"Tactics for Tough Issues", article in Multitudes 77, 2019

15 Jan 2020

City Mined is a practice based in Brussels (B) and London (UK). We call ourselves a design practice; design, for us, being the conception and building of tangible artefacts, as well as the design of organisations and systems. Over the past two decades we have evolved from an activist group calling on direct action methods for making a difference, to something more akin to a development NGO aiming for longer term social transformation. The focus of the work, however, is still on involving the disenfranchised in the way the city is taking shape, and is still situated in deprived urban neighbourhoods.

City Mine(d) remains firmly committed to its core principles of horizontal decision-making, anti- authoritarianism and self-organisation. Yet, over the last years it has moved from a reactive to a more responsive approach. Reactive implying immediate, based on the moment, and not much time left for consideration. Responsive on the other hand is more conscious, ‘ecological’ in the sense that it takes the context into account, and is therefore often slower. Although the business literature that coined this distinction refers to the approaches as strategies, following de Certeau1 City Mine(d) speaks of tactics. Where strategy is the realm of the powerful, who plan cities and are able to impose a vision; in de Certeau’s reading tactics are an adaptation of the powerless to the context provided by the strategy of the powerful.

Tough Issues

Our tactics are increasingly informed by a particular perspective on society and on challenges communities find themselves confronted with. Over the past half century, it emerged that a number of similar yet unrelated questions – take for instance ‘how can we keep urban traffic flowing (while respecting the environment and individual freedom)?’; ‘how can we eradicate poverty?’; or ‘how can we meet an ever increasing demand for energy (and stem climate change)?’– share a sufficient number of characteristics to be grouped under the same banner, and even to warrant a similar approach, though their subjects seem unrelated. The questions were coined ‘tough issues’ (Vermaak2), or ‘wicked problems’ (Rittel and Webber3). They are deemed ‘tough’ 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). Rittel and Webber juxtapose ‘wicked problems’ with ‘tame problems’ like playing chess or solving a puzzle. The latter have a clear solution and an endpoint, whereas the first lack a clear formulation of the problem, have no right or wrong solution and each one is unique. This also means that ‘tough issues’ escape the prevailing logic that all issues can be solved by algorithms. They show us the edges of today’s dominant notion that all problems can be reduced to a mathematical formula which with the right input of data then solves itself.

Roberts4 identifies 3 ways of dealing with tough issues: authoritative –outsourcing the issue to a group or individual who formulate a solution, which is efficient but can fall short in term of knowledge and commitment of those involved–; competitive –confronting opposing views, which can generate new ideas but at the risk of conflict and stalemate–; or collaborative. The latter is preferable, according to Roberts, as it involves many stakeholders and, therefore, it proves best able to muster a maximum of knowledge, information and differing perspectives on the issue. Roberts also points out that a linear approach to problem solving does not work for ‘tough issues’, and that a top-down approach is undesirable, as it risks alienating stakeholders. Considering its background, City Mine(d) clearly has a lot of affinity with the collaborative approach to ‘tough issues’.

City Mine(d) has carved out a specific position for itself in the constellation of stakeholders in a ‘tough issue’. Its role resembles what Simmel5 describes as the ‘tertius gaudens’. The ‘tertius’ is the intermediary between different opposing parties in a situation of conflict. The ‘non- partisan element’, which was previously not connected to either of the rivalling groups, interacts with ‘each of the elements engaged’, and creates opportunities to (re-)establish communication.

City Mine(d) acquires the position of ‘tertius’ by what it calls ’prototyping’: collaboratively designing and building artefacts that are working models of practical solutions to small scale challenges within the realm of the tough issue at hand. Its practical character is inspired by what Wanda Orlikowski6 wrote on tough issues:”one learns about tough issues by addressing them, not by thinking about them beforehand. The latter leads to a ‘paralysis by analysis’, where people cannot take action until they have more information, but they cannot get good information until someone takes action.” The label ‘prototype’ is borrowed from technology, and more in particular from Xerox’ Lucy Suchmann7: “the prototype, 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.” Similarly, the prototypes of City Mine(d) serve the purpose of aligning the different stakeholders in a tough issue.

Over the past years, City Mine(d) was able to engage with several tough issues: ‘unemployment and the future of work’ in London, ‘water in urban context’ in Brussels, currently in Brussels with ‘a place for citizens in the electricity landscape’. We will now briefly touch upon the water issue before addressing the current state of electricity.

Friche Eggevoort

In 2011, mapping workshops in Brussels European Quarter uncovered a derelict piece of land (a ‘friche’ in French) in the heart of the neighbourhood. The barely two thousand m2 are officially property of the city of Brussels, yet in reality they sit on a complex knot of municipal, regional, federal and even European authorities. The land is a remote enclave of the city of Brussels (municipal), but its pavement is municipal authority of Etterbeek (another commune). As an extension of the Leopold Park, it resides under Brussels’ regional authority. It also backs onto the famous Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences, which considers the friche as its garden, which comes with federal state authority. Finally, barely 150m removed from the European Parliament entrance, an unruly place like this comes in the crosshairs of the security- obsessed EU, which also wields powers over it.

