Subtitle: Imagination taking power

Gabriella Gómez-Mont: “Imagination is not a luxury”

A question that has arisen in my research around imagination and also in the recent interview I did with Stuart Candy was what would it look like if a local, city or national government were to create a ‘Ministry of Imagination’?  If the revitalisation of the imagination were felt to be so important that its protection, enhancement and cultivation needed a bespoke department, one that cross-cut other departments, attempting to raise the imaginative capacity of the entire administration.  It was an idea that really stuck with me.

Gabriella Gómez-Mont is one of the only people I have come across who has actually done that.  Her background is in the world of arts and culture, having worked as a journalist, documentary filmmaker, visual artist and experimental curator.  She now leads Laboratorio para la Ciudad (‘Laboratory of the City’) which is, to all intents and purposes, a Ministry of Imagination in Mexico City, founded several years ago as an experimental arm/creative think tank for the Mexico City government, which reports to the Mayor. When she very generously gave me an hour of her time, I had so many questions.  Best place to start, it seemed to me, was to ask how the Laboratory came about, and what it does… [we spoke for about an hour: you can hear our full conversation in the podcast, or read the edited transcript below).

“Out of the blue I got an offer from the incoming Mayor of Mexico City, about five years ago, to basically propose a new type of city department.  He gave me free rein to invent a new type of office from scratch.  The only thing that he asked was that it be high on a possible reinvention of how government collaborates with citizens, asking what new models of participation look like, and what might new models of governance become.

Gabriella Gomez-Mont

To be honest, at the beginning I did not want to work within bureaucracy.  I had kept government as far away as possible from my life except for voting every so often!  But I was offered a fellowship where I would have plenty of time to think about it and it suddenly, to my artistic heart, felt like a really fantastic provocation from the Mayor of the fourth largest city in the world, and one of my obsessions since many years back, which is Mexico City, to basically be able to invent a city department from scratch.

What would it look like?  How would it function?  How would it insert itself less in the bureaucracy and more in the city, etc, etc?  I thought, “Okay, let’s do this as a speculative exercise.  I’m sure we’ll be outlandish and they’ll say no, but then again it will be a prompter for my fellowship and I can have all sorts of meetings around this, and then just function as the axis of my next four, five months.”

To make a long story short, I came back from my fellowship.  The new government had already started and I got called in out of the blue to present what I was proposing.  To my huge surprise after the meeting he said, “Okay, great, go for it.  You will get a call and we’ll be announcing the existence of a Lab for the City in 10 to 15 days.”  10 to 15 days later, I was shell-shocked in front of 500 people, mostly men in ties – very different from my former world – as well as a lot of journalists, and the Mayor was announcing the existence of Laboratorio para la Ciudad.

Five years later, I am black and blue from the extreme learning curve, but it’s also been, strangely enough, one of the greatest adventures of my life.  Laboratorio has become, as I mentioned, the experimental arm / people think tank of the Mexico City government. One of the interesting things about the Lab is the composition of the team, which is very much in tune with the importance of imagination.  You might imagine bureaucracy would be a desert of imagination, the idea of ‘creative bureaucracy’ seems a huge oxymoron.  But my team is composed half of it.

There’s 20 people, average age 29 years old more or less, which is also more or less the average age of Mexico City funnily enough.  On one hand we’re actually prototyping what government could look like for a new generation that on one hand does not necessarily have a lot of trust in institutions or in government – and this is something that is happening worldwide – but on the other, we’re seeing this interest and all this energy that surrounds civic projects, and them wanting to sink their hands into the city and to be able to actually help create the city around them.

How do we deal with this paradox, and can a Lab become a place where instead of this being an oxymoron, government can become a funnel into the city itself, and the place where they can actually engage with all of these subjects that the government engages with?  Because there’s nothing of a city that isn’t in a certain sense touched upon by government.

