Using participatory design-thinking to build resilience in Buenos Aires

The city of Buenos Aires launched its first-ever resilience strategy in September 2018. In the process, the city engaged our team at Pacifico to facilitate participatory workshops and co-design solutions for the city’s main identified challenges. Together, we hosted five workshops in line with the strategy main pillars: Green City, Integrated City, City of Opportunities, Prepared and Safe City, Diverse City.

More than 300 hundred participants took part, coming from various sectors: universities, private sector, NGOs and different departments in the city government. As a native porteño, it was an opportunity to bring the experiences and learnings of our work with other 100RC cities to my hometown in Argentina.

To enrich the creative process, we used unusual materials and concepts: urban acupuncture, Internet of cities, open datasets, learnings from past experiences and preparation for future scenarios. Here are some of the key learnings we take from this experience.

A visual approach to complex problems

We were looking for ideas to try to solve the most complex problems: i.e. how can we make utility services more resilient in the informal neighbourhoods? To map these complexities, we used a systems-thinking visual tool called the Elephant Builder. This helped us make sense of complex and dynamic systems, understand its interdependencies, and see the ripple effects. System mapping allowed for an interdisciplinary conversation and, most importantly, generated an outcome of much more focused and realistic ideas for new initiatives.

Open data as an opportunity for actors to collaborate

In the workshops, we used datasets for participants in different sectors to create new types of collaborations: i.e. if we want to design participatory flood risk maps, what kind of data-sharing protocol do we need to create? We also used datasets as starting points to think of new ideas: if there is already a list of shops that offer discounts to cyclists, how can we scale that to a wider city level to make bicycle transport a driver of economic development in the city? The Open Data department itself actively participated in the process and the process helped generate new and innovative ideas.

Storytelling and futurology

Resilience is about learning from past experiences. We brought testimonies of how heatwaves affected neighbourhoods in the past or stories of how a strike created disruptions in waste collection, using these experiences as starting points to consider ways to reduce the impact of similar situations that may happen again in the future.

But being resilient is also about being prepared for future scenarios. If we anticipate that automation is going to replace a high percentage of jobs in the city, how do we train citizens who may lose their job in the next few years, so that they can prepare in advance for those disruptive changes? We presented possible scenarios and discussed new initiatives. In the process, different generations discussed the past, the present and future of Buenos Aires.

Urban acupuncture

Not all big problems in the city require big scale interventions. To tap into local action and address the lack of big budgets, we presented urban acupuncture as a technique of tactical urbanism to improve quality of life in the city applying small scale interventions. This gave us a new perspective to solve problems: i.e. how do we improve communication and let citizens see the value of construction and public works, while coping with the stress of having a closed road for a period of time? Good communications alleviate stress. Different innovative ideas emerged to improve accessibility, accountability and effective communication around public works.

Mate, teamwork and creativity

The workshops also included discussions led by national and international experts and special guests from the 100RC network. Participants shared mate in the sessions, a local beverage which is said to spark collective creativity and teamwork.

The final outcome was more than 400 hundred ideas and solutions, which became the material for the city team to feed the Opportunity Assessment and helped define the portfolio of initiatives which are part of the resilience strategy.

In the words of David Groisman, Buenos Aires Chief Resilience Officer: “We managed to bring together stakeholders from the public and private sector, civil society and even city neighbours. We introduced innovative concepts and methods to work together on the main city challenges, and asked the participants to imagine what a resilient city would look like. Finally, we co-created the most transformative projects to accomplish the vision we have for a more resilient Buenos Aires.”

We hope these projects and initiatives will be transformative, changing how the city engages citizens and improving people’s lives en mi Buenos Aires querido.