as an example. Complex systems can create a new structure, a new way of working from the way the agents of the system interact with each other. Professor Jeff Johnson, Professor of Complexity Science and Design at the Open University and a mathematician, disagrees with her notion that complex systems cannot be designed. He claims that in some instances they can and quotes the example of a city, which according to him can be designed. In making that claim, he probably highlights a more interesting divide between engineers who think societies can be designed, organised and planned, and on the other hand social scientist who seek to incorporate human agency in a model. This however, does not reduce the standing and the promise complexity holds. When asked by President Clinton to reflect upon the next millennium from a science perspective, Stephen Hawking in 1998 said “the most important developments for the next millennium will be in complexity.”

Because of its novel way of thinking, and because of its notions of self-organisation and emergence, complexity might hold some seeds for a new perspective on the way cities and neighbourhoods develop, and the way we would like them to develop. In his 2008 book “New York for Sale” Hunter College Urban Planing and Policy Professor Tom Angotti writes: “in order to achieve neighbourhood change new flexible and adaptive models of action must be developed recognising the roles played by conflict, contradiction and complexity in the planning process. Neighbourhood-based planning — decision making, implementation and management — cannot be fixed, rational or linear. Preconceived plans will not be successful. The point of departure should be political strategies since ‘community planning is rarely politically neutral at the local level and often addresses city-wide, regional and global political issues.”

For these various reasons, complexity has attracted City Mine(d)’s attention when looking for inspiration for a different narrative and a new imaginary. There could be something profoundly liberating in the recognition that there is rather limited control over the development of neighbourhoods. The character and development of neighbourhoods might be more an emergent characteristic of the behaviour of different agents, in this case local residents, rather than the result of the insights of a master planner. The insight that all residents are interacting and adapting elements should limit the ambitions of those who want to design its future, plot its development path or plan its use of space. It might also curb the ambitions of government agencies that still think that neighbourhoods can be engineered and controlled through strategies like gentrification (Uitermark, Duyvendak, Kleinhans 2007).

About our conundrum on collective action, it might make the discussion obsolete altogether. When we look at the residents as equally valuable agents, collective action is not an option. Collective action is a statement of fact. It could be argued that it is a fallacy to believe that we can opt out of the systems that shape our daily lives. Rather, our daily lives shape those systems. To stop living is the only form of retreat from the public activities that are indispensable to meeting our basic needs. There is no central command or control happening in public life. It is the accumulation of a plethora of activities which together make up what we refer to as public life. So those who initiate action, those who further it, but equally those who ignore it, and those who oppose it, are part of the collective action and the complex system from which emerges the neighbourhood as we know it.

This does not mean that all forms of actions are irrelevant. On the contrary, it allows us to focus our energy on activities that really matter. To empower the right agents, and thus to redistribute power. Approached from another perspective, it looks at the agency each agent has, and how it can be harnessed. The repercussions this has on the goals that can be attained as a society are more than liberating, they are sea changing.
When it comes to the challenges disadvantages neighbourhoods are faced with, it is often heard that a collective effort is needed, we all need to put the hand on the plough. This not only presupposes an attainable goal all need to work towards, but also that those who do not engage are in a way morally inferior to those who do. That acting is good, passively observing is only contributing to the downfall of humanity. With the perspective of complex systems, however, the action of each individual can be seen as a contribution to the development of the neighbourhood.

This does not mean, however, that a more sustainable, socially just of culturally more inclusive can no longer be aspired to. Holland (2014) in his book on complexity teaches us that complex systems often exhibit recurring patterns. He compares it to a game of chess, in which different moves can make up a pattern. An experienced player can use these patterns to steer a game to a win. But other complex systems like the weather or our brains equally display certain patterns. It is by comparing different complex systems that lessons can be learned in terms of steering a complex system towards a more beneficial outcome. Again, not through leadership, a boss, or central command, but rather through a collective intelligence and a path that emerges from the actions of the different agents. The development can be steered in a more desirable direction, but as is the case already, this will only actually happen when the different actor involved individually move in that direction. This also assumes a level playing field, which is obviously not the case. Different agents have more or less access to resources, and therefore their actions weigh more heavily on the development of the area. These resources can be power, financial means, knowledge or network. Which brings us back to the same practices and the same activities of empowering and emancipating disenfranchised local residents, be it this time with another narrative, and with another imaginary.

  • Conclusion

This article used the experience of City Mine(d) in disadvantaged neighbourhoods in Brussels and London to highlight issues related to taking collective action. The article does not argue against collective action, on the contrary, it very much endorses the conclusions form the work of among others Elinor Ostrom (1990) who highlighted the need for collective action particularly when commons like natural resources are at play. Also, the title does not want to suggest that collective action should be excluded as a possibility. Rather the contrary, it considers it self-evident that it is not a subject of debate, but a matter of fact.

Yet, the article wishes to highlight the difficulty of radical political action in the hegemonic neoliberal context. It identifies two instances in which ‘fair is foul and foul is fair’. One is collective action which can aspire radical change but might end up to shore up the status quo; another is the notion of community, which can be a form of organising, empowering and emancipating of a disenfranchised group, yet can also become a way to fragment struggles with gender, race, age, class or even the place where you live as the dividing features, thereby keeping radical activities within the boundary of the invulnerable.

The dominant character of the neoliberal project makes it difficult to imagine, discuss, let alone execute political alternatives. For that reason, it is proposed here to look into the emerging science of complex systems, to explore a new vocabulary, new modes of organising, and new ways of learning. All input is much appreciated.

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