Urban Front is a transnational consultancy cooperative formed in 2019 by independent associates around the world with headquarters in Barcelona, Medellín, Montevideo, New York City, Ottawa, Paris, Quito, and Rotterdam. The group was started by 21 highly experienced practitioners and activists with the goal of providing trans-disciplinary research support and tactical directions to progressive governments, non-governmental organizations, and foundations on critical socio-spatial matters relating to uneven urban development and environmental degradation. The conversation that follows is between three of Urban Front’s founding members, structured by Miguel Robles-Durán, to highlight the governance experience of Gala Pin, former City Counselor of Barcelona’s Ciutat Vella and Laia Forné, former Director of the Area for Citizen Participation of the Barcelona City Council. From 2015 to 2019, Gala and Laia developed public policies on citizen participation, urban commons, and social innovation for the city of Barcelona, under the leadership of Ada Colau and Barcelona en Comú.
Miguel Robles-Durán: To begin the conversation, it is important to contrast Urban Front as a progressive consultancy organization, fully committed to social and environmental justice issues, with the many neoliberal or neoconservative international consultancies such as McKinsey, PricewaterhouseCoopers, or Bloomberg Associates that have monopolized urban consultancy around the world.
Gala Pin: There are many companies working with public administrations that specialize in developing public-private enterprises following pre-established, pre-distributed, and/or re-distributive neoliberal frameworks. Urban innovations that come from the private sector are offered to public administrations as for-sale solutions to problems, but it is important to approach these problems from a space that acknowledges that democratic, social, and economic innovation occurs in areas beyond private companies, right? In reality, public administrations need to have the capacity to act and adapt themselves based on the changes that are taking place in society, its urban ecology, and beyond. That’s what Urban Front is set to do—to be able to influence public administrations by offering them a range of approximations to the many urban problems that they constantly address from a social and environmental justice perspective, rather than the neoliberal one offered by the competition, which mainly focuses on benefiting private profits above everything else. A city is not just an urban design problem, a mobility problem, a housing problem, or an inequality problem, but rather a city is a complex of all these situations. In order to address these problems you must have a transversal and integral vision of its realities. This is where Urban Front can be a very useful tool for public administrations, as it is able to offer more capacity to intervene in these increasingly complex social realities for the social and environmental good.
Urban innovations that come from the private sector are offered to public administrations as for-sale solutions to problems, but it is important to approach these problems from a space that acknowledges that democratic, social, and economic innovation occurs in areas beyond private companies
Laia Forné: What I perceived while working in Barcelona’s administration is that, usually, serious advances were made when the administration was able to think together with other actors who possessed other types of knowledge, which is very different from the specific bureaucratic knowledge of the administration. So, in that sense, the tripartite collaboration between public administrations, social movements, and a progressive knowledge platform such as Urban Front can generate the type of knowledge necessary for urban social innovations to emerge. However, for this to happen, Urban Front has to be able to compete in the public market place, which is currently where public resources drain to the private sector. Here, a big question emerges. How is a progressive urban consultancy group like Urban Front able to compete with many of the multinational neoliberal consulting companies that plague public administrations today?
In Barcelona, at the scale of the municipality, it was easier to work with local progressive think tanks or small consulting groups. But as soon as you began to scale up, both at the territorial or regional level, as well as into matters of service infrastructures and environmental problems—for example on energy, migration, or global warming issues—it was almost impossible to find progressive partners that were compatible with our left political positions. All you could find were pro-neoliberal multinational consulting corporations.
This may be the advantage of Urban Front being a transnational consultancy network, as it can inform any administration about what is happening in other places. While it is very difficult to replicate things from one territory to another, Urban Front is able to give public administrations tools that they can then adapt or use as a basis for thinking of approximations to problems on a local level. Urban Front is also able to put public administrations in contact with other administrations when it might make sense to delve into similar problems together. We want administrations in different places to collaborate and work as networks too.
I don’t know if Urban Front might one day be able to fully compete or not, but to be able to think of alternatives to the big companies that already operate in the market is an imperative objective. Although there is a will of progressive governments to work with others, the hard part for them today is finding outside consultancies that can really develop services on a higher scale in terms of territory or production level.
Miguel: Let’s talk about your experiences working inside Barcelona’s government. You are both mentioning the need to introduce different approaches to urban governance, and you are both bringing into topic the necessity of inter-urban or inter-regional cooperation as well as the application of custom transdisciplinary frameworks of understanding and approaching complex urban processes. Can you think of a concrete example in Barcelona’s public administration that might give us a better sense of the progressive mental shifts that you are talking about?
Gala: The administration’s approach to the transformation of the Rambla [a popular pedestrian boulevard that runs through the city center] comes to mind. We decided not to immediately seek a dramatic multi-million Euro, large-scale spatial restructuring, but rather an intervention adapted to the current needs of the city. We acknowledged that splashy physical urban interventions by “starchitects” don’t have an integral vision of the social, economic, and environmental dynamics that pertain to the place.
So, we developed an international competition that looked for an interdisciplinary team with a methodology that addressed the urban environment—that is, social rights, culture, mobility, and tourism. The competition forced the team that won to focus on strategies that involved local communities, social problems, environmental concerns, and the like. The strategies addressed urban transformations such as promoting culture and public spaces for community interactions in the Rambla, and solutions to tourist overcrowding. Taking these elements into account, the urban technicians drew up the physical proposal to transform the Rambla. So, in this case it was pretty positive because the process forced urban transformations to be generated with a diverse group of people. Friends who are dedicated to critical urbanism or social rights issues were suddenly being called by well-known architecture firms asking if they would join their team because they didn’t have the ability to do that.