Obviously, this complexity puts firm breaks on all attempts to develop the space, making it all the more interesting to create dynamics from the bottom up. City Mine(d) used the unique opportunity provided by this power stalemate to pursue a double agenda: on the one hand making the shaping of the local built environment more inclusive; and on a different level using the exceptional power constellation to address the ‘tough issue’ of water in the city.

In the Spring of 2011, we removed waste from the site and started organising arts activities involving participants ‘ranging from Eurocrat to Indignado, and from resident to visitor’. To obtain the right to use the space, a petition was launched, which was signed by some two hundred people.

The group around City Mine(d) also proposed a more inclusive alternative to the top-down proposed redevelopment for the Leopold Park. It hoped that changing its opaque redevelopment could become a lever for changing the shaping of the entire neighbourhood. Following a series of workshops and public activities, in May 2012 the collective presented a publication entitled “Le Collectif PUM, le Parc Leopold et Les nouvelles rivieres urbaines” which explained an alternative approach to the park, taking account of its social function and biodiversity.

Yet, work on site revealed a broader concern: i.e. the ‘tough issue’ of water. Water in an urban context is tough for many reasons: it is expected to be supplied at drinking quality, while at the same time it needs to be evacuated and treated in a swift and decent manner. This sounds pretty straightforward, yet remembering that this involves demography, geology and economy, not to mention public health and a changing climate, gives an indication of the complexity and number of stakeholders involved. After 2000, residents at the bottom of the Maelbeek valley, where the friche was also situated, increasingly suffered flooding. “Public authorities entrusted concocting a solution to minimise flood risk to engineers, (...) who adopted the technical solution of a storm basin,” Dominic Nalpas of citizen platform EGEB writes. “It involves retaining excess water during torrential rainfall in a vast underground basin that buffers and ejects water into the drainage system downstream when the storm flood is over.“ Resistance to building the storm basin gave rise to a citizen movement.

In this context, City Mine(d) played innocent and experimented with its strategy of prototyping on ‘tough issues’. It set itself, and others, a series of ‘challenges’ which required various actors to be involved, gather and share knowledge and insights, and result in artistic or technological artefacts. Its first ‘challenge’ on the friche was: “can we drink rain water?” A pavilion with a roof surface of 10m2 was designed and built. Its use raised other issues about the availability and distribution of drinking water in public space. A second ‘challenge’ was building a large ceramic scale model of the area, to understand the relationship between those living uphill and upstream, and those lower down the valley. At the same time, it was also a convenient mapping tool, as it revealed roles and responsibilities of institutional actors in the valley, and became the backdrop for imagining a different future for neighbourhood. Unable to test the quality of the water captured by the pavilion, a third ‘challenge’ was launched, i.e. building a smart water tester from the bottom-up with a group of citizens. The tester, named Pacco-test, became a lever for citizens to claim a space in the smart cities debate, putting them around the table with the Brussels regional Smart Cities manager to voice concerns about an industry- dominated smart city.

The different ‘challenges’ made people think and act together, increased public and political consciousness about water and biodiversity and, on a different level, with the Pacco-test caused the design of a technological tool that can help citizens in managing the commons. It also gave rise to what City Mine(d) calls coalitions. These diverse groups involve citizens but also relevant institutional stakeholders like government, industry research and civil society organisations. Collaborating on the concrete issue on a concrete place, makes them develop a common language on the ‘tough issue’. At a later stage, this language can also be used and extrapolated beyond the concrete case. The friche ‘challenges’ caused unusually diverse ‘coalitions’, involving actors ranging from the members of the self-help homeless organisation to the office of Martin Schultz, the then president of the European parliament. The choice of location with its unusual geography of power echelons, proved essential in having the buy-in of these different stakeholders.

La Pile

The electricity sector is on the verge of a major shift. Increasing electrification, growing awareness of the environmental impact of energy consumption and a retreat of the state making the sector predominantly profit-driven; cause a shake-up comparable only to the creation of the national grid of a century ago. For City Mine(d) this provides opportunities to approach the mountain of climate change from a less steep flank. In other words, climate change increasingly pitches believers against non-believers, or those who prioritise personal freedom against others for whom the legal framework prevails against still others for whom equal access and sustainability are sacred (Hendriks8). To the point where the subject becomes so vast that it ends up being incapacitating. Within the still very broad field of electricity, call it a ‘tough issue’, City Mine(d) started looking for opportunities, rather than engaging with the threats. The opportunity here being the chance to tilt the playing field in favour of citizens and cooperatives. The location is Brussels’ Quartier Midi, one of Europe’s most densely populated areas and with a notoriously stubborn deprivation index (including energy poverty).