The second thing is the composition of my team that I was mentioning.  Half of them come from disciplines that you would imagine within government, such as urban geographers, data analysts, political scientists, social scientists, civic tech experts.  Then exactly the other half come from arts and cultures, the humanities.  Working hand in hand with them are also artists and designers and filmmakers, architects, social innovation experts, activists, philosophers, etcetera, etcetera, and everything that we do sits in between.  This is very much on purpose.

It was one of the most difficult coming-togethers of the Lab because we all came from very different languages – in a certain sense structuring our worlds and our disciplines in a way that is not necessarily compatible.  But I’ve always been incredibly obsessed by the potential of trans-disciplinary practices, knowing as well that if we don’t design the trans-disciplinary spaces and conversations right, there is the great danger of everybody watering down their own language and their own discipline, instead of creating synergies, just because we come from such different fields that hold such different values.

At the same time I have the feeling that modernism has left its dent in the way that we think about cities and government.  We’re still thinking under metaphors and paradigms of the city as a machine.  The city as a factory.  The city is made to be fast and efficient and productive.  When, yes, that can be an important set of values, but at the same time, we’re losing sight that cities in a way were an answer to first questions of societies, of how are we going to live together?  How are we going to move together?  How will we be healthy together?

All of those questions in many ways, at their heart, have something that is not necessarily productive, or swift, or efficient, but has to do more with the way that we make meaning, individually and collectively.  In a certain sense, because of that, we’ve become not only intrigued by the physical infrastructure of the city, and the data block by block that surrounds the city that the urban geography department of the Lab is very invested in, but also about how mind anchors to matter.  The symbolic infrastructure of the city.  The way that the micro-territories and the small communities add up or don’t, to a large narrative of Mexico City.

We feel that the humanities need to be present again.  Why?  Because first of all we’re seeing with the latest elections, Brexit and beyond, that we’re not necessarily completely rational creatures.  There’s a lot of gut, a lot of feeling.  I have the feeling that if we don’t start addressing that as well, and if we pretend that everything is based on fact and data, we’re losing out on a huge part of how we have creative scaffolding for realities.

Many of these imaginaries, and imagination is general, and again the way that we’ve made meaning and tell ourselves our stories would seem to sometimes travel at a different scale and a different wavelength, if you will, but it’s actually many times the place where reality gets spread.  How do we deal with that?  How do we bring that into account?  And how does government actually in any way use this as a prime matter of the type of society that we want to create?

And hence rethink government not only as a provider of services, and the one that receives the complaints of everything that’s not working well, but regain that political sense and that political imagination that government is that place to have that conversation about who we want to be both right now as well as in the future, and who we have been, and in certain times dig deep into the urban DNA, if you will, that comprises both the built and physical environment, but also the social energy that circulates around it.

Could give us a sense of what you’ve done during that period of time?  What’s come out of it?

Absolutely.  I’ll give you an example of how we try to layer our work and how we try to work on different domains, because the reason why I’m not only researching these urban and social topics through the lens of the humanities is because I think this tension-filled and hopefully productive conversation needs to take place at the crux of many disciplines and many ways of viewing and entering the city.

On one hand every project that we do at the Lab goes into a very deep research in terms of spatial analysis.  Mexico City is the fourth largest city in the world.  Our biggest resource is the sheer diversity of the city, because in terms of urban DNA the combinatory possibilities of the city, just because of everything and the vast difference that it contains, is actually quite amazing.  But unfortunately because of the way we’ve articulated our society I have the feeling that that difference, instead of becoming a repertoire of gargantuan possibility, actually becomes an Achilles heel in terms of inequality, division, etc, etc.

There’s a lot of things that we need to heal, and a lot of links to be made between the spaces that are not necessarily articulated, or talking to each other, or being able to figure out how to mobilise the resources across the city.  On one hand, first of all, figuring out that Mexico city – just to name one example in terms of the analysis of spatial justice that we’ve been doing – we found out that there are five million kids in the metropolitan area.  Three million kids in the city proper.  Children under 14 years of age is one of our analyses for these numbers.