Splashy physical urban interventions by “starchitects” don’t have an integral vision of the social, economic, and environmental dynamics that pertain to the place.
Miguel: In which way, Gala, could a transnational urban consultancy cooperative like Urban Front have supported your efforts in public administration?
Gala: When we were addressing the issue of drug dealing in empty houses in Raval [a neighborhood along the Rambla], for example, we needed a plan that included the many perspectives of the community. Most administrations would have addressed this issue purely from a security perspective, but we needed to ensure that the most vulnerable people were not left behind which, in this case, were the heroin users. We wanted to approach it from many vantage points—health, socio-spatial transformation, housing, the police, and the community—and a consultancy group like Urban Front could have helped administrations find all the interconnected entry points for dealing with these complex issues.
For example, one of the things we didn’t do in the administration, and which I think Urban Front could have provided, was to develop indicators to evaluate the public policies that are implemented from an integral and transdisciplinary perspective. Normally, administrations tend to work with indicators that are hyper-deterministic—by this I mean indicators that come from a static singular point of view or that measure a singular outcome. Being transdisciplinary by nature, Urban Front has the capacity to develop complex and dynamic indicators that cross-reference and transversally dissect the many outcomes of a public policy, as well as aid in predicting variations and indeterminacies of the social dynamics as they respond to a policy or policies.
Miguel: Laia, one very important project that you worked on while in the administration was the development of a digital platform for citizen participation called Decidim. The other day, David Harvey [another member] and I were talking about how Urban Front needs to develop digital tools that can mediate public governance, community needs, and policy. How was your experience leading the development and implementation team?
Laia: Decidim is a good example because it actually works, and it goes to the root of many things. It supports all the existing tools that the city council uses at all decision levels and is free, open source software. For the first time, public money was used to create public and open digital platforms, and this has produced an important shift in the administration’s digital investment approach. We tried to bridge existing management models within the administration. The city council had in place tools that internalized the execution of its annual plan and mandate, closing it from public view, but through Decidim, we made it possible to communicate directly to citizens the degree of compliance with this plan in real time. Decidim transforms an internal management tool through which municipal workers communicate into something that the public can use to hold accountability and to propose improvements directly to the administration itself.
Gala: To add to what Laia said, Decidim was conceived out of the slogan, “Public money, public code,” which has to do with development of free software as a public policy proposal. A big problem for the city council of Barcelona, as well as for many other municipalities of the Spanish State, is that the software management, and therefore, the knowledge of the management, is outsourced to private software companies which create the technological solutions that the administrations implement. What Decidim proposes is public-community governance, so to speak, where the governance of that software takes place among those who use it. The knowledge of management is shared, which is very important because otherwise you end up privatizing the knowledge of the tools that the public administration has and, above all, of critical infrastructures.
As an interface, Decidim proposes the articulation of listening mechanisms between the inside and outside, which is all part of being able to have citizen participation beyond the formal spaces generated by the physical gathering of a town hall. Decidim has a section for each process that allows documents related to that process to be posted, from a neighborhood movement to the creation of a land use plan. Obviously, it does not mean that everyone is going to read something like a land use plan, but you have to work from the idea that people are not idiots and understand the complexities involved, and that there are citizens with expertise that you have to be able to integrate. And above all, Decidim was imagined and designed to generate collective debate and not as reproduction of another cryptic and bureaucratic digital tool.
You have to work from the idea that people are not idiots and understand the complexities involved, and that there are citizens with expertise that you have to be able to integrate.
Miguel: Urban Front could approach software development by emphasizing the training of people in the communities on coding, graphic design, or management, so that the same communities could develop the digital platform while they create new working cooperatives in relation to the production of this new tool.
Gala: Also, since this is software that the public owns, Urban Front could suggest ways different groups could modify the software later and continue using it for other needs. You don’t have to go back and renew the contract with any of the private companies that have monopolized this space and pay a lot of public money to them.
Miguel: Laia, there is much talk within Urban Front about the governance paradigm shift from the public-private partnerships to the public-communitarian. This has also been a goal of many involved in Barcelona’s public administration. How can Urban Front support this needed shift?
Laia: What Urban Front proposes is the need of making another type of economy that can reproduce community, collective, and cooperative knowledge. Perhaps the first thing we need to do to support public administrations in this shift is to identify exactly who is operating in the urban territory at the level of economic capital, and who they are connected to, and what sectors they control, right?
I believe that most public administrations today have little or no capacity to really know the private actors that drain public investment, and that without these diagnoses it is very difficult for any administration to take measures in this critical area. Urban Front has the knowledge to diagnose and develop useful tools to go deeper and make action in the public-private space much more just and efficient. This, with the support of local communities and their knowledge, can encourage the formation of new public-community partnerships that can replace neoliberal public-private dogmas.
Laia Forné is an urban sociologist specializing in urban planning, democracy, and commons, and has served as an advisor for public administrations, including the Housing Department of Catalonia’s government and the Area for Citizen Participation of the Barcelona City Council.
Gala Pin is a former councilor in the first legislature of Barcelona en Comú where she was in charge of citizen participation and the district of Ciutat Vella. She has participated in various struggles for the right to the city, is a defender of rights and freedom in the digital era, and participated in active promotion of 15M in the Spanish State.
Miguel Robles-Durán is a proponent of the idea of the right to the city and co-founder of Cohabitation Strategies, a nonprofit cooperative for socio-spatial development. He is an Associate Professor of Urbanism at The New School-Parsons School of Design in New York City.