a) The call for the Transformative Cities People’s Choice Award
Although it may seem counterintuitive, what is least relevant about the awards as a research and dissemination tool is the award itself. While it is true that the award can influence the behavior of those involved in the initiative by offering incentives,8 the difference—be it in quantity or quality—between awards does not significantly impact the achievement of the learning and dissemination objectives. In fact, an award may involve large sums of money, but lack validity criteria or proper evaluation procedures, so that it would not matter who won: if the competition has not been fair and transparent, the award will lack the legitimacy necessary for the winner to be considered as such by all. And vice versa, if the award is fair and prestigious, winning it will be merit enough.
Therefore, announcing the prize that will be awarded is not what is most important about the call. The most important aspect is defining who is eligible to win it. That is, every call is preceded by a definition of what is considered to merit the award. For example, in the case of the social innovation awards, it is first necessary to define what is understood by social innovation. And that definition is then reflected in the application form, as that form contains the questions regarding the elements that will allow the jury to decide whether or not the initiative meets the criteria.
The Transformative Cities People’s Choice Award differs from the rest in that it does not have nor does it pretend to have or impose an indisputable or universal definition of what a transformative city is. We understand that the future worth fighting for is a world in which many worlds fit, so local particularities, in terms both of culture, history, and political and economic conditions, will tend to mark the differences between the initiatives that are recognized. Therefore, what are awarded are the efforts that are worth observing closely, because it is from them that important lessons can be learned.
In the Transformative Cities People’s Choice Award we view cities as a space for fighting for the basic rights necessary to live a decent life. So we understand that the transformative element lies in recognizing that these struggles have managed to articulate a social majority that has been able to reconfigure social relations, correlations of forces, and a sense shared by the majority, expressed both in what is believed possible and in securing it through rights and public institutions.
That does not mean that the award lacks criteria, values, or ideals that we look for in the candidates. We believe that transformative cities will be democratic and feminist in nature, geared toward developing a post-capitalist world; they will be based on non-profit oriented practices sensitive to planetary limits; and they will be built on social empowerment. These practices will have measurable results, as they will have been implemented successfully. And, finally, and very importantly, they will be practices that can be replicated in other regions and places.
Transformation is not conceived as an ultimate end or goal, but rather as a process of transition toward a post-capitalist, feminist, and sustainable future, which will enable the survival of the species in the face of the civilizational disaster brought on by climate change and the inadequate responses offered by capitalism and its latest form—neoliberal financial globalization—or by the other systems that aspire to replace it—multistakeholderism led by transnational corporations or authoritarian and exclusionary nationalism.
That is, the transformation that is sought is a change that is achieved through the reinvention of local politics, in which social organization around concrete demands manages to alter the correlation of forces, so that such demands are met in a fair and democratic way, as universal rights rather than commercial privileges, and whose institutionalization succeeds in disputing the lack of alternatives, presenting an alternative future, the real utopias that are already being implemented.
This is, therefore, one of the main differences between the Transformative Cities People’s Choice Award and other awards, as instead of calling for initiatives that meet a previously established definition of what a transformative city is, we seek to learn from a broad and diverse transformation process carried out at the local level around certain concrete demands, which are our award categories, namely, water, food, energy, and housing. We consider these four to be essential demands for the lives of people anywhere on the planet. We could say that together they refer to a political struggle for survival, which makes them necessary and vital for any political community.
Choosing concrete demands as categories for the awards also allows for a comparative analysis between different regions of the world, despite differences in culture, economic contexts, or the scale of local spaces. Access to these basic rights is a universal need. Under the hegemony of neoliberalism, the decentralization of basic services at the local level was promoted, and the privatization of the provision of these services was recommended as part of the structural reforms and the governance model known as new public management.
There are also a couple of strategic components involved in the selection of demands as the unit of analysis. First, the project aims to view the case studies through the lens of Ernesto Laclau’s interpretation of the concept of hegemony developed by Antonio Gramsci, and as a political hypothesis it posits that the articulation of a social majority can be achieved around certain concrete demands. Second, it considers that there is a utopian dimension in the choice of demands as the unit of analysis, as calling for their satisfaction presupposes the firm belief that such satisfaction is possible. There is a demand or claim for something that is lacking; hence the utopian element (an absence or a “no place”). And what makes this struggle a “real utopia” lies precisely in the fact that what was thought impossible in some contexts has become a reality in others. We believe that this motivation to make real what others say is only an abstract and unattainable utopia is a part of any strategy of the struggle for hegemony.
The social struggle for transformation in the material field of service provision is accompanied by a cultural narrative, which confronts the old idea that there is no alternative, so that the struggle consists in affirming that there is an alternative and that it is only not possible because of those who govern. In other words, it is presumed that the state of affairs need not be as it is (it is not natural), and that another state of affairs is possible. That is what is meant by “utopian” thinking.