Imagine this is a whole Denmark, or a whole Finland, of people under 14 years of age.  And no city planning has been done around children!  Secondly, when you think of Mexico City, the last thing that comes to mind is a city of kids.  There’s also a lack of being able to imagine the city that we already are, funnily enough.  That creates a gap in our understanding as well as a gap in our focus.  Then one of the things that we started researching was how might we think about the right to the city for kids, which is in our new constitution, as well as rescue the right to play that is actually a law that we passed a couple of years back but that we have not put into effect.

We’ve created tools at the Lab where we can see block by block the concentration of kids across the city.  We can then cross that with indexes of marginalisation and segregation across the city as well, and then figure out in a certain radius the intensity of public space and green space that they have access to, or the lack thereof.  We’ve been figuring out that, let’s say Iztapalapa, which is one of our boroughs, has almost half a million kids, and has less than 3 square metres of open space in that same borough.  Whereas other places have a third part of the children’s population but have 52 square metres of open and green space per inhabitant.

This means that there is no way that we can think of Mexico City as a whole.  But we have to think of it, yes, visions for a megalopolis that pertain us all, but at the same time we need to sink down into the micro-territories and understand at a much more granular level both what it looks like in terms of its societies and its urban forms, and then be able to do things around this.

These types of tools are letting us enter very precise spaces of the city and know that you do not deal with Las Lomas, for example, that is as green as the best of the green cities get, as with Iztapalapa, which has incredibly dire conditions.  A lot of social violence.  It’s really a very intense place for children to grow up.

That would be the more rational side of the Lab and how we really want to create very precise methods of being able to enter the city and how we make decisions, and how we’re working with other city departments.  But at the same time, with the pretext of a new Mexico City constitution, the Mayor entrusted us with several tasks.

One of the things that we proposed was creating a survey called ‘Imagine Your City’ which is the first survey we’ve done on urban imaginaries.  We wanted to understand not only the objective city that we have a lot of data on, but also the subjective city.  How are people relating to their territories and to Mexico City in general?  We ask questions such as, “What are the three first words that come to mind when you think of Mexico City?  What are the three things that you value the most?  What are the three things that pain you the most?  How do you imagine the future of Mexico City?  What do the government need to do to get to that ideal future, and what do you need to do?”

We have 31,000 answers across 1,400 neighbourhoods in Mexico City since we let out an army of people into the streets.  It’s actually very evenly distributed between gender, ages, social and economic divisions, etc, etc.  It’s been an incredibly interesting tool for us because now we can navigate the city also through these subjectivities and figure out really interesting things.  Especially dealing with the futures which are open-ended questions.

We’re finding out that even though we were prompting for positive futures, we mostly got back dystopic futures from the population.  Like more Mad Max: the city is going to run out of water, we’re all going to die, type of thing.  Then comes an onslaught of questions for us.  Should government care about the fact that people are not imagining an alternative that is not catastrophic?  Should we care about the subjective way that people are relating to the city?  Should we be able to create policy not only about what we know for a fact is an issue in certain neighbourhoods but also what people perceive to be an issue or perceive to be a value?  And found out interesting things that even though Mexico has been cutting the budget for culture every Presidential term, suddenly we’re figuring out that even at the poorest of poor neighbourhoods, people value culture above everything, even education.

What does that actually entail for the type of cities that we’re creating?  We’ve also come across several other questions such as how are we democratising imagination?  Because so many times we think about democracy in terms of sustenance, if you will, of access to water, access to food, access to jobs.  But what happens with access to possible futures? What happens with access of resources?

We became very intrigued through all of this research also in rethinking the role of government.  Less maybe as a provider of services, which to be honest I’m not that intrigued by, but more what would it take for this new world of government – especially now that we need to go deep into governance, and that we know that governments do everything on their own – of catalysing citizen talent.  Being able to see these articulations that we’re lacking, or the ones that could be even further pushed, and to help articulate the city as a place of knowledge, as a space of resources.

