JORN WEMMENHOVE: HOW TO EMBRACE CHANGE

© Iris Planting

The aim of your agency Humankind is to help cities with urban changes which sounds like a very ambitious goal. What do you think are the biggest challenges of our time and what is your motivation to tackle these issues?

Often times we discuss whether we are a “normal” agency at all or even an NGO since I used to work for a foundation in Argentina and could not think of working without any relevant impact. At Humankind we wake up in order to make a better world. The challenges such as how to make cities more sustainable, how to develop affordable housing, how to reduce waste and deal with energetic questions etc. are general issues created by climate change. However, what we found out is mental health being another big issue of our time; probably because city planning has turned into a very technical thing over the last years. Therefore, we put back the humans in the center of city-making and try to find out the essence of “well-being”.

In order to do so and to avoid the technical city-planning remain technical, do you also work with an interdisciplinary team?

Yes, of course. Before I worked for the foundation in Argentina, I had a job within advertising. I loved the power of creativity but I wanted to apply it to real topics and not just to any products. My co-founder is an urban planner but also not a typical one. He is primarily a city lover, not just a technical specialist. We are surrounded by social scientists, psychoanalysts, architects, industrial designers and many creative people. For each project we set up a team out of our Humankind employees as well as people from the location/city which we are working for. For our parklets Rotterdam we worked together with a guy who is actually an engineer being responsible for the stage design of certain festivals. Since he has the skills for temporary solutions, we needed him for this specific project.

What kind of role does technology play within your work? Do you think digitalism will contribute to better city planning, more attractive urban spaces and will solve our problems?

Since my co-founder Lior used to be a computer programmer, he is definitely into Tech and so am I because of my (new) media studies at university. However, there is a tendency applying these technical tools without defining a specific result. Applying tech for tech’s sake is not creating a smart, but rather stupid city! Nevertheless, they contribute to lots of challenges as well. What we need to do first is to create a vision on what kind of city we want. Over the last few years we have increasingly concentrated on technical subjects whereas subjects such as philosophy, sociology, anthropology etc. have fallen behind. However, they are depending on each other. As soon as we combine them, we will be able to use technology in a very effective way. Technology can probably solve 99 percent of our tasks but it cannot solve the underlying problems without a vision. We need to combine hard skills with soft skills, such as self-knowledge and true collaborative work. Within our everyday work technology is of course a great help, i. e. for the analysis and monitoring of urban spaces, the measurement of people using our parklets etc.

Within this context your agency’s name “Humankind” sounds like a big contrast to our world being full of technical devices – a conscious decision?

Definitely. As mentioned above we wanted to put back the hu- man into the center of interest and picked a name reflecting that vision. At the same time, the name forces us to continually deal with the very difficult question what a human really is within our own time. Last but not least all of our projects are “human” and “kind”. Kindness is a way to deal with being human. We are weird species full of contradictions. We should not be too hard on ourselves and be kind to ourselves, others and our planet.

© Art: Opperclaes | Photographer: Ossip van Duivenbode

How does your agency work contribute to urban changes in real life? Could you explain your approach and philosophy?

In my opinion we pay too much attention to efficiency which is primarily a characteristic of technology. As humans, however, we need time for certain processes and allow failures to be a natural part of them. Also, in city-planning this holds true because before taking certain measurements we should carefully check the context, the status quo, the starting conditions, the cultural and social background etc. There is no such thing as one solution for all cities. During our projects we spend a lot of time in the city and talk to many people. We listen to what they want in order to act better on what they need. Unfortunately, a lot of professional urban planners do not. Of course, it is a really complex and time-consuming process but it is worth it at all because you re-connect people to city-making and enable them to understand the importance of certain measurements. We need to understand that city making is not an exclusive field of certain experts such as urban planners, architects and politicians anymore but for everyone.

How do these experts respond to your work?

Humankind is primarily interested in urban change work, and therefore based on transition management. For this reason, we usually analyze how cities or organizations work in the first step. The problem is not cities, municipalities and developers being unwilling to change but not knowing how to initiate this process. In this case we offer different methods and workshops for these “frontrunners” teaching them how to meet the change process without any fear. The responsible persons who we have met so far are really passionate about their cities and thankful for our work.

Since you have mentioned fear: Ever since change has come along with fear. Whether in private life or within our professional career, we are afraid of leaving comfort zones as well as breaking up with proven strategies or concepts. Do you recognize a similar attitude when it comes to cities and how does your work help them to overcome their fear and change their perspective?

