2021 Type: Glossary

or: How to Sell Grandmothers

The term participation is rather vague in its definition, fluctuating between sharing, attending, and contributing. At best, it refers to a design principle in the spirit of collaboration. A fundamental problem with participation lies in its framework of conditions, which are seldom spoken about: Who actually involves whom, in what, and why? Instead, the bags of tricks are packed and participation expert XY boards the Intercity Express train from A to B in order to take something somewhere and, depending on the project, “participate” it into or out of existence. In a more or less creatively designed process, people who are more or less affected and/or involved are sought out and questioned, the answers are sorted using colored cards, adhesive dots are stuck onto these, and then from this some kind of consensus is reached in a—sometimes more, usually less transparent—catalytic process that may or may not serve the context, but certainly does serve the project.
That brings us directly to the biggest crux of the matter: participation is not a service, but rather the foundation of our coexistence in a democratic society. Therefore, anyone who is active in this area, which for precisely the aforementioned reasons plays an indispensable and extremely important role in Urban Practice, should always bear in mind what this design principle should be used—namely, to provide access to responsibility and to enable real collaboration. If you are serious about participation, then you cannot think about it in terms of results, and then you cannot pack randomly scalable and reproducible methods into a suitcase and travel with them to who-cares-where like a vacuum-cleaner salesman. Naturally you could do that, but then what you would be doing is urban marketing and/or facilitating political legitimation.
Genuine participation must leave the outcome open and must be situational, meaning adapted to the specific situation. This requires a certain degree of autonomy in the implementation, which is rarely given—not even in the context of government funding, where the impact is usually front and center.
Instead of this, we need a new self-understanding of our work, and an idea taken from art helps me do this. If we were to view participation as a social sculpture (which it is), then maybe it would also be easier for us to assert the necessity of an autonomous creation process, which is an elementary given in art and seldom has to be justified to the financial backers. Of course, this would require as much communications work as the ideas of Joseph Beuys. But that seems to me to be far more part of the task than sorting through opinions. Which has quite little to do with design, even when it is well intentioned. Well intentioned does not mean well done. Just ask any grandmother.

Ivana Rohr is an artist and member of endboss. Endboss is an interdisciplinary studio for spatial questions and answers at all scales.