I’m intrigued by urban commons, for example, because that’s putting the urban and the city resources up for grabs so that people can also use public space, and use civic spaces as one way of doing this on their own.  Creating public value from their own spheres is one of the more interesting conversations that cities should get into.  Though we’re still a little bit stuck in our modernist paradigms, if you will, and the way that we’re thinking of both cities and governments.

I wonder what your sense would be of the state of health of our imagination in 2018?

I think the state of imagination in 2018 is quite paradoxical in nature.  On one hand, and I see this in Mexico City, I think that we are lacking a vision of possibilities.  As many political scientists have said, it seems that capitalism has left us with a sense that there is no alternative to these monolithic realities and global realities that we’ve been creating.

Where I find hope is possibly no longer in the big utopias of creating a huge alternative to capitalism, if you will, but what happens with the heterotopias in places as diverse and as vast as Mexico City.  So, right now, to name just one example, we’ve been researching with Pablo Landa Ruiloba – a fantastic anthropologist – different forms of governance and public participation and social movements that have sprung up across Mexico City in the last 30, 40 years and that have been quite fundamental in rethinking the way small communities are working.

Mexico City is so different in all of its territories that we’ve been finding really interesting examples of communities coming together and creating their own tiny social political systems, if you will.  Very much akin with what you were mentioning, of figuring out on their own what are the economies?  What do we want?  How do we relate to government?  Can we create new notions of housing?  Can we think about co-ops and social economies and social solidarities and all sorts of things?

These are happening in tiny corners all across Mexico City.  This is a really interesting question for imagination partly because they haven’t necessarily been visible – there has been an advantage that they’ve flown under the radar, and in a certain sense have not been co-opted by larger systems.  On the other hand, if we don’t spell these out and give them more visibilities, at large we keep on being stuck in the reigning paradigm because we don’t know that this is possible.

I’m quite curious to know if the rest of Mexico City found out that other communities across Mexico City were doing this or that, how would that actually influence a learning curve of us being able to take on bits and pieces to make up our own versions of social and urban realities from the micro-territories onwards?

One of the things that we’ve been experimenting with lately is trying to revamp participatory budgets in Mexico City for these purposes – to make them more into social R&D instead of what they are now, which just like more of a performance of democracy where people end up painting a wall, or buying lighting, or getting police cars without policemen.  Which is fine, but that should come out of other budgets because participatory budgets in Mexico City – and we have $5 million a year and fund more than 2,000 projects – were in their origin actually thought to be ways of local governance, of the community being able to identify on their own what were some of the challenges and opportunities of their neighbourhoods and then being able to generate governance structures around them with the help of government.

So imagine $10 million and 2,000 projects for social R&D if this works correctly.  We’ve been finding positive deviances, as a friend would say.  Of saying, “Okay, it’s not working well in general, but what are the places where we have projects that have been quite successful?  And why were they successful?” – working the other way round.

I’m sure you heard that Finland about 3 years ago – it was all over the news – that they had this super interesting experiment of creating senior homes that were also day care for children, so creating all sorts of really interesting social dynamics where everybody ended up benefiting.  It was exponential in its impact.  This actually happened more than 8 years ago in Mexico City, with participatory budgeting in one of the poorest neighbourhoods, and this was actually a citizen driven project.

We’ve been finding many projects like this, that actually spell out different ways that communities could create public value for their spaces.  The thing is news doesn’t travel.  In other cities when one project comes about, let’s say Boston remakes its public market, I have the feeling that it has a way of being able to change the sense of self of a city.

In Mexico City really, really, really interesting things happen on many corners, but since we don’t necessarily know about them, or because it’s very difficult to own the city in its entirety in our head, let alone in our physical body, it becomes very difficult for these ideas to travel and to build up on each other.  We have an amazing history of communal practices.  Everything from agriculture to economic co-ops, to indigenous sways of doing governance and democracy.  But we have not analysed them deeply enough because in terms of imagination, unfortunately, we’ve been chasing dreams – a notion of progress of the first world – instead of looking our social composition in the eye and being able to build on that.

