19 April 2021

Social Innovation in Urban Development and Lessons Learnt

Social innovations and bottom-up approach to urban development

Social innovation actors have the ambition to transform places and contribute to solutions for societal problems but do not always succeed in their aims. The conversion of the Gundeldinger Feld, a former industrial site, into a neighbourhood centre shows a situation in which a bottom-up initiative played a crucial role. This initiative succeeded in being accepted by all socio-economic and cultural groups. The transformation of the industrial site was unique but provides interesting perspectives on achieving successes and avoiding failures in social innovation processes.

by Georg von Schnurbein, Oto Potluka & Anne Mayer

Social and economic relationships determine the success of the strategies and implementation of social innovations. According to the authors´ literature review, success in urban development relates to (i) stakeholders´ contribution by sharing their political power, expertise, knowledge, and other power with other stakeholders; (ii) building networks; (iii) dialogue among leaders and other stakeholders; (iv) public support and funding.

Gundeldinger Feld in Basel (Switzerland)

The study concerns Gundeldinger Feld in the district of Gundeldingen in Basel (Switzerland). The district is characterised by a high population density (148 persons per hectare), of which foreigners compose about 40%. Moreover, many of the inhabitants are younger than 40 years old and live alone. The social situation in Gundelingen is characterised by higher unemployment than in other districts in Basel (4.2%, rank 12 of 21 in 2019) and higher share of people in need of social assistance (6.8%, rank 14 of 21 in 2019). The Gundeldinger Feld covers an area of over 12,000 square meters, which was the production site of an engineering company. In 2000, production was relocated. The decision caused uncertainty for the city, the landowner, and especially for the neighbourhood community.

When the relocation of the company was announced, a group of five people decided that they wanted to do something with the place. They set up a developing company with the aim to convert this site into a sociocultural neighbourhood. The basic idea was to create a field for urban development and creative experiments when converting the former industrial area.

The whole process took about a decade and the development of ideas continued even after that period. In the first conversion phase (2001-2002), parts of the halls and offices were still rented by the previous owners. During the second phase in the years 2002–2004, a service centre with around 40 offices and workshops, nursery school rooms, a kindergarten, and a playground for children were created. The third planning phase (years 2004–2005) aimed at sustainability and use of renewable sources of energy and energy savings. The ultimate goal was to achieve continuous use of 2,000 watts per person, which is assumed as sufficient for sustainability.

Agents of innovation: vision

The main actor in the case study is the developing company that initiated the project. Two of the five owners lived in the Gundeldinger district. They used their contacts, knowledge, and experience to obtain the first financial support for further development of the complex. Thus, this composition of the owners enabled an emotional distance on the one hand and deep involvement on the other.

The idea was to preserve the buildings of the production site by continuing to use them. The developing company did not take a dominant position. Rather, the idea was to use the area for the local community and to strive to maintain a good quality of life in the Gundeldinger district.

The developing company never claimed full ownership but promoted collective ownership (social entrepreneurship). Legally, it was still owned by a limited number of people, however, the use of the property enabled the empowerment of the stakeholders and property management comparable to a context of collective ownership.

Adopters: dialogue and consent

The early integration of future users is an essential aspect of the project promoted by the developing company. Rooms were never completely remodelled but always finished in cooperation with future tenants, in line with their ideas and needs. Close cooperation with the community enables long-lasting relationships between a diverse constellation of tenants and continues to shape and support the development of the location today. From the beginning, the developing company began to build a network around the community centre, inviting the community to participate in creating new facilities and making the place an open space in a dense neighbourhood.

“From the beginning, the developing company began to build a network around the community centre, inviting the community to participate in creating new facilities and making the place an open space in a dense neighbourhood.”

Between 150 and 250 individuals took part in the initial meetings, and approximately 50 people decided to volunteer. In this way, broad consent was achieved concerning the use of the area. This reciprocity type can be seen as a significant driver of building a socially creative milieu to realize the conceptual idea of a mixture of business, non-profit, and creative industries.

At the beginning of the project, communication between the developing company and the neighbourhood inhabitants needed development and improvement. To this aim, a neighbourhood secretariat was put into place on the site in 2001.

