How to be a Radical Incrementalist in 12 easy lessons
In an increasingly complex and changing world, where our global problems are felt locally, the systems we currently use to plan, design and build our towns and cities are doomed to failure. Governments alone cannot solve these problems. There is another way.
The Massive Small Project, an urban research collaboration hosted at the Geovation Hub in London, believes the solution lies in mobilising people’s latent creativity by harnessing the collective power of many small ideas and actions to build a better urban society. Urban society evolves where compact urbanism meets social capital. If we can use the inherent social capital that lies on people to build this compact urbanism, we will achieve even far better outcomes. This process happens naturally in the formation of urban neighbourhoods, whenever people take control over the places they live in, adapting them to their needs and creating environments that are capable of adapting to future change. When many people do this, it adds up to a fundamental shift. This is what they call making Massive Small change.
A new book The Radical Incrementalist written by Kelvin Campbell and edited by his long time collaborator, Rob Cowan, shows how we can build a better urban neighbourhoods by making Massive Small change. This book, funded through a successful Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign, is part of a body of collective knowledge designed to change our top-down systems. This book tells 12 inspirational stories through the eyes of imaginary citizens from different parts of the world. It shows governments and people successfully working together to make amazing things happen that none could have achieved alone. The book is for active citizens, civic leaders and urban professionals: for anyone who wants to make a difference, but may not know where to start.
What is a radical incrementalist?
The book describes a ‘radical incrementalist’ as an active citizen, an enlightened civic leader or an ethical urban professional who makes Massive Small change by:
- Harnessing the collective power of many small local ideas and actions.
- Focussing on catalysts and small beginnings, and scaling these up.
- Being open, adaptive and responsive to continuously evolving urban conditions.
- Learning by doing and sharing this experience with others.
So where did we go wrong?
For three generations governments the world over have tried to order and control the evolution of cities through rigid, top-down action. They have failed dismally. Masterplans lie unfulfilled, housing is in crisis, the environment is under threat and the urban poor have become poorer. Our cities are straining under the pressure of rapid population growth, rising inequality, inadequate infrastructure, and government ineffectiveness in delivering on their promises to urban society.
Thousands of small-change projects are being carried out by people who are taking the initiative, helping each other, housing themselves, using technology to engage with one another, making or repairing things, and providing goods and services. Instead of waiting for the authorities or established organisations to act, they are getting going themselves. Too often their energy is obstructed by top-down systems. Most people can be trusted to do the right thing, but they are too rarely given the chance. The system works against them, stifling their initiative and knocking them back. Some battle through, but most fall by the wayside.
Many small projects fizzle and die, or they rely on the efforts of a few people to keep them alive. Many small projects fail to grow, and their lessons never benefit other places.
What can we do about it?
Most people are in some way creative. They want to make a big difference to their communities. With the right tools, they can solve urban problems. We look around and see their energy. Someone is struggling to build a house in an informal settlement. Someone else is trying to make a new use in an underused building. A community group is reclaiming the street. A local civic leader is stepping outside the mainstream. An urban professional is exploring new ways of changing the world. The book presents practical lessons from the field, showing how people and governments can work together, enabling communities to shape their own environments. These are people from all sides who have battled through difficult times to make Massive Small change.
This collective knowledge comes from a wide range of sources: from self-help projects, non-government organisations, creative commons, social innovation hubs, peer-to-peer workers, self-organised groups, bottom-up initiatives, and civic and sharing economy programmes. The experience shows how top-down systems can be reformed to allow these small activities to be replicated and scaled up to make a worldwide impact.
What are these stories?
The book is told from both a top-down and a bottom-up perspective, across all sectors and in many parts of the world. For active citizens it shows how a streetlighting project in a Caracas barrio gave children an unexpected chance in life; how a social entrepreneur put his city in Poland back on the map though building a new social economy; and how a streetwise citizen in the United States renewed neighbourhood democracy in her city. For enlightened civic leaders it shows how a wise councilor in France changed the game in housing regeneration; how an astute British politician helped solve a national housing crisis; and how a modern mayor in China used old models to build a renewed urban identity. Also, for urban professionals it shows how a housing architect in Nairobi used a light touch to make a big impact; how an ethical professional in London made planning relevant again; and, how an Indian engineer used infrastructure to built social capital in the slums of Mumbai. Finally, it shows how a smart Italian technologist enabled smart citizens to shape the future of their own city; how a creative educator developed a new type of school in Scotland that harnessed the collective intelligence of its community; and how a strategic policy director developed simple rules that gave informal settlements in Cape Town a secure future.
The stories are fiction, based on reality. Woven into imaginary plots are the narratives of some real people with real projects in actual places.
Where did it all start? Kelvin’s background
A seasoned contrarian but always a rational optimist, Kelvin Campbell, Chair of Smart Urbanism and Visiting Professor at the Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis at the Bartlett, University College of London, takes the view that we can do better in our pursuit of resilient cities and towns capable of responding to the ‘new normal’. His attitude, by challenging the established conventions, has seen his contribution to new urban theory and practice being recognised by the urban design profession with a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2013.
It all started when, as a student and recent graduate, he worked on research and development into low-income and informal housing solutions in Africa and South America, where he saw the effect of rapid changes made by people doing their own thing in solving their own housing problems. Later on he saw the failure of government-led housing programmes and saw the conflicts and potentials that existed between top-down and bottom up systems of urban planning, design and developemnt. His recent research project, Massive Small – funded by the Royal Commission 1851 – gave him an opportunity to revisit these issues
Why did Kelvin decide to write this book?
He had authored several books before this as thinkpieces for his profession. The Radical Incrementalist is a departure from the normal problem/hypothesis/solution approach that most urban theory follows. By telling 12 stories through the eyes of imaginary people , the solutions become real not imagined. They become contextual and rooted in culture and identity of the place and its social economy. The passion lies in communicating complex issues in a simple way showing a combination of bravery, social awareness and responsibility. People are naturally good.
What is an Urban Society? And how do you build one?
Urban society, the coming together of people and place, evolves where compact urbanism meets social capital. If we can use the inherent social capital that lies on people to build this compact urbanism, we will achieve even far better outcomes. This process happens naturally in the formation of urban neighbourhoods, whenever people take control over the places they live in, adapting them to their needs and creating environments that are capable of adapting to future change. When many people do this, it adds up to a fundamental shift. This is what we call making Massive Small change.