An Introduction to Sibikwa’s Urban Labs: A Methodology for Collective Change

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By Tonderai Chiyindiko & Caryn Green, 4 September 2023

This article is the fourth in a series of blogs and opinion pieces, providing a context for and presenting research findings from Sibikwa Arts Centre’s Urban Culture, Democracy and Governance Labs. Supported by the Commonwealth Foundation, this Urban Labs initiative is a pilot programme exploring cultural and creative approaches for pragmatic public participation in local policy development and implementation – actioning democracy in local communities across the City of Ekurhuleni.

About Sibikwa’s Urban Labs

The Urban Labs Arts-Based Community Conversations (as it was referred to when conceptualised) but now known as The Urban Culture, Democracy and Governance Labs or simply as “Urban Labs” is a methodology initiated, developed, and implemented by the Sibikwa Arts Centre with support from the Commonwealth Foundation alongside numerous local partners. The programme aims, amongst other things, to explore cultural and creative approaches for pragmatic public participation in local policy development and implementation and to empower active citizenship, facilitate strategic partnership in local governance and promote change action using public participation methods and creative tools – approaches that have been proven to be effective and have a lasting impact.

Why Urban Labs?

Several reasons created conditions for such an initiative to be developed, chief among them being the need for interventions that use culture or creativity as an anchor point in addressing issues of urban development and cultural governance.

The Urban Labs methodology is also a direct response to persisting and prevalent human rights issues in community environments; addressing the causes of public dissatisfaction and mistrust of government, ineffective governance, lack of proper communication and genuine consultation processes, and apathy toward civic participation, agency and actioning of democracy.

One of the key things highlighted in a previous article entitled A return to Afro-centric collaborative cultural governance and urban development in South Africa, is the need for solutions that are indigenous, deeply ingrained in peoples’ values and ways of life, cultural expressions and unapologetically Afrocentric, as existing models in use were not meant for local application given that they were framed and developed from a European or Western cities’ perspective. 

What is the Urban Labs Methodology?

The Urban Labs methodology is premised on Asset Based Community Development, defined by Nurture Development Ltd. as an approach to sustainable community-driven development, identifying and mobilizing existing, but often unrecognised assets, and responding to challenges for the creation of local social improvement and economic development. The approach has been widely used all over the world due to its efficacy and emphasis on ensuring individuals and communities have agency to change their material and lived conditions. 

The programme also draws from the groundbreaking South African Cultural Charter for Small Town and Urban Development of November 2022 among other key documents, intended to facilitate creative and cultural place making at a municipal level, offering a people-centred and integrated approach to addressing local challenges whilst building liveable cities, towns and villages across South Africa.

At the core of the Urban Labs methodology is the understanding that African and by extension South African cities are colonial and apartheid constructs, meaning that the current interventions to challenges urban cities face such as pressure on resources like housing due to unmitigated rural-urban migration, crime, poverty, corruption, and inequality present a serious existential threat. These, among other things have seen cities being unable to keep up with population growth, and the almost always top-down proposed stop-gap measures are wholly insufficient, and infective to deal with such a plethora of crises. Within a South African context this means incessant and oftentimes violent service delivery protests which demonstrate just how much of a fissure exists between local government and the people who they are meant to serve. 

Thus, the Urban Labs methodology is geared at using cultural, creative and applied arts methods to facilitate equitable dialogue, encourage critical and innovative thinking and leverage social capital. The method considerate of cultural norms, attitudes and practices, uses techniques such as Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed – inclusive of newspaper theatre, image theatre and forum theatre – process drama, visual mapping and reflexive activities such as play, prompt cards and design thinking. Creating a platform to engage community members, local organisations as well as local government, the Urban Labs seek to find creative solutions to development issues which affect the quality of life of all people in urban spaces and cities. 

The Urban Labs methodology is not in itself a panacea to all the issues but serves as a good starting point for a different kind of engagement between the stakeholders