From May 2018, experts from industry, research, media, government and civil society were interviewed about their perspective on the changing sector. The group of interviewees was referred to as pilots as they all agreed to make their expertise available later. After the interviews, all of them were brought together in a Pilot Meeting. Meanwhile, a local group had been formed, and a name had been chosen for the project: La Pile. Thirty-five stories of local resident of the Quartier Midi and their relationship with electricity were collected and contributed to a perspective on the sector.

This initial phase of talking to neighbourhood and experts is what City Mine(d) refers to as ’scanning’. Results of this scanning for La Pile were made public in 3 ways: a roadmap for individual citizens willing to take action, an exhibition launched in Brussels’ prestigious arts centre Bozar which then travelled through the Quartier Midi and beyond, and a board game that familiarises players with the intricacies of local electricity.

La Pile is currently being developed further and will consist of a public arts interventions (a mechanical battery that makes electricity visible and thus brings it into public awareness) and an energy community. La Pile’s vision for an energy community draws inspiration from two sources. On the one hand there is the Brooklyn Microgrid9, “a demonstration project where citizens can buy and sell locally produced PV power from one another.” On the other hand, there is NEFs study called “Plugging the Leaks10.” This sees the local economy as a bucket, and from there says: “If someone has £5 and spends it in the local grocers, the £5 stays in the bucket. But when they pay the electricity bill, it doesn't stay in the bucket. Spending on electricity is like a leak in the bucket: the fiver leaks out as the supplier is a business outside the area.” Solar panels provide a unique opportunity to produce locally, even in an urban context, but La Pile aims to go further than limiting the distance electricity has to travel. It wants investment and reward to be local as well, and it wants to use the opportunity to connect neighbours not only by copper wires, but also by sustainable social ties.

One could argue that the replacement of the state paradigm of producing and distributing electricity by a Free Market model has not proven to be to panacea some predicted it would be: supply is far from guaranteed, prices don’t reflect the value of the good and fail to comprise basic externalities like permanent damage to the environment, and worst of all, an entire financially fragile segment of the population is completely disserved by the market. This inadequate model, along with an increasing awareness of the environmental impact creates an urgency to develop a third option: a form of collective ownership by a community that generates, owns and shares electricity. This urgency inspires la Pile to experiment on 3 levels: technically, financially and in terms of governance.

First, to the existing array of technical appliances, it wants to contribute a storage device that is low-cost, low-environmental impact, but highly visible and thus contributing to awareness and sense of ownership. Secondly, in terms of business model, it wants to address the burgeoning view that solar energy is more profitable than a savings account. It investigates ways for low- income communities to become co-owners of the solar installations they have on their roofs, and thus reap their benefit, also financially. And thirdly, it looks for a governance model that goes beyond managing the flow of electrons or Euros, but considers also social objectives such as reduction of energy poverty, skills development, community regeneration and social cohesion.

La Pile will not end climate change, but imagine, just imagine that the reduced demand thanks to the Energy Community means that at peak time that polluting backup power station does not have to come online? Would that not be significant in itself?


By conceiving and building artefacts, organisations and systems, City Mine(d) has come to play a rather unusual role in the ‘tough’ questions policy, business, civil society researchers but also communities are confronted with. It does not address the questions head-on, but focusses on the building of a prototype, which is at once a practical solution, an emblematic intervention and the seed of a new coalition. The projects are demonstrations that give rise to increased public awareness, practical solutions as well as new forms of community.

1 de Certeau, M. (1980), ‘L’Invention du Quotidien’, Paris, Union Générale d’Ediitons
2 Vermaak, H. (2012), ‘Facilitating Local Ownership Through Paradoxical Interventions’, The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, XX(X): 1–23.
3 Rittel, H., Webber, M. (1973). ‘Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning’, Policy Sciences, 4 (2): 155–169
4 Roberts, N (2000), Coping with Wicked Problems, Working Paper, Department of Strategic Management, Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey, California
5 Simmel, G. (1955), ‘Conflict’. Glencoe, Ill: Free Press.
6 Orlikowski, W. J., (1996), ‘Improvising organisational transformation over time: A situates change perspective’, Information Systems research, 7(1): 63-92.
7 Suchmann, L. Trigg, R. and Blomberg, J. (2002), ‘Working artefacts: ethnomethods of the prototype’, British Journal of Sociology, Jun;53(2): 163-79.
8Hendriks, F. (1994), ‘Cars and culture in Munich and Birmingham: the case for cultural pluralism’ in Coyle, D.J. and Ellis, R.J. (eds) Politics, Policy and Culture, Boulder, Colorado: Westview.
9 [https://the-beam.com/uncategorized/can-the-brooklyn-microgrid-project-revolutionise-the-energy- market/ ](https://the-beam.com/uncategorized/can-the-brooklyn-microgrid-project-revolutionise-the-energy- market/)
10 New Economics Foundation “Plugging the Leaks -Making the most of every pound that enters your local economy” The New Economics Foundation, Esmée Fairbairn Foundation and the Neighbourhood Renewal Unit, September 2002