REFLOW Collaborative Governance Approach

In setting the boundaries of the REFLOW Collaborative Governance framework, our reflections have been rotating around the concept of infrastructuring, understood as ‘the socio-technical scaffolding around which organizational and personal collaborative networks and relationships are built, including the ways of working, structures, artifacts, activities and attitudes that contribute to creating a supportive framework for both present and future collaboration’ (Thorpe and Manzini 2018). This concept is particularly useful as it may help frame and design collaborative governance arrangements that, while coordinating and organizing actors, assets and resources around pre-identified goals and paths of change, leaves the space open to new initiatives and projects to emerge and feeding into the system over time. In other terms, our interpretative lens of collaborative governance goes towards the definition of a loose coordination framework that organizes collaboration across three main dimensions or layers of infrastructuring - strategic, operational and relational -, these interacting continuously with each other and contributing to forming the actual shape of the social, cultural and economic fabric of the city. When it comes to creating a circular and regenerative city, this framework can help organize, activate and coordinate not only those key resources that are deemed essential to kickstart the transition - and which might be articulated via a more top-down approach led by Municipalities -, but it can rather account for the constellation of all those projects - often citizens-led and bottom-up - that can meaningfully contribute to the transition itself. Therefore, this framework largely looks at collaborative governance as a means for inclusive and participatory circular economy in urban contexts, leveraging all assets and strengths that may exist in cities. Moreover, the framework attempts to take into account the processual dimension of urban governance, concentrating not only on how the three layers entrench and mutually reinforce each other, but also depicting an open-ended design process that embeds learning by doing as a means to improve scale and scope of collaboration over time.

The framework is depicted as a pie chart where the segments reflect the different sectors traditionally governed by cities, while the three concentric circles describe the three layers of the infrastructuring action:

  • Strategic: which starts from recognizing a set of external drivers, and further translates them into a strategic vision and roadmap;

  • Operational: which covers all the various operations and tools - regulatory, economic, tech and knowledge assets, etc. - that help turn vision and roadmaps into concrete actions;

  • Relational: which covers softer elements such as awareness, values, trust, capacity-building, and that can also be seen as the outcomes stemming from the articulation and deployment of the two previous layers.

The spiral describes instead the process of going through the three layers as an open-ended process, adopting an overall iterative method that, in line with the REFLOW approach, uses ‘portfolio experiments’. These are in turn conceived as small scale experiments that allow to test circular initiatives in one or more sectors, and further expand and scale them up at every iteration. The spiral also reflects an open-ended process directed towards expanding the level and scope of collaboration at every iteration, onboarding new actors over time, deploying new activities for different audiences and/or allowing new initiatives that emerge from the bottom to plug-in in the system. So conceived, this framework may serve as a general map for Cities to organize a clear, yet flexible transition root, as well as a ‘checklist’ to make sure that all ingredients for an effective transition to circular and regenerative cities are considered and actively explored.

Current Limitations and Future Work

This framework shall be considered as preliminary and not exhaustive of all the dimensions that might be relevant in terms of urban governance and collaborative governance for the circular transition. Moreover, the framework does not provide any indications in terms of how collaborative governance can look like as a whole, and how it can develop across the three layers identified. Instead, it limits itself to set a starting boundary of dimensions that may turn out to be key when designing collaborative governance frameworks.

Indeed, collaboration can take plenty of forms, and be developed according to different goals. As we have generally seen across the different city concepts presented in the previous section, collaboration can range along a spectrum which goes from service efficiency and governments’ better performance, towards unlocking collective intelligence and capacity to respond to shared problems and issues. It can happen through bridging and connecting actors via more formal arrangements such as public-private partnerships, or by building on soft processes of ‘engineered serendipity’ in self-organization and self-coordination. Accordingly, every dimension identified within each layer - technology, regulation, vision, narrative, etc. - can be approached with different levels of intensity, depending on the level and scope of the collaboration that we aim to achieve and - all in all - according to which ultimate city vision. Exploring and defining the actual shape of collaborative governance across the three layers and their own dimensions (with the new ones that may emerge as the project evolves) is exactly the next step of our work, which will require close cooperation with the REFLOW pilot cities.

To help you, tips and recommendations are organized and described according to the three layers of infrastructuring. For each of them, we provide concrete examples stemming from the case studies, in order to facilitate exchange of practices and approaches, and foster reflection around opportunities and room for transferability. Similarly to the framework described above, the indications that follow should be considered as preliminary and not exhaustive of the complex array of factors that may characterize urban governance per se, and its role in enabling the transition to circular cities. For now, such indications shall serve a starting ground for conversation and reflection for the REFLOW pilot cities, coherently with the current design stage of the project. In the course of the project development, we will have the chance to collaboratively explore and ‘test’ some or all the indications provided below, in order to improve and make them tailored to the concrete challenges, barriers and opportunities that REFLOW cities face.

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