Thus, the call for award candidates and the questions posed in the application form are not intended to determine who meets a certain definition of transformative city; rather they seek to gather information on real utopias. To that end, two distinct but constituent moments of politics are taken into account: on the one hand, the challenging or destabilizing moment in which citizens take to the streets to call for the satisfaction of certain demands; and, on the other, the constituent or institutional moment, during which the satisfaction of the demand is achieved in a transformative way through community organization, the implementation of public policies, the recognition of certain rights, or the establishment of public institutions or bodies tasked with satisfying that demand.
b) The application form and the research questions
From the above it follows that the most relevant information for achieving the goal of learning and dissemination of knowledge to which the award seeks to contribute will be found in the “Application Form” that the initiatives must fill in to compete. This is the most important instrument for gathering information, since the kind of knowledge that will be disseminated will depend on what is asked there.
As a methodological instrument, the application form is a semi-structured interview, which gathers relevant information for the process of selection of finalists, but above all for the process of learning and transferring knowledge. Each question in the form corresponds to certain aspects that are considered necessary in order to understand and replicate the initiative.
Generally speaking, the form that the initiatives must fill in to be eligible for the award serves two purposes:
- It provides information that the jury needs to be able to evaluate and compare the different initiatives.
- It provides useful information for anyone interested in replicating the initiative in other contexts.
Thus, the questions are designed to obtain information that describes the various elements of the initiative and, at the same time, show clearly and with verifiable evidence that it has succeeded in transforming its environment.
The exercise is not without its difficulties, which range from translating different initiatives into comparable (quantitative) terms to the limited space provided in the forms to describe initiatives that are always complex and diverse in nature (due to history, scale, culture, economy, etc.). The questions posed in the form are small hermeneutic tools, that is, tools to interpret and understand the information, make sense of the different local experiences, translate them so that they can be interpreted in different contexts, and try to express in the same terms initiatives that are essentially different.
To that end, the Transformative Cities People’s Choice Award has drawn on different debates conducted in the social sciences, particularly those in the field of public policies, policy transfer, and narrative analysis of public policies, considering very useful the analytical distinction of four stages involved in public policy:9 formulation of the problem; public policy design; implementation; and subsequent evaluation.
Based on this analytical distinction, and with the aim of offering relevant information to government decision-makers, as well as activists, professionals, and citizens in general who participate in the decision-making of projects, we have included different questions in the form, corresponding to the presentation of the problem, the design and implementation of the initiative, the details of its execution in relation to the participation of various stakeholders, as well as the resources used and the results obtained.
We are aware that although the information required in the study of public policies is necessary, it is not enough for social change. Hence our interest in also asking about the kind of strategies used to articulate a social majority and achieving a correlation of forces favorable to the initiative. The form, therefore, poses questions about the different strategies of the social movements and various political actors who have decided to organize as a community, participate in elections, or explore institutional spaces, that is, the so-called “government of social movements.”10
As public problems are by definition complex and exceed the legal boundaries of municipalities, the form asks for references to other laws and public policies at higher administrative levels, whether regional or national. This is because there are certain problems, such as those connected with water in Latin America, that, pursuant to the respective national constitutions, fall under the exclusive competence of municipal governments.11 This does not mean that the municipal government is the only actor involved or the only one that can solve the problem autonomously. Thus, identifying the actors and their roles beyond the local level is also part of the research conducted by the award.
The ultimate objective of the award is without a doubt most explicitly expressed by the form’s last questions, which refer to the lessons learned and what can be shared with others. Serving as inspiration for other initiatives is part of the objective of the award, but it is especially so for its corresponding Atlas of Utopias. What matters is providing useful tools for those wishing to bring about a transformation of their local space. In this sense, the application form is meant to serve as that toolbox, where the different lessons learned in each initiative can be grouped.
Taken together, the questions on the form are accounts that are assembled according to local needs, mosaics that can be examined as a whole or piece by piece. The dissemination of knowledge and possible learning opportunities will depend on the degree in which the recognized initiative responds to the needs, actors, resources, and correlation of forces of those wishing to implement it. In the meantime, with the award we aim to offer information based on our understanding of the current debates on local transformation.
In sum, the application forms12 are a research tool that allows us to contribute empirical and contrasted information regarding, at least, the following issues or areas of public interest:
- Learning about the strategies that have been used during the social mobilization for the satisfaction of certain demands essential for survival; that is, how the initiatives have succeeded in articulating a social majority around the concrete demands for water, energy, housing, and food.
- Identifying the type of institutions that have been created, how the rights for accessing the different demands have been recognized, and the government mechanisms established for satisfying them; or in other words, what new form of governance has emerged from the interaction of social movements and local governments.
- Contributing to the process of knowledge generation and lesson learning, identifying what kind of information may be relevant to those struggling to satisfy the same demands, and how that information can be presented so that it is intelligible despite the cultural and historical differences that characterize the planet’s diverse geographies.