One other example of a project that we’re going to be working on next year with one of Mexico City’s foremost biologists Luis Zambrano is in Xochimilco, which is the rural part of Mexico City.  It’s actually one of the places that has been doing agriculture in the same way for almost 600 years – in the way that the Aztecs planted, made little islands on the lake, chinampas – that are incredibly efficient ways of creating organic produce.

If you want to talk about urban agriculture, maybe it’s not necessarily rooftops in New York of 10,000 square metres, but actually hectares and hectares of floating agricultural gardens that used to be insanely productive and that actually inspired the aquaponics movement that as you probably know is one of the more contemporary practices for agriculture.  But we’re losing our historical knowledge because the big companies are coming in and convincing the chinamperos, as we call them, to use fertilisers that are in turn contaminating the river, that are in turn making the produce less healthy and not organic, that are in turn making the economies of scale not function.

You know, we could get economies of scale if we went for organic, but not competing with bigger producers of tomatoes let us say.  In a certain sense I have the feeling that we need to both dive deep into the past to rescue an imagination that we’ve been losing because of the prevalent global imagination, and at the same time we need to be thinking about how that DNA pertains to a possible futures and to keep idiosyncrasy alive and know that those futures don’t necessarily have to be the future of New York, or the future of London, but actually futures for and from Mexico City.  This is something that if we don’t take as a challenge, it’s very easy to be co-opted by other types of imagination.

Do you see what you do as being a ‘Ministry of Imagination’? If other places, other cities, if the Mayor of London, for example, got in touch and said we need a Ministry of Imagination, or even if the national Mexican government got in touch and said we need a Ministry of Imagination on a national scale, what would your advice be?  Where would you start?  What would they do? 

In many ways one of the exercises we’ve been most intrigued by is how do we think about the creative ethos that is so alive and present in art and culture, and this capacity to make reality malleable, and bring that ethos into government and into fields and places that are not necessarily thought of as creative?

How does that creative ethos not only pertain to creating an exhibition, or a performance, or a temporal urban intervention, or an artist plopping a statue in public space, but actually into deeper questions and deeper social and urban articulations.  This has been quite interesting because all of the projects that we have been doing always have that component of saying how do we instigate imagination around this?

There’s a very practical thing that we need to think about more deeply in terms of government that we’ve been calling legible policy that I might turn into tangible policy, which is many times when new policy comes about, since, where there are “costs” such as reducing speeding, reducing the maximum velocity of cars in certain neighbourhoods, we complain like hell, we hate it, we don’t want to do it.  We want to see how we trick the system, we change our licence plates, we spray something on it so that the cameras can’t read the licence plate (all of this is true) without knowing that this is actually to our own detriment.

Traffic accidents, to give you a very specific example, are the leading cause of death in children and adults across Mexico, and the second in Mexico City.  It’s dire circumstances.  But the thing is we’re not necessarily being able to create a space where people can understand the complex systems, like how one thing pertains to another thing, how something as small as reducing speed actually has an effect on our day to day life.  Has its consequences but also has its futures.

How do we start not only being able to give ways that people can digest complex systems, but also understand their agency within them?  How do we let them enter the story as well, especially when we’re thinking of governance structures where it’s not only the place of government to create better societies but it’s the place for the whole of society to do so?  On one hand there’s a very practical thing that we’ve been jumping into, saying how do we actually create these spaces where people can envision what the challenges at hand are?

And then there’s a part that’s much more speculative if you will, of basically trying to think that imagination is not a luxury.  And that might be governmental, as I mentioned before, to think about political imagination and the way that we are provoking discussions and the types of projects that we create that many times can scale not because of these methodological, more engineered ways of scaling, but because you create objects of desire, if you will, that will then go on to take on a life of its own.

