Revisiting the role of a bridging actor

Complex projects depend on good facilitators.

After a decade working on local economic development, we reflect on a project that helped to launch Osmos. The multi-disciplinary methodology and tools that emerged from this project have survived well and since have been refined and adapted. However, the case studies used in the project have evolved considerably and we reflect on how the transition from idea to action could have been more effectively executed.

The TURaS (Transitioning towards Urban Resilience and Sustainability) project, financing through the European FP7 programme between 2011-2016, to address the increasing challenge to accommodate more than 50% of the world’s population in cities while also addressing climate and environmental issues. The project involved researchers, local authorities and business partners from 16 cities in 11 different European countries. It explored new transition strategies for European cities to build resilience and sustainability and reduce their urban ecological footprints.

 

In Rotterdam, Stuttgart and London, the focus was on flood mitigation and stormwater management. In Brussels, Rome and Seville, the focus was on sustainable local businesses. In Dublin and Nottingham, the focus was on activating derelict sites to increase urban biodiversity and improve urban community life. We worked on a couple of fascinating issues such as the concept of a Community Interest Company, temporary use and product-systems services. The results of our work was a guide called “Bridges to Local Economies: Strategies for place and community based economies”.

Publication

Project: Transitions for Urban Resilience and Sustainability – TURaS

Funding: European Commission Framework Period 7 (FP7)

Year: 2011-2016

Partners included: University College Dublin, University of East London, Bruxelles Environnement | Leefmilieu Brussel, Cita Metropolitana di Roma, ProMalaga, Bioazul, BIC Lazio, European Business and Innovation Centre, Climate Alliance, Helix Pflanzen

Overall budget: € 8 869 490.70

Location: Europe

Team: Adrian Hill, Stephan Kampelmann

Sector: Ecosystems, public space & community, production

Services: Vision, process managementsharing knowledge, engagement

What is a bridging actor?

The guide presented the role of a bridging actor as a mediator between places, people and local resources. The role could include facilitating, moderating, care-taking, programming, developing visions and a range of other responsibilities. We kept the specific definition open as the context of the project or problem will ultimately define what role does.

This kind of role has generally been poorly defined or in many cases problem owners (be they public authorities, businesses, research agencies and universities or community organisations) struggle to find the right organisation to support them in dealing with complex community- or place-based problems. Often architects, urban planners or engineers are commissioned, yet they are professions that are poorly trained in process management and complexity. Accountancy and business consultancy experts are also often targeted but they often lack design skills to explore solutions unique to the local context. We therefore considered it important for this guide to flesh out skills and capacities that a bridging actor could offer to address complex place-based problems.

 

The role of the bridging actor is by no means new. However, over the last decade, we’ve seen increasing interest in it. Human-centred design and services design are emerging branches of design that are helping offer skills to both spatial designers and business and finance experts. In 2015, when the guide was written, ‘Design Thinking’ was a trending within business circles and progressive parts of the public sector to empower designers and non-designers with design techniques emerging from sociology and psychology.

 

In reflection, since the guide was written, we do not see a radical increase in the demand for ‘bridging actors’. However, we do see a large increase in the acceptance of complexity and a shift towards adaptive governance and prototyping. We have also seen an increasing interest in participation, engagement and inclusion in projects of all types. This is positive news, yet the bridging actor still remains a useful figure that is rarely stipulated in contracts or tenders.

Bridging strategies, are they still relevant?

In the guide, we presented four bridging strategies:

 

  1. Connection between elements and the system
  2. Cooperation between pioneers and the establishment
  3. Alignment of particular and common interests
  4. Collaboration between communities and entrepreneurs
 

These four examples portrayed what a bridging actor would do in theory. We have found that in practice, projects are far too messy to fit into clean boxes. These four bridging strategies are helpful in showing the diversity of conditions but are less useful in the field.

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Is the process methodology still relevant?

