SDG 11: Cities SDG 16: Institutions SDG 9: Industry+Innovation

The ‘clarion call’ of creative adaptation

When citizens huddle in coffee shops to design adaptation solutions, the "creative city" concept takes on a whole new meaning.

The Entry

I’ll tell you how this began. I walked into the office of my colleague Javier De Jesús and my eye happened to catch the titles of two books on his desk, The Creative City and The Civic City in a Nomadic World, both by legendary British urbanist and author Charles Landry.

Being a leading urbanist himself here in Puerto Rico, Javier is quite the fan and follower, an avid user of Landry’s frameworks to inform his creative-city work in the Santurce district of San Juan.

The titles grabbed me because I’m on an always-on search for something, ANYTHING, that might accelerate climate adaptation by introducing new ways and angles of approaching this most urgent of all urban challenges.

“Let’s interview him for a TRJ article,” I suggested, as I leafed excitedly through The Creative City, “and get his thoughts on how this applies to adaptation.” Javier, naturally, agreed, and the result is the remarkable video call in The Interview below.

“It is a clarion call to different thinking. How in a world of dramatic transformation do you create the conditions for people to think, plan and act with imagination in solving problems and creating opportunities.”

Would you believe that was his opening line, at minute 2:50. Damn, I thought. We’re in for some freaking conversation, and sure enough, that is exactly what we got. I mean, let’s break that down a bit:

  • “A world of dramatic transformation.” Yup. You can say that again. Nothing today is more transformative than catastrophic climate change.
  • “Create the conditions.” Underlying, foundational stuff. Yup. The first steps we must take.
  • “For people to think, plan and act with imagination.” OMG! If that isn’t exactly what the world needs now (yes, in addition to love, sweet love).
  • “In solving problems and creating opportunities.” The section of the book he refers to actually says “solving seemingly intractable urban problems.” And isn’t extreme climate precisely that, especially when it starts coming at you with far more frequency and intensity starting next decade.

Hence, Landry’s clarion call for “different thinking.” But what does that mean, exactly? How can you take that to your next mayoral, assembly, board, association or kitchen-table meeting and persuade a team to think differently?

Landry does provide some guidance in The Interview, but it took digging into The Creative City to uncover more.

Future proof

As 2018 ended and this new annum began, with cities and industries across the planet besieged several years straight, now, by ever-fiercer climate events and the relentless setting of frightening records, a new calling has emerged, for cities to embed, mainstream, integrate adaptation in all manner of urban planning and infrastructure.

And yes, God knows we need as much of that as we can possibly engineer, especially now that we know for certain escalating, exponential climate change cannot be stopped.

But is that it? Could that really, truly be the only way forward? Traditional city planning and infrastructure fortification is no doubt a vital part. But what else might we be missing? How else can we optimize the ability of families, businesses and organizations deep within a city, in every street and neighborhood, to become ever-more resilient to the climate calamity just now getting started?

The first “different thinking” to adopt, then, is for EVERYONE to own adaptation for his/her own life and property, well beyond that provided by City Hall, and embrace the “dramatic transformation” this represents.

But that, in turn, requires city-wide buy-in — more: city-wide creativity. We can predict progressively worse climate change, but the detail is by nature unpredictable. To adapt, you must be adaptive.

That applies just as well to the macro level. “Creativity is context driven,” Landry said in The Interview below. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, it was all about creating modern infrastructure, including electricity, transport and water, and the skyscraper phenomenon with its dense, vibrant city centers. In the 1980s, when he first focused on the creative city, the focus was thriving hip districts, later sustainable urbanism, and now it is climate adaptation, which “is and should be the focus of the new creativity.”

“We’re talking about elastic planning, which is adaptive and adaptable to unknown circumstances.” Charles Landry

Today, “the creative agenda [involves] dealing with this risk nexus,” which requires an instinctive, holistic approach to innovation, a certain genetic code he says the world is lacking, “to turn what we know needs to happen into reality.

“We’re not talking about planning in the predict-and-provide model,” the one city governments and companies know and are focused on. “We’re talking about elastic planning, which is adaptive and adaptable to unknown circumstances” in ways that are “more future-proofable. This is a systemic challenge,” something he says the business-as-usual approach is ill-suited to solve.

A toolkit for collapse

In The Creative City, Landry presents a Conceptual Toolkit to get the job done, or “a set of ideas to make understanding and acting upon [the] problem easier.”

