Toward Legible Policy


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Gabriella Gómez-Mont
Gabriella Gómez-Mont is the founder of Laboratorio para la Ciudad. Besides her fascination with all things city, she is also a journalist, visual artist, a director of documentary films, as well as a creative advisor to several cities, universities, and companies. She has been awarded several international recognitions for her work in different fields, such as the first prize in the Audi Urban Future Award and the Best Art Practice Award given by the Italian government, as well as the TED City 2.0 Prize, among others. She is also a TED Talks guest curator, TED Senior Fellow, an MIT Media Lab Director´s Fellow, a Yale World Fellow, an Institute for the Future Fellow, a World Cities Summit Young Leader and part of the international advisory committee for the Mayor of Seoul on Social Innovation. She was recently named one of the 100 most creative people in business by Fast Company magazine. @Gabriella_Lab

Laboratorio para la Ciudad
is award-winning experimental arm / creative think tank of the Mexico City government, that reports to the Mayor. It is a place to reflect about all things city and to explore other social scripts and urban futures for the largest megalopolis in the western hemisphere, working across diverse areas, such as urban creativity, mobility, governance, civic tech, public space etc. In addition, the Lab searches to create links between civil society and government, constantly shifting shape to accommodate multidisciplinary collaborations, insisting on the importance of political and public imagination in the execution of its experiments. @LabCDMX

“Culture is … a radically unfinished social process of self-definition and transformation.” -Paul Gilroy

I have always been helplessly fascinated by the place where (so-called) fact and (so-called) fiction collide; the volcanic and viscous borders where symbol, myth, and metaphor create tiny fissures in what we call “real life.” I am interested in the way multiple subjectivities combine to make the world as we know it, in all its forms, truths, and disguises.

This might seem a whimsical, impractical reflection in examining cities and their governments. But I believe we public officials will come to realize that each of our cities and societies begins and gathers its particular momentum from within invisible and symbolic landscapes: culture writ large—the great a priori. It silently spells out what is possible and what is not, how we tackle our challenges and explore our possibilities, how we think of ourselves individually and collectively.

Our cities start in the mind. So, in thinking about policy, let us take for granted that cities should not only be built for the human body but also for the human imagination. There are many ways to envision a city’s aspirations–to imagine it becoming first world, alpha, or smart. Each has its own set of organizing principles, policies, and ways of instigating a particular social energy and political will while obfuscating others. Each has its own potential and blind spots. We must better understand our political and social imagination and recognize that public policies must also have agency in them if they are to be effective.

We must bring these reflections into the heart of government life. We need to know where and how our “neutral” regulations are inscribed within a certain vision of the city. This drives our exploration into the definition of legible policy at Laboratorio para la Ciudad: to conceptualize, prototype, iterate, and put theory into practice. We craft strategies that adapt to changing scenarios, tools for interpretation, and conceptual frameworks relevant to daily urban life.

In my three years in public office in Mexico, I have realized that we are caught in a paradox between citizen mistrust of institutions and politics and simultaneous desire for involvement in shaping the city and its evolution. Perhaps it is because we seem to forget that government is a channel towards city life, not a mere tautological entity.  

We need new types of institutions, new urban languages, new civic ecosystems, and new frames for the possibilities of urban governance. We must look back to the nature of the polis and ask how we collectively decide what type of life we want to live together. And to retell our story, we need to relearn to speak and read in city and social tongues.

Parque(ando) event hosted by the Laboratorio para la Ciudad with a board asking: “What do you like about the public spaces in your neighborhood?”

The word Legible comes to us from the late 14c, from Late Latin: legibilis, “that can be read,” and from Latin legere, “to read.” But lest we think that to be “legible” begins or ends with the clarity of the “writing” before us, let us take an extra step back in time and explore the etymology of “reading.”

It comes from the old English rædan (West Saxon), redan (Anglian) “to advise, counsel, persuade; discuss, deliberate; rule, guide; arrange, equip; forebode; explain; learn by reading; put in order” (related to rædred “advice”), Old High German ratan, “to advise, counsel, guess.”

So, though legible policy necessitates good and honest explanation, we must also remember that legibility—counsel, discussion, persuasion, arranging and guessing— is a tool for us to collectively make sense of our world, to frame, deliberate, envision, and ask ourselves difficult questions.

Deliberative and participative governance sits at the heart of our Open City agenda at the Lab. It is our inflection point towards an experimental theory of legible policy in our ongoing projects, a way of bringing not only data but also narrative deeply into the equation. It becomes the way we inform, communicate, engage, evoke, and ponder together.

At the Lab, we believe a creative ethos is necessary for information to travel, for ideas to take hold and evolve. So we have borrowed tools for thinking about cities from behavioral design, futures thinking, creative and experimental practices, ludification, computational science, data visualization, systems design, patterns modelling, social and urban innovation, visual ethnography, evolutionary psychology, artistic fields—and even fiction. These tools complement policy as we now think of it, opening nodes in a system of human relationships that permit or block different social configurations.

Yes, governments shape the city’s physical infrastructure and rules of engagement. But we have spent too much time thinking that policy begins and ends there. It is necessary to ask what happens if governments design hybrid strategies that stimulate and facilitate public and private imagination.

But instead of using “spin” these strategies need to be embedded within the ethos of open knowledge and legible policies. New optics can discover and switch individual human behavior and communal life paradigms within the city’s shape-shifting cultural landscape. The more deeply and creatively we understand what is at stake, the better decisions we can make as a society.

This  is why we need to make ideas, infrastructures and decisions visible. Legibility should be not only about objectivity and clarity, but also subjective relevance. Legibility can be our capacity to create “suture” within our systems and how we write and read them: openings where an individual can inscribe herself or himself into public life. True legibility begins when one is enticed into actively becoming part of the unfolding story.

Antanas Mokus, once Mayor of Bogotá, has successfully shown this and  proven that unusual ideas and powerful metaphors can make important changes within society. Mockus found a creative and playful way of making policy legible by complementing new policy and norms with citizen engagement.

He hired  420 mimes to control traffic in Bogotá’s chaotic, dangerous streets. He painted stars on 1,500 spots where pedestrians had been killed in traffic accidents. He instituted  a “Night for Women,” in which Bogota’s men stayed home  to care for children while  700,000 women went out.

These measures worked. Mockus saw a reduction of homicides from 80 per 100,000 inhabitants in 1993 to 22 per 100,000 inhabitants in 2003.  In the same period,  traffic fatalities dropped from an average of 1,300 per year to about 600. He also managed to reduce water waste by 14% in two months, and later on by 40%.

Mockus’ seemingly wacky notions have intellectual pedigree. His measures were informed by, among others, Nobel Prize-winning economist Douglass North, who has investigated the tension between formal and informal rules, and Jürgen Habermas’ work on how dialogue creates social capital.

How can we create city through culture and all of imagination’s instruments, and how, in turn, a social invention can be incubated by its surrounding? What have been our sense-making tools throughout history? What lies at the edge of the legible and other ways to read and write the city? Are there more to urbanscapes than their physical and visible spaces? What transformations are possible within the intangible realms? How do we analyze and understand both quantitative and qualitative data? Are our fictions capable of creating social realities? What does it take for public policy to shape realities and community life?

These are questions we have forgotten to ask within the walls of government. And to answer them, we will have to explore and create legible meeting points between objective geography and the way we collectively construct it with our social imaginaries —the symbolic infrastructure of a city, that forgotten “real” estate.