Of course, including many different stakeholder groups and opening up planning steps to many people increases the need for coordination. A time-demanding effort to coordinate diverse interests causes lengthy processes and requires patience from all stakeholders. Additionally, all interests must ultimately be concentrated into one solution that is still economically viable and in compliance with the initial vision of the developing company. Effective participation is only possible in open project structures if it builds on bridging social capital. Thus, entry barriers were low and trust was developed over time.

Diffusion channels

The developing company did not precisely specify what to do and what a community center should look like. These details were developed through communication and interaction with the residents. Understanding and designing urban development as a dialogic and successive negotiation process was an essential component of the project, helping to build trust and acceptance. Projects with large potential for conflict were not realized.

During the change of use, the function followed the space. For example, the cloakrooms and showers of the factory workers were integrated into a hostel. The aim was not to completely change the existing space but to work with the substance of the given building; the developing company sought to preserve the existing architecture and favour the financing of the conversion. This was also an economically viable solution in comparison to a complete reconstruction.

People and space: networks

The idea of creating a community centre in an old production site was a risky endeavour, both economically and socially. From an economic point of view, the developing company had to find tenants for the huge construction halls and office buildings. These activities had to be realisable next to each other. From the social perspective, the local community reacted with reservations regarding the implementation of a diverse and unfamiliar concept in their neighbourhood.

Although the initial plan to generate 80% of tenants from the direct community failed, and the networks had to be extended beyond the district, the local residents adopted the community centre as ‘theirs.’ The reasons for more city-wide tenants were mainly financial. However, as a positive side-effect, the community centre gained wider recognition.

Companies and non-profit organizations in the Gundeldinger Feld provide activities to all community members in high variability. Thus, young families, athletes, partygoers, craftspeople, theatre visitors and many more can spend their time there. The exchange of ideas and values has enabled the emergence of social innovation in Gundeldinger Feld.

“The exchange of ideas and values has enabled the emergence of social innovation in Gundeldinger Feld.”

Not all ideas were eligible. For example, there were technical and construction issues with the passive energy savings during the third planning phase in 2004–2005. The construction restrictions prevented some more ambitious changes (e.g. thin insulation had to be used). Moreover, if some stakeholders came with ideas that met with opposition from other actors, they were not implemented. An example was an investment in the construction of residential houses. Such investment would have diminished the social role of the Gundeldinger Feld, and thus, it was rejected.

Funding: with or without the public sector?

Specific attributes of Gundeldinger Feld concern the minimal role of the public sector. In the year 2001, the city of Basel issued a report, ‘Future Basel,’ that set forth principles of economic, social, and environmental dimensions of local development, including partners from the private sphere and non-profit organizations. Otherwise, the city was not involved in the process. This approach makes the case unique among studies on local urban development.

The authors reveal that innovative development is possible without public sector funding and interventions, while political support was achieved through broad participation. When high social capital is present, the direct coercive power of the public sector is needed only as the provider of a framework.

The development company collected initial funding of 30,000 CHF from Christoph Merian Stiftung for the preparatory work. It enabled snowball effect and finding a private investor. Moreover, voluntary work of stakeholders, and mainly renting the premises in the Gundeldinger Feld made the project viable.

Lessons learned: conditions for success

The study shows that communication with stakeholders is an important element for the success of social innovation. It is mainly about seeking consensus solutions through dialogue, even though this is a time-consuming activity. For the developing company, this meant not pushing through its own ideas but rather making sure that the primary vision of the whole project was fulfilled (sharing power).

It was important to create a wide network of contacts and supporters that allowed new ideas to be brought into the networks. This creation of a network concerned not only Gundelingen but the whole of Basel. As a result, this also helped find funding sources, so it was not necessary to turn primarily to public funding, but the project cost could be covered by private and foundations´ funding.

How can the results of the study be used in other cities? Although each place is unique, the four elements above (dialogue, networks, sharing, funding) can be applied anywhere. In particular, dialogue is considered by the authors to be an essential condition as it will clarify the intentions of the stakeholders and help to find solutions to conflicting situations.

By Georg von Schnurbein, Oto Potluka & Anne Mayer

Center for Philanthropy Studies (CEPS) at the University of Basel

The long version of this study first appeared in the journal Innovation: European Journal of Social Science Research, co-authored by Georg von Schnurbein, Oto Potluka & Anne Mayer of the Center for Philanthropy Studies (CEPS) at the University of Basel published a case study on social innovation in urban development in Gundeldinger Feld in Basel. Their case study offers interesting insights for the philanthropic community.