That’s something we’ve been trying quite a bit at the Lab.  We also actually inaugurated, because of the survey that I mentioned, a department called Urban Futures that is trying to think out loud about how you create a vision for a megalopolis at the same time that we know inherently that it cannot be a monolithic future.  What do these heterotopias mean as well in terms of how communities are imagining themselves forward?  That said, some of this is very practical, some of it is theoretical.

I still think that there is work to be done in being much more bold about how governments can think of a Ministry for Imagination, and we’re only just beginning that conversation.  We’ve had very good intuitions and very interesting intuitions of what could be possible, but it’s one of those blue oceans if you will.

I have the feeling that people that are professionally doing future studies and futures thinking and future making have only just put a dent in how that feeds back into the system and how that feeds into government and into society.  At one point in time I had a fellowship with the Institute for the Future, and one of the things that I proposed, and then no longer had time for, was creating an Office of Fictions and Futures.  Of basically putting into play that our fictions are not necessarily antagonistic to reality or the opposite of reality, but again, that many times our futures are actually built on our fictions, so how do we build with that and engage with that a little bit more deeply?

We’ve also been bringing artists into many of our projects that deal with mobility, that deal with public space, etcetera, to always try to get that sensation of the future to come through very specific projects.  One of them would be our interventions in public space for children, that even though they’re very small, have been really giving us interesting clues towards what does it mean to create spaces for the community, especially with children involved, and to have idiosyncrasy be part, still, of the way that we intervene in public space with the community in mind.  And coming up with new typologies and urban forms instead of just thinking that we need to copy paste playgrounds or the way that we do public space, etc.  That has been quite intriguing.

But again, to be honest, to sum it up, you’ve given me good food for thought that I should think about a little bit further, because that was the intention in the beginning, and yes it has been important, but I do think that we still need to take it 20 steps forward.  We really need to intensify that and explore it much more deeply.  The thing is when you come into government the expectations are such of being practical, and efficient, and service orientated, that in a certain sense I think we lose sight of these other explorations that need to happen with a little bit more openness.

In the next evolution of the Lab, it’s one of the things that I will be working much more deeply on, and hopefully be able to be slightly more bold and outlandish in the type of explorations that we’re doing.  That’s the first part.

If I had to advise another city on a Ministry for the Imagination, the first steps would be very akin to what we’ve done.  I would definitely look for a trans-disciplinary group.  I would look for creating a team of people that are willing to explore the gaps, the gaps between the conversations that are being had, the gaps between the conceptual spaces that we’ve already created, and jump into new ways of thinking about cities, because I still think that these worlds are very divided, and will need translators in between.

I find very provocative and exciting stuff happening in the art world but that have no influence whatsoever many times in the ways that we’re creating realities in our cities and our societies.  On the other hand, I find there are people, let’s say in mobility, that have great ideas and very practical ideas of how a transportation system should move, but then again they’re not taking into account the social component.  They’re not taking into account that in many ways cities are about social dynamics, even more so than the physical and built environment, and that if we keep it reined in, and only think about ourselves in charge of the physical infrastructure, we’re not necessarily thinking about the true essence of cities, which is in the end those social dynamics that get layered upon the physical city.  So in a certain sense, I would keep it open.

We have a new project coming up in November that’s called ‘The Experimentalists: Cities, Political Imagination and Social Creativity’ which is interviewing quite a few people across the fields that have been doing these hybrid practices in different corners and in different ways.  Sometimes a little bit more slanted towards arts and culture and the humanities, sometimes a little bit more slanted towards urban practices, or social practices, but have in their seed form this idea of these heterotopias that I was talking about, of people experimenting with different ways of being in the world, that take into account the practicalities, but also that take into account the type of imagination that is coming out of those practices, the type of meaning that gets created.

How we latch on to these projects, or don’t, how they leave us indifferent.  What I would love for Mexico City, for example, is that instead of having a concrete idea, especially from within government of what an unmovable and closed utopia looks like, is how do you open up space, and how do you signal possibility instead… so people can finish those sentences in their own way, and basically help us create a mega urban lab, if you will, of people experimenting with different forms across the city.