Humankind exactly wants to help cities and municipalities to overcome this fear and prejudices. We do not come up with a solution like architects with a beautiful building or urban plan- ners with a new master plan but we analyze the current situation within the city and think about how to create change and make true impact – of course, using the power of design as well. This process is done together with the city which leads to better understanding and acceptance as well as transparency. As a result we, for example agree, on a temporary intervention such as Happy Streets, an urban experimental program on the future of streets and public space. For a certain amount of time people experience with all senses what an urban space might look like, how it feels in everyday life and in how far change is something good. Once cities and people experience change within this “protected space” they are more likely to apply it in the long run.

© Art: Opperclaes, Photographer: Olha Rohulya

It is said that good things come to those who wait. However, since urban projects take too long to complete, they also suffer from a lack of acceptance. Are there any quicker ways to make urban transformation and change visible?

In my opinion it is always too slow but urban planning is a dif- ficult task which needs a certain amount of time. However, you can work on changes today. The challenge is that municipalities still think and plan in long term intervals, want to control everything and carefully analyze the pros and the cons. Within this context it is really difficult to absorb change quickly. Administrations are actually not created for being hubs of innovation. That is a situation we have to work on. If you take a look at the German cyclist infrastructure the problem is not the budget or the lack of technical knowledge of German engineers, but internal processes and unnecessary paperwork avoiding the money to be released for the project. We need to innovate many processes if we really want to change.

On the other hand, many people have difficulty coping with the accelerating speed of urban change. Is it even possible to find a “healthy balance” at all?

The crucial part is that we wish for things that were normal in the past, such as taking care of each other, having a community (families, friends and neighbors), some kind of basic income and from an urban planning perspective, lively and safe places where you can meet each other. Most of the changes that we introduce today actually take up these well-proven aspects and actually try to make life better. Accordingly, we should not try to cope with change but to embrace it! This said, change can be difficult and it is up to us and our politicians to help the most vulnerable through this era of transitions.

You mentioned communities and places where people can meet each other. In the past, there was a tendency to praise the individual. Do you recognize a major turnaround within society and cities?

Even today there are many people saying that happiness lies within you and you are the only one being responsible to develop your own kind of happiness. I think that is totally wrong. Happiness depends on fruitful connections and togetherness. That is why I have been talking about mental health at the beginning of our interview. Today we are talking about the Corona Virus and how many people will be killed by it. We are talking about the climate crisis which is surely an important topic. But we do not take into consideration how many people die because of mental illness, i. e. loneliness. This is happening right now – all around us – and therefore the essential question we should find solutions for.

Insofar the climate crisis has turned into a metaphor. We have to work on the climate within our cities and between their inhabitants, right?

Right – as it is stated in our name. The question remains how our cities will be more human and how we can turn them into kinder places. Accordingly, the climate crisis is ultimately a crisis of humanity. This should be the ultimate focus.

Humankind wants to develop happy places. Your website is full of projects being designed in very bright colors. How did cities and people respond to your artful approach turning insignificant areas into eye-catching places?

Of course, you cannot dip a whole city into bright colors. With the selection of one specific area being painted in a unique way, i.e. a cyclist lane, we want to confront people with a different reality and accordingly, increase their attention to that kind of space. Our aim is to evoke reactions – from happiness to frustration. Tactical urbanism always leads to a certain amount of turmoil but we need this confrontation in order to come up with a better design.

For those of us who are not familiar with the term: Could you describe tactical urbanism in further detail?

It basically means short-term-solutions for long-term change, i. e. temporary, low cost design changes to the built environment showing people another reality of a well-known space. Once people experience this new reality, they are likely to be more open to change. At Humankind we monitor all of our projects which are essential for a final evaluation. However, tactical urbanism also includes neighborliness initiatives. The focus is always set on the in-between stage which also triggers communication. That is why city planners also make use of tactical urbanism: they get direct feedback. Within this context we created our program Happy Mobility that basically focuses not on the quickest connection between A and B but the experience, the fun and the socio-economic importance of mobility.

“The way is the aim” – this is a great conclusion. Thanks for this inspiring insight into your work.

 


JORN WEMMENHOVE

is a creative strategist and co-founder of the agency Humankind, advising cities on how to accelerate the transition to an inclusive, sustainable society by imagining the city of tomorrow and already showing it today. He is curious about urbanism, psychoanalysis, social work, and urban happiness. At the age of 20, he co-founded El Desafío Foundation, a non-profit that promotes youth development and local democracy in Rosario, Argentina.

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