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Article Article April 14th, 2023
Cities • Delivery • Infrastructure • Innovation

Learnings from Urban Imaginaries – Georgia

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Municipalities from Georgia applied to the Urban Imaginaries programme run by @UNDPEurasia and @CPI_foundation, which aims to help authorities listen to their citizens and design solutions to pressing challenges collaboratively.

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@S_Khatuna shares key lessons at both personal and organisational levels from the experiences of Georgian municipalities Samtredia, Rustavi, Tskaltubo, and Poti taking part in the Urban Imaginaries programme.

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"The way to being hyperlocal is through cultivating value-based relationships, which human-centred approaches can provide through equitable community-building" @S_Khatuna on the Urban Imaginaries programme.

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The latest developments internationally demand responses that have not been tried before. It requires governments at the central and local levels to engage in intentional learning and testing of new approaches to remain relevant. Hence, municipalities from Georgia applied to the Urban Imaginaries programme run by UNDP and the Centre for Public Impact (CPI). This is part of the EU-funded Mayors for Economic Growth Initiative, and aims to help city authorities listen to their citizens and design solutions to pressing challenges collaboratively. Samtredia, Rustavi, Tskaltubo, and Poti were selected, and I was lucky to join their learning path. 

For me, this journey started nearly a decade ago with the launch of the UNDP public sector innovation work in ECIS region. In 2014, the first design experiment in the public sector in Georgia witnessed an unprecedented collaboration between the Ministry of Interior Emergency Services and people with disabilities. It gave people with hearing impairments access to emergency services. It won multiple international awards, but what was most valuable was the appreciation of the members of the Deaf Union, who said that what mattered the most was their role as co-creators of the service. In 2017, UNDP Georgia went local and helped Rustavi City Hall establish its municipal innovation hub - the first in Georgia. This is what we have learnt in the last year since the four municipalities joined the Urban Imaginaries programme.

The process

Each municipal team was comprised of representatives of different city hall departments. They worked on pre-identified issues, which were scrutinised through different lenses to come up with re-framed problem statements. The online learning process was structured and led by the CPI team. They developed a wealth of training materials which were prepared and translated. These were conveyed through workshops and regular individual follow-up mentorship sessions with simultaneous translation provided (8 online workshops with the municipalities from the other participating countries (Armenia and Moldova), followed by 15 weekly individual mentorship reflections with CPI, 2 peer-to-peer learning sessions and 2 storytelling). The UNDP team also guided the teams, with 20 individual city sessions conducted in Georgian. 

The ideas for solutions that municipality teams formulated, resulted from what they learnt from speaking with diverse groups of people, peers, state and non-state actors, and testing the first experiments around preliminary solution ideas. These ranged from infrastructure rehabilitation for healthy lifestyles in Samtredia, improving multifunctional open spaces in Poti and Tkaltubo, to fostering youth entrepreneurship in Rustavi, to support the city’s sustainable green development.

What have we learnt?

Following the discovery and prototype testing phases, the teams gathered in Telavi in October 2022 to review the learning journey and plan the next phase of implementation. The overall feedback has been positive, and we probed into what made this engagement different from the others for the civil servants. Several themes are emerging:

At a personal level

  • The shift in personal perceptions about people and their role in local development.

“We had organised the viewings before as well, but it did not gather so much public, like the one we organised for testing the prototypes – what made a difference was reaching out to people by the information medium they are most comfortable with (social media group), and asking them what they would like to see. The turnout was unexpectedly high." Poti, Irakli

“People were happy when we were approaching them for an interview – they were happy realizing that their opinion mattered.” Marekhi, Tksaltubo

“We noticed that a bench in the newly renovated park had been moved to a different location where people found it more comfortable to sit. It made us think that had we, at the municipality, designed the park together with our residents, this would not have happened.” Samtredia, Lasha

  • Appreciating the iterative nature of the exploration phase which makes the ideas for solutions as targeted to the context and evidence-based as possible.