The bridging actor is not just a person or team, we considered it to be a service. In 2015 we developed a methodology that we considered suitable to support the bridging process, what we called the ‘transversal planning process’. The process consisted of seven-nine steps, depending on the type of project. This process served us, as a team, to structure and follow projects. But in retrospect, the process was far too challenging to convince clients and many partners to use it as it appeared too complex.

 

As our repertoire of design tools broadened, the ‘Double Diamond’ became our go-to methodology. This methodology, developed by the UK Design Council in 2004 and common in the realm of industrial and services design, offers both a simple yet profound way to communicate design founded on research and allowing for flexibility and adaptability. The methodology was remarkably similar to our transversal planning process that we developed before we discovering the double diamond. With so many variations of the Double Diamond process, we felt the need to make some adaptations. We settled on six steps which we use either as an internal guide for project management or to help aligning partners.

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How have the tools evolved?

The guide included four tools that we developed and are still in use. Most of our projects begin with stakeholder mapping involving the ‘Pentahelix. We have linked this tool with others such as personas and power-interest maps. The second tool, the ‘Chart of Emotions’ (what was called ‘Back to the Future’ in the guide) is another tool that we use to kick off almost every project and have found this incredibly powerful to learn about people’s interests. The ‘Project-Environment Canvas’ (called in the guide ‘The Vision Dashboard’) is used regularly during the Define phase of a project and helps with reframing the scope. Finally, the ‘Dialectic’ is a tool that is used less often and mostly when dealing with mediation.

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How have the case-studies evolved?

The guide presented ten case-studies to illustrate how the bridging role could be applied in practice. Almost a decade later, it is high time to revisit where they have evolved. Of the ten, it is useful to highlight the five physical case studies that were largely facilitated or driven by public authorities.

 

The Brussels Crown Barracks and Studio C were cases involving significant public and private finance and where momentum has helped to push the projects forward and be realised however the role of the bridging actor had different outcomes. In Crown Barracks (now called USquare), a public development agency took over this role and helped ‘develop’ the project, which by all intents and purposes has been considered successful due to a well attended temporary use activation process. Studio C has had a similar development process, albeit much slower and the role of the bridging actor during the planning stage was given to a private real-estate agency that was poorly equiped in dealing with the community or transition processes.

 

The Barking Riverside Community Interest Company was launched by development agency, a public private organisation. It remained limited in its community building capacity and independence and therefore the community has struggled to embrace it. Regardless, with pressure from London’s housing market, development is continuing and is resulting in community building activities which has been triggered by development conditions.

 

Two other projects, the Parco Agricolo Casal del Marmo and the Solfatara di Manziana have had a very different fate. These two projects evolved little since 2015. In both cases, there was political will and interest yet no budget set aside to kick-start the process and little long-term alignment with other public and private agencies, which were waiting for financing to emerge. Likewise, there was interest from the private sector to invest, however the bridging actor in both cases struggled to deal with the bureaucracy in building public-private partnerships. For both projects, the bridging actor lacked political and financial capital to get the ball rolling and likewise was unexperienced in developing large projects.

In conclusions, what are the right conditions for the bridging actor?

These are four takeaways for the role of the bridging actor.

 

  1. The bridging actor should be buy-in from critical stakeholders and actors. Not every organisation, be it public or private, needs to be signed up but there should be enough momentum and commitment to ensure the project can be developed or problems can be addressed. If there is not enough engagement, the process should be stopped. This should not be considered a failure as it could save a lot of time and resources in the long-term.
  2. The bridging actor should be seen as independent. Even if the bridging actor is engaged (paid) by one of the stakeholders, it is important that the bridging actor has sufficient independence and neutrality to be trusted and not feel uncomfortable about pointing to the elephant in the room.
  3. Avoid jumping to conclusions. The bridging process must reveal a sufficient understanding of the project or problem before looking for solutions. To avoid remaining vague, it is useful to regularly synthesise and summarise input.
  4. Complex projects do not need complicated processes. The bridging actor must retain the role of facilitator and present a clear process and goals. However, the process should also be adapted if it is not serving its purpose. Avoid confusion about the process at all costs!
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