Everyday Democracy

The problem with good intentions

By Roberto Falanga

The Intrepid School was a very challenging experience in that by providing high level training, it also gathered a great group of people, both trainers and trainees, concerned with the delicate management of knowledge borders. As interdisciplinarity and transdisciplinarity stood at the heart of our discussions, we came up with a sense of urgency about better understanding how our research can effectively approach borders and, therefore, diversity. Borders and diversity are concepts that recall the daily struggle, sometimes more silent some others more visible, of identity definition and self-definition. When questioning the borders of disciplines (who studies what?), as well as the borders between science and society (who is legitimated to say what?), we are defeating games of power and, hopefully, proposing more just ones.

The coming together of expert and lay knowledge is one way to picture this struggle. It is evident how broader concerns with the effective inclusion of voices is witnessed by public authorities, transnational organizations, universities, and, of course, people. I have researched public participation mechanisms, devices, and processes for the last few years, so the involvement of grassroots knowledge is especially appealing for my research. I have been defending the necessity to look beyond the “good intentions” and rather focus on the institutional designs of participatory processes. Understanding the ways through which participation is designed and implemented can positively predict its success/failure and be an exclusive source on how different forms of knowledge can have an impact for change.

In these processes, good intentions of sponsors and participants can be necessary but not sufficient for success. Often, what lacks in these arenas is an adequate set of tools to approach challenging purposes. Intellectual tools are the first on the list: how do researchers and decision-makers embrace diversity? How do they lead with emerging contradictions and controversies? Actually, it is hard to run out from the risk to fuzz good intentions into narrow attempts to do the same as usual. When we are not adequately equipped with open worldviews and expertise in managing transdisciplinary settings, we can end up reproducing hierarchical approaches, where our “top knowledge” is the guide. “Easy ideas” of citizen participation can be not only dangerous, as also offensive to social justice principles.

The visit to the super-blocks (or super-illas) in Barcelona was inspiring in this sense. When staring at those “yes” and “no” outside the building terraces, I started wondering whether the reduction of car traffic and parking was anything but agreed among residents. I also wondered whether the information behind citizen approval and opposition was being effectively interpreted. The example of Barcelona is just instrumental, and I’m sure that the local administration, officials, experts, and researchers working on these challenging projects are dealing with the whole picture. This example helped me to better express how challenging is to pass through those borderlines between what we argue to be good and what people expect from us. When good intentions are not supported by robust intellectual tools, these projects can be easily trapped into never-ending confrontations

The Intrepid School helped me to understand that what participation needs is to downgrade practitioners’ self-confidence and rather demand for more critically based and genuinely citizen oriented approaches.

Roberto Falanga Poster