 “We have engaged in the number of design experiments in Rustavi previously, but in this learning journey we were able to go into details of exploration and the purpose mattered.” Misha

At an organisational level

  • Making learning an integral part of the local service delivery requires engagement with the representatives of different departments of the municipality, but also dedicated staff to manage the collaborative design of solutions requiring time commitment and continuous codification of learnings and data.

  •  A new generation of skills for the civil servants at the local level needs to be supported to enable institutional continuity of the newly acquired methodologies adapted to the local context, on the one hand, and helping to forge external partnerships for financing and growth, on the other.

“The exploration process was intense which required distribution of workload to several people, new functions have emerged demanding new skills, like conducting user research and sensemaking. Without diversified team you cannot achieve much.” Nino, Poti

  •  The need for new forms of engagement with diverse actors, including people at large, formal and informal civic communities or organisations, academia and the private sector, most importantly.

 “The key value of this process is that it has helped for people to identify their role and municipality its own role through iterative process which changed the initial vision based on municipality perception to the one reflecting the view of the ordinary people.” Irakli, Poti

We were also able to compare notes from our previous city exploration journey in Rustavi. It was different from Urban Imaginaries, as we walked largely “unknown” terrain, where the local context and developments shaped every phase through a “learning by doing” approach. The overarching problem Rustavi has been addressing from the beginning is youth brain-drain and lack of opportunities. The city transformation sandbox then, like in Urban Imaginaries, started with human-centred design to test the ground for service design, followed by Foresight for defining the city's long-term vision, Urban Game for co-production of community solutions, and alternative finance models to support their implementation.

Even with the previous experience of co-designing, Urban Imaginaries was instrumental for the Rustavi city team in: refining the co-creation process through well-structured and mentored discovery phase; codifying data and knowledge; deepening understanding of how prototype testing works; exposure to the peer network for exchange and international expertise via CPI; fundraising and validation of the exploration journey before M4EG.

In addition, as we could follow the work of the several city teams, some common patterns emerged for us as UNDP:

Cultural context and shared values which form the local identity of the communities is the foundation of co-creation

  • Process and relationships matter as much as the results

  • The pace of change varies depending on the local context and appreciating a meaningful pace for change is crucial for keeping wider engagement going

  • Not all local solutions are scalable – small changes over time can translate into systemic shifts, and not always in the communities where they were originally initiated

  • Guidance and mentorship and a structured approach is needed throughout for any ‘unknown’ process to succeed until the local team has confidence to take over

  • Face-to-face interaction for peer-to-peer learning is necessary for nurturing networks of civil service practitioners 

  • The need in the new skills for civil servants ranging from learning English or other international languages to access external resources meaningfully, as well as communication, storytelling, managing partnerships beyond public service, basic IT literacy, generating and working with data, horizon scanning, burnout and self-care, codifying the learning (“what has not been put in writing never happened”)

  • Emerging opportunities for spreading the movement, like the interest from the part of the 23 NGOs to learn and apply a human-centred approach in their activities, which was unanimously confirmed by the UNDP-organised workshop participants in the summer of 2022

What’s next?

Transformation requires a continued and structured joint effort also involving impartial actors that can channel the external experience into local practices. UNDP can be a conduit and facilitator of its own and can channel external expertise to help generate contextual knowledge and open up new growth avenues for partnership and fundraising for municipalities. 

While the municipal teams are in the solutions implementation phase, we are pondering on the new set of questions to explore:

  • What is required to make external funding opportunities practically accessible to municipalities?

  • Where and how do municipalities retain the knowledge for co-creating new solutions with/for people? (Rustavi Innovation Hub model or beyond)?

  • “What would be the incentives for local governments beyond monetary ones to start engaging in new practices systemwide?” Revaz, Rustavi

  • What is the new generation of skills for civil servants at the local level?

  • How do we balance between 3rd horizon outcomes vs short-term tangible results when working with municipalities?

The way to being hyperlocal is through cultivating value-based relationships, which human-centred approaches can provide through equitable community-building, reshaping the traditional funder/recipient/implementer relationship. It can secure trust, open up communication between otherwise unconnected actors, speed up action by shortening the span of decision-making, and create momentum for positive change.

Written by:

Khatuna Sandroshvili Innovation Specialist, United Nations Development Programme in Georgia
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