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There is a fundamental difference between generic rules and local knowledge. Urban planning, for example, takes place in a unique place (neighbourhood, culture) at a unique time (current affairs, demography) and has unique goals (needs, plans).

Citizen engagement lies at the core of a city's development. But who is the citizen? Is there a standardised citizen - an interchangeable entity with no distinct personality, preferences or history? Are citizens merely beneficiaries in the development process?

Like cooking or any other skill acquired and honed over time to give the product a special, distinctive characteristic - in the case of food, taste - in any neighbourhood, local knowledge continuously accumulates over time through a web of daily practices, interactions and experiences among the neighbourhood's constituents. Their worm's-eye view and minute observations of the environment nourish the neighbourhood. Unlike an urban planner appointed to create a plan for the neighbourhood who does not have to live with the consequences of his own advice, the neighbourhood has its 'skin in the game', a direct stake in the outcomes of application of its knowledge.

This constantly evolving body of knowledge of, and in, a neighbourhood cannot be matched by any individual or organisation or any group. In that sense, the urban planner's professional, scientific and accomplished knowledge of planning is quite like a generic recipe that will produce suboptimal results, unless it consciously draws upon the nuanced, unwritten, contextual local knowledge - the Ingredient X - that resides in the residents of the neighbourhood.

There is a fundamental difference between generic rules and local knowledge. Urban planning, for example, takes place in a unique place (neighbourhood, culture) at a unique time (current affairs, demography) and has unique goals (needs, plans). A meticulous implementation of generic planning rules - building regulations, development rules, etc - disregarding local specifics such as culture and usage patterns will invite practical failures and public disillusionment. Engineers creating roads for the mobility of pedestrians and vehicles fail to account for unplanned activities like window-shopping, street-vending, dog-walking, meeting friends, etc. This failure diminishes the user experience significantly. The inability to dovetail local knowledge into generic processes leads to suboptimal functionality of the created assets.

Which brings one back to the citizen. The citizen is a custodian of local knowledge, initiative and experience, and provides the neighbourhood its distinct identity. Citizens form communities, and communities aggregate into neighbourhoods, each with their unique culture, history and repositories of local knowledge. The citizen not only contributes to, but is also enriched by, such knowledge as it churns through multiple, stochastic feedback loops active within the neighbourhood. Cities that fail to draw upon this priceless asset will miss out on a wide range of skills and experience, thereby failing in their aspirations to build healthier communities, stronger economies and sustainable environments.

Which also leads one to the myth of the smart citizen. How often do we hear people say that 'our cities will become smart only when our citizens become smart'? The term 'smart citizen' itself is a tautology, much like stating '8 a.m. in the morning'. It's time to shun the idea of an 'abstract' citizen. Citizens are unique, diverse, have different genders, needs and aspirations. They possess the city's 'secret recipe'.

If only cities could tap into this invaluable asset by nurturing a tradition of continuous dialogue and negotiation, creating mechanisms for exchange of ideas between diverse constituents, and institutionalising the test-learn-scale approach to breed locally relevant solutions, they would function, grow and adapt better.

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Autor(en)/Author(s): Kunal Kumar

Quelle/Source: The Economic Times, 05.06.2022

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