We are entering a ‘post-institutional period’. The events that shook the beginning of 2011 are changing the political panorama of many countries and have clearly showed how traditional institutions alone cannot cope anymore with the needs and dreams of citizens. They also revealed the insufficiency of traditional social bodies and aggregations, especially from the perspective of the new generations, who are designing new and often informal ways to make their voices heard in the political space. The Centre for Social Studies of the University of Coimbra wants to promote spaces of discussion and stimulate the cultural interaction on these topics, in continuity with its scientific interdisciplinary activity and its tradition as an Associate Laboratory interested in developing new and innovative analytical, theoretical and methodological instruments and approaches for interpreting and better understanding the specificities and complexities of contemporary societies. In a world that is everyday more urbanized, cities are undoubtedly the stage for these ongoing fluid and dynamic changes. They are in flames in the Global South as well as in the Global North, and claims and aspirations of their citizens constitute the main sparks. These convulsions are enrooted in a new idea of inclusion, one that must tightly link redistribution and recognition of these new rising voices and must contribute to scouting and discovering voices that are as yet undisclosed. Squares, streets, and parks are regaining their meaningfulness as pivotal places of this new wave of claims, and their new centrality takes shape through creative alliances with virtual networks, which seek to materialize their fights in a new holistic conception of public space.
How can we cope with this new panorama, where the word “city” itself acquires multiple and conflicting meanings in different contexts? How can we trace, define, and challenge the new subtle forms of social and territorial exclusion, trying to reinvent social inclusion as a meeting space between local institutional efforts and bottom-up movements? Could the emerging pre-planning strength of the new insurgent citizenships converge onto a shared horizon and represent a critical mass for reconceiving and reestablishing the way of managing cities? Is the heterogeneity of the state being pushed forward and enriched trough the subsidiarity principle, valorizing both the proposals coming from non-state actors and the institutional levels closest to citizens? Is it imaginable to start to recognize and conceptualize a “new macro-paradigm” for these changing cities, one which will rescue and dialogue with the paradigms defined during the last 20 years on the role of social movements in the city, using as a “lever” images of “the power of powerlessness” and the struggles against/within established systems?
The Cities ‘R’ Us (Cities are Us) concept, for us, means recognizing that a plural set of solutions to re-found and renegotiate cities as a space where polarization, segregations, and exclusions can be concretely challenged, can only be built together with their citizens in each different context. We believe that social and territorial justice could represent the central axis of future transformations. In a world where mechanic references to the concept of participation diluted it into an easy “buzzword,” which has allowed for a “perverse confluence” of opposite and conflictive visions on the future of cities, we consider that reaffirming the relationships between the role of inhabitants and the meaning of and quality of their living spaces becomes necessary.
From this perspective, the conference wants to broaden the discussions that CES has been promoting in the last years, through several events and studies which figured out the still-long path to be pursued for the research world to recognize and understand the complexity of movements that are shaking the planet, and how necessary it is to adopt, at a larger scale, a dialogue framed by the “epistemologies of the South” approach, a perspective that aims to complement current mainstreaming tendencies and reach towards greater epistemic justice. In the proposed “Cities ‘R’ Us” series of events, this reflection is combined with those elaborated by a CES team of researchers, a large network of collaborators in other countries, and the Committee on Social Inclusion and Participatory Democracy (CISDP) of the United Cities and Local Government association during the common research which in 2010 and 2011 worked to create the second phase of its Observatory on Social Inclusion. Among a range of insights emerging from the case study analyses, researchers found that new approaches are being invented locally in diverse circumstances to address diversifying forms of social exclusion, situations in which “traditional” forms of social policy are not working any more, and local governments, in all their diversity, are often not able to deal with them and need to incorporate knowledge they don’t have. The cases brought forward issues and insights relating both to the nature/concept of the city and to the understanding/concepts of local authorities, participation, and tools for fostering empowerment.
The “Cities ‘R’ Us” new event is intended to focus on three interrelated issues, bringing together participants from both the North and the South and providing dialogical and interdisciplinary encounters.
First, we invite reflections on the struggles for recognition and justice by previously or still disenfranchised groups, challenging the worlds of academy and activist research to confront and discuss their visions. This goal will be pursued by the main conference to be held in Coimbra, at the University, through opening space both to vibrant dialogues between international keynote speakers and presentations made by younger scholars on concrete case studies that help to reinterpret the roles and methods of a more participatory approach to social transformations, showing how economies, cultures, spaces, rights, governance, and the environment are changing in the new pluralized panorama of the city.
Second, the conference will also address a set of questions related to contesting state sovereignty and market pervasiveness through a new variety of counter-hegemonic positions and projects. In fact, we think that in a moment in which – at world level – we are witnessing a broadening of imperialistic perspectives in various manifestations, a meaningful debate around rights under threat, democratic citizenship, inclusion, and the plural dimensions of political freedom cannot forget how the peculiar spaces and the creativity of contestations to the current “social order” can contribute to institutional innovation and to renegotiating the state-market relationship. Within this perspective, the conference welcomes contributions balancing description, explanation, and prescription in social sciences and humanities, so to contribute to an ecology of knowledges which could give visibility to new forms of collective action and community experimentation in reshaping cities and urban experiences in different contexts, and to contribute to setting the preconditions for a more solid horizon of social and territorial justice, by ‘reshaping’ the role of the State.
Third, the Summer School (encompassing itineraries in the metropolitan area of Lisbon) will set a more collaborative environment for the participants and the co-organising partners, which come from the worlds of academy/action-research, as well as from local political institutions such as municipalities and urban metropolitan districts. The central idea of the Summer School is to provide different spaces of discussion, centred on the presentation of concrete international case studies of innovative policies of social and territorial inclusion, which could dialogue with local examples taken from the Portuguese panorama of “alternative public policies” that – especially during the current period of financial, political, and social crisis – are taking shape as “meeting spaces” between local institutions and social practices of insurgent citizenship. During the Summer School, the role of migrants and cultural differences will be a central feature of the cases under discussion, while field visits to the marginalized outskirts as well as to the “central places” of solidarity in the Portuguese territory will play as “levers” to valorise the contributions of living communities in repoliticizing the city space, and to problematize the role of “experts” in shaping new policies of public interest. For these reasons, the Summer School will be selecting its international participants in order to leave spaces open also for local actors coming from the wide range of institutions which will contribute to organize the different events.