The N-Aerus 15th International Conference took place in Brussels from 27-29 November. I was proud to attend in representation of both Placemakers Nairobi and the International New Town Institute. The conference was titled, “Real Change? Exploring and Assessing Ways to Co-Produce Knowledge for Tangible Transformations in the Cities of the South.” The dubious tone of the title was reflected in the many of the presentations and discussions. Surprisingly, it was this critical attitude that I found so absolutely refreshing. Many of these conferences seem to circle around rather out-dated models of how foreigners (whether NGOs, researchers or other professionals) can work successfully in “challenging environments.” The “Real Change?” conference, however, took a sharper view of current practice and asked the hard questions. Pairing activists with researchers at the round table discussions was especially revealing. At one point, someone in the audience asked, “What do activists need from us, and what can we—as researchers—learn from them?” Although it’s a straightforward question, the answers were anything but easy. One of the activists shook his head sadly and said, “You just have to learn how to talk to normal people.” Even when we’re all on the same side, it seems dialogue is still difficult.
Eva Álvarez de Andrés (ETSAM-UPM, Madrid) chaired the first round table and brought an especially inspiring voice to the event and reminded us that cities don’t just need good infrastructure, they need cultural events and art in all forms as a way to help create and sustain communities. Other speakers asked whether ‘clientelism’ was still an appropriate descriptor for the researcher/public dynamic and reminded the audience of the limits of the participative paradigm in a severe crisis of authority.
Throughout the event, I was inspired by the participants’ universal goal—employing an array of methods—to support inclusive citizenship. Using Naila Kabeer’s (LSE, London) definition of the term, speakers elaborated on the four values of inclusive citizenship as it applied to individual groups of marginalized people: justice, recognition, self-determination and solidarity were the themes of the day.