Towards a Collaborative Society


In response to the article, ‘The Planning System; is it outdated?’ change is necessary in order to develop sustainable and relevant systems that are a true reflection of our ever-evolving societies. The work of Peter Senge, ‘The Fifth Principle,’ provides a good starting point into thinking how we should approach our systems and built environments; suggesting that a we view our cities as living organisms rather than machines (Campbell, 12018).


“We need to think less like managers and more like biologists.”

(Senge, 1990)


To adopt this analogy, it can be considered that treating cities like machines, prevents them from being changed or being changed easily (Campbell, 2018). To change or ‘fix’ a machine requires mechanical and specific approaches that stop production for a period whilst the ‘new part’ is being installed. Senge implies that we keep bringing in mechanics to ‘fix’ and drive urban change within our systems. But what we need are ‘gardeners,’ integrated in our societies and built environments that cultivate change, encouraging new forms to grow and are adaptive to current climates and the needs of our communities (Campbell, 2018).

To take this ideology and apply it to the way that we ‘grow’ our cities, we must remember that every place is different and require their own individual ways of initiating and delivering systems change. Universal guidelines and principles can be suggested but fundamentally, what will be successful in one place, may not be in another, due to societal differences, needs and wants of the occupying communities. Therefore, to incorporate ‘gardeners’ into our systems – which we can consider as procedures and activators of encouraging evolutional change for positive and sustainable development – our cities must recognise and be continuously adaptive to the collective needs of its people (Johnson, 2018). Gardeners cannot nurture the growth of their produce without understanding the requirements from their surroundings - which are continuously evolving with the natural changes of our climates. The same should be said for our built environments. Our cities must be responsive to the changing needs of our societies, having an intimate understanding of the ‘human side,’ as well as overarching culture, values, people and behaviours in our cities (Campbell, 2018).

How do we do this?

Methodology is specific to its place; we cannot adopt the same system everywhere. However, what should be incorporated into the development of urban change in every environment, is the involvement of its people that live and work there. Those who are ultimately directly affected by the changes that develop.



“We need to design and facilitate change processes that build coalitions for change, create shared purpose and make systems work better for everyone, converting potentially controversial policy problems into projects of collaboration innovation.”

(Innovation Unit, n.d)


Participatory design is a methodology in which future users of an outcome are involved with and are participants as ‘co-designers’ in the design process (Mortberg, et al, 2014). To understand how to achieve the success of an outcome, we must involve the end-users. Using the participatory design methodology within the planning of our cities and built environments could be said to be essential to successful development.

‘Collaborate to innovate.”

(Campbell, 2018)

Collaboration means engagement and giving purpose and ‘responsibility’ to all. What has been lost throughout our ‘mechanical’ systems is the sense of ownership felt by the end users. Successful change and development should not only be ‘owned’ by its leaders (authority) but by the people and organisations that are affected by it (Campbell, 2018). To generate citizen ownership over our places, we must communicate to develop a compelling collective vision that is inclusive of all stakeholders affected.  This should be done through collaborative actions, continuous involvement and reviewing processes.


“I think the efficiency of collaboration relies very much on communication, trust and emotion. Everybody comes from a different background or profession. Everybody speaks a different language. Everybody has different thoughts. To find the best form of communication is very important in each collaboration.”

Stefan Saffer  

Here Saffer is referring to collaborative projects between artists and architects. However we can respond to this statement in terms of urban design and the development of our cities, by considering our urban planning and designs collaborative projects between designers, authorities and users. By incorporating a collaborative approach, we must develop methods that are inclusive to all perspectives and can adapt to form coherent forms of action. Maybe this is where we appreciate the role of the urban designer and our authorities – the people that can turn these ideas into forms of physical realities – we can consider these people as the curators and facilitators that pursue the outcomes of collaborative practice and community involvement.

“The urban designer is just one participant in the process of city-making, but it is impossible to make a city without the urban designer, because of his ability to transform societal goals and programmes into physical form and space”

(Luscher, 2019)



From this, we can conclude that participatory design and collaborative practice that involves the people directly affected by development is essential to the sustainable future of our systems. However, the roles of the designers, authorities and users are still distinct to one another – all playing individual parts in progressing change in our built environments. Yet, to move forward in an ever-changing and evolving contemporary world, we must use collaborative methods that allows all of these roles to generate successful outcomes and work together in order to provide sustainable change and development that is ultimately a true requirement of the end user.  


Coming Soon! - The article ‘Learning for Helsinki’ discusses the systematic practices of Helsinki and how we can learn from their methods in the process of becoming a successful and sustainable ‘collaborative society.’


Campbell, K. (2018). Making Massive Small Change. Chelsea Green Publishing, pg.300-320

Dantec, C. (2017). Design through collective action / collective action through design | ACM Interactions. [online] Available at: [Accessed 19 Apr. 2019].

Johnson, E. (2018). Cities as living organisms in a changing world require vision and community to survive.. [online] Eric Anthony Johnson, Phd. Available at: [Accessed 20 Apr. 2019].

Luscher, R. (2019)  in Firley, E. (2019). Designing change - Professional Mutations in Urban Design 1980-2020. [Rotterdam]: nai010 publishers, p.7.

Mortberg, C. and Velden, M. (2014). Participatory Design and Design for Values. [online] Available at: [Accessed 20 Apr. 2019].

Schuyler K.G. (2016) Peter Senge: “Everything That We Do Is About Shifting the Capability for Collective Action…”. In: Szabla D., Pasmore W., Barnes M., Gipson A. (eds) The Palgrave Handbook of Organizational Change Thinkers. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham

Senge, Peter M. (1990). The fifth discipline : the art and practice of the learning organization. New York :Doubleday/Currency

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