This means having the city become an enabling space.  It means thinking about experimental cities.  It means thinking of policy and thinking of the role of government and the way we interact with society in a very different fashion. The next step, really, rather than saying, “This is what we imagine, this is government telling us which way we should go” is how do you have the city in and of itself become that enabling space?  How do you democratise imagination and possibility?  How do you relate and think of talent and the role of government vis-à-vis the creative capacity of its society?

I have the feeling that we first would need to go into a lot of research, and a lot of experimentation on smaller micro-scales, which is something we have been doing at the Lab, and then blow that up into larger scales.  Because I know places such as Dubai have been doing interesting projects in terms of imagine the future, but then again, is Dubai too locked up into a certain social-economic system?  I remember in Dubai they had this thing of the pop-up city, that you could just 3D print cities, and buildings.  That’s actually the modernist dream of 40 years ago that already exploded in our hands.

I have the feeling that the social imagination really needs to take a much longer space in the way that we’re thinking of our futures, from the institutions and out.

So after several years of the Lab, and working with the Mayor, and the Mayor, who very bravely and imaginatively said, “Here you go, Gabriela, create something, what journey has it taken him on, do you think?  How has it changed how he governs the city?  What sort of impact has it had more widely in the city’s government, do you think?  Are you viewed as the weird department of strange people, or are you seen as being an integrated part of the local government?

I think both, and in many lovely ways actually.  We’re definitely seen as the weird department, but instead of that being, “I don’t get you, so keep away”, it’s rather been a conversation of, “I don’t fully get you, and I don’t fully know what you do, but I’m intrigued, so if you come knocking on my door, I will very probably open up a space for a conversation and to work hand-in-hand.”

In a certain sense it’s opened up a conversation that did not exist before.  Ministers that have been working in their fields many times for 20 years or so are suddenly not antagonistic to working, for starters, with my team, that as I mentioned, is young.  Imagine a minister, all set in his ways, I mean just the Minister of Mobility overseas the travel for 14 million people a day.  You can imagine Ministers of Mexico City are not necessarily like ministers elsewhere.  We have a bureaucracy of 280,000 people, and that’s just the government bureaucracy.  So seeing them working hand in hand with my young and talented team, and working in very different ways, has been to be honest an incredibly joyful experience.

In terms of the Mayor himself, I have been very impressed how he has let me run with things that were very important to his agenda, because I get why he lets me work in marginalised communities and create different typologies of public space.  Because if that explodes in our hands, and it’s difficult for it to do so, in the worse-case scenario, it’s uninteresting.  For us it’s kind of tragic, but not for the rest of the city, or for him.  But he has also let me propose things for things that are incredibly visible, sometimes incredibly delicate, and he has let me run with it.

Do you have any last thoughts about imagination and its importance and how to nurture it that I haven’t asked you the right question for? 

My very brief thought on the importance of imagination is that I think we still think of it as a luxury, and we still think of it as divorced from reality as if imagination and reality had no touching points, when many times it’s the basis of the future realities to come, and hence should be, I believe, taken both very seriously as well very playfully.

In terms of cities, We should not only be thinking about building cities for the human body, but also for the human imagination.  What does it mean to create environments that prompt imagination, that signal possibility, and that basically make presence, especially in the more marginalised communities of our societies?

Being able to generate a sense of agency and possibility of moulding our own futures and our own lives and our own environments is one of the most important assets that a society could have because we need to distribute this.  We’re saying that lone players are not enough, that monolithic ideologies or utopias are not enough.  I believe that the more that we distribute the capacity to imagine different futures, the better off that we will be in general.  And that it will also be a place to come together.  Talking about our future and what is possible is space where we can also deal with our present day tensions.



  1. tony buck
    October 13, 2018

    this is great stuff, thank you Rob and Gabriella

  2. Nadia
    December 30, 2019

    Is the Laboratorio para la Ciudad still active? I couldn’t find any updates by them past 2018. Thank you.

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