- Participating in the pedagogical process of translation and learning, by offering the information in a disaggregated manner, in different formats and narratives, taking into account that those who participate in local politics are diverse actors, with different approaches, interests, rationalities, ethical or even epistemological assumptions (because to the plurality of contexts we must also add the plurality of actors that characterize this global struggle).
We believe that each of these research questions is well reflected in the application form, thus fulfilling the research and knowledge dissemination objectives that we set for the awards. But it is still necessary to explain how, based on this information, we have managed to create a competition or award, turning the learning objectives into comparable and quantifiable elements to establish a scale to determine the finalists and the winner. To that end, an evaluation process consistent with our objectives was established, which sets the Transformative Cities People’s Choice Award apart from other awards.
c) The evaluation process and the jury
The evaluation process—that is, those involved in the evaluation and the criteria applied—is what determines the validity and legitimacy of the recipient of the award, as well as the possibility of replicating it. And it is precisely there—in the evaluation criteria and the members of the jury— that we find the ideological inclinations, the moral values, the political identification, and the assumptions, both ontological and epistemological or theoretical, on which every award is based.
No award can be granted without an evaluation, as that is what all awards are about: comparing and deciding which initiatives are better than others, or which best meet the definition established beforehand. But, as noted above, we do not have—nor do we want to have—a definition of what a transformative city is. Nor do we want to compare initiatives in search of “the best.” How, then, can we compare and recognize some initiatives over others to determine which are the winners?
To solve this difficulty we have availed ourselves of an evaluation form oriented toward learning rather than competing, and of an interdisciplinary jury or evaluators team formed by members from around the world, who through a peer review exercise identify for us which initiatives “are worth learning from,” instead of determining “which of all is the best.”
To give a clear idea of this particular feature of the evaluation process of the Transformative Cities People’s Choice Award and the important role of the jury, we like to use a metaphor: if all real utopias that are currently being developed in the world were stars in the sky, the award finalists would be certain constellations focused by a telescope —the Atlas of Utopias—with the aim of observing them up close and understanding them better. There are, no doubt, many more and it is immensely beautiful to see the sky full of stars. But this can also be a problem, as we have neither the time nor the capacity (both physical and cognitive) to look at them all up close at the same time.
We have thus asked a group of people, who are different but equally committed to social change, to help us “calibrate that telescope,” to help us focus on those stars that merit a closer, more thorough look. This group of people constitutes the jury of the award:13 activists, academics, trade unionists, and civil society organizations, both local and international, who after a peer-review exercise, as in scientific journals, recommend the initiatives that “merit a closer look.”
The work of the jury consists in carefully reading the forms to distinguish which initiatives merit publication in the Atlas of Utopias because they offer information that the jury considers valuable and significant enough to be disseminated, thus facilitating the drawing of lessons from them. Therefore, the work of the jury does not consist in deciding which initiative is better or worse in terms of its design or results, but in recognizing and recommending those that offer more and better information for those who struggle to transform their local contexts.
The criteria set out in the evaluation form, which the jury must fill in quantitatively to be able to compare and decide which initiatives are the finalists, correspond to the questions on the application form. And their evaluation refers to how much and what type of information is provided. The assessment focuses on whether other contexts share the problem presented; the degree to which the design and implementation of the initiative answers the questions on the application form regarding the public policy elements; the degree of participation of different stakeholders in the process of development and implementation of the initiative; whether the results can be tangibly verified based on the information provided; and whether the political, cultural, and economic strategies are inspiring and deserve to be known in depth.
At the end of the evaluation process, a quantitative score is given based on the qualitative information assessed by the members of the jury. This makes it possible to numerically rate the initiatives that applied for the award, based on the qualitative information they provided in the application form. In other words, we obtain a quantitative result from a qualitative analysis, striving at all times to subordinate the element of competition typical of awards to the objectives of research and dissemination of knowledge of the Transformative Cities People’s Choice Award.
After comparing the results of the evaluation conducted by the members of the jury, three finalists are selected in each category. These three finalists go on to the final round: the People’s Choice Award. In this last stage, the public can vote for their favorite initiative. The winning initiative will thus be the one that receives the highest number of votes from the public. And since the votes are cast online and anyone wishing to do so can participate, the votes come from all over the planet.
The public vote not only allows us to know which are the winning initiatives; it is in itself a strategy for communicating and disseminating the three initiatives per category that the jury has considered most relevant and of interest to be observed further and studied. The process of voting thus becomes a way of disseminating and making known the real utopias that we believe are worth learning from.
Regardless of which initiative is the winner, what is important in terms of disseminating and learning is that the three finalist initiatives in each category will be included in the Atlas of Utopias: the repository of each year’s finalists, which we consider the starting point for anyone interested in learning from transformative initiatives in the categories of water, energy, food, and housing.