It begins with a set of foundational conditions, including four particularly suited for this new adaptation project:

  • Creative individuals. At Sagrado Corazón University’s Neeuko Innovation Center, Javier, the Director, calls them, simply, designers. Landry describes them as “people with imaginative qualities who think problems afresh.”
  • Leaders at all levels. As society fills up with adaptation citizen- and business designers, a new class of leaders must emerge able to inspire and manage entire teams to implement holistic adaptive solutions.
  • Facilities and urban spaces. In addition to the properties owned by individuals across the city, this includes public and shared spaces usually managed or overseen by the state.
  • Networking dynamics, or new ways to connect people, businesses and organizations of all kinds, an absolute must in a society ravaged directly by natural disasters and indirectly by supply disruptions.

The Toolkit then introduces seven concepts to guide thinking and execution:

  • Civic creativity
  • Cycle of urban creativity
  • Innovation lifecycles
  • Uban R&D
  • Innovation matrix
  • Vitality & viability
  • Urban literacy

In the interest of time and space, I refer you to the book for a complete explanation, but notice in particular Landry’s use of civic creativity, elaborated in one of his other works, The Civic City in a Nomadic World, or the imperative of seeing the broader city, society and economy as a shared enterprise and becoming INVOLVED. To achieve full adaptiveness, such engagement is indispensable.

Two other concepts merit special mention: viability, a rather obvious objective given climate’s unprecedented global collapse-inducing power; and literacy, except that with Landry’s permission I’d like to suggest a layer of urban adaptation literacy for everyone.

The Toolkit also includes a rigorous five-point methodology: assessment, planning, indicators, execution and reporting.

Frightening, yes, and exciting

In The Interview, Landry addressed what perhaps ought to be the first target of this Toolkit when applied to creative adaptation: the dissonance, trauma and shock, even denialism, many people feel when facing the real existential scale of ever-escalating climate change.

Communication plays a central role. Landry described the combination of iconic/artistic communication and narrative communication. The former paints a picture that people can grasp, including the launch of high-impact, high-visibility projects that shake folks from their mental and emotional comfort zones. Narratives then provide explanation and guidance.

That might well include, he adds, positioning this catastrophe in a way that the individual feels “I can do something, I can be part of the solution, a participant in this change, and this change is potentially interesting and exciting,” a movement presented in Landry’s book Psychology and the City.

It also includes the psychology of public servants and the imperative, as it were, to turn government into a creative bureaucracy, an initiative so vital Landry wrote yet another book on the matter entitled, appropriately, The Creative Bureaucracy.

In a fascinating part of The Interview, Javier and Landry applied the above to the case study, or laboratory, of post-Maria Puerto Rico. Javier shared how much of this framework is playing out in the Nuestro Barrio initiative he is leading in Santurce, of which this magazine and our COMMON Future publishing company and content agency are participants.

Hurricane Maria, which devastated the island September 20, 2017, exposed “the fragility of the city’s cultural ecosystem,” Javier recalled. The storm sparked an inspiring time of solidarity, collaboration and imagination, but in recent months the spirit has been largely lost.

The Neeuko-based initiative means to restore it, keep the district from falling into complacency, and take it to new heights of activity, sustainability and resilience.

“Crisis is problem and opportunity…[and] often a wonderful stimulation to change things,” Landry replied. “The question is how you embed the crisis insight, and the urgency generated, inside the system.” The deeper potential is to see the opportunity side in bigger terms: How to turn it into a crisis that breeds ambition. “What picture of the future can you draw?”

Javier read a segment from a book where Landry urges a reframing of the role of our institutions, including universities, and asked Landry how that can become a source of hope and positivity in the midst of the climate calamity that will otherwise define our lives, businesses and cities.

The Interview

You’ll want to hear the author’s answer in the clip below, along with his other nuggets of creative-adaptation wisdom.

Opening featured photo: Intelligentsia Coffee shop on Division and Ashland, from a recent trip to Chicago.

Long-time green-economy and business journalist, sustainability analyst and communications executive, including 14 years as reporter and editor of Caribbean Business in Puerto Rico, five years as Sustainability Director at two banks on the island, general manager of a green marketing agency, and since 2014 independent strategist, blogger, consultant, freelance writer, and now Editor-Publisher of The Resilience Journal and Founder-President of COMMON Future, a climate-adaptation studio scaling game-changing Next Resilience with communications, construction and culture. Alex is also communications adviser to the American Society of Adaptation Professionals and resilience lead at the Puerto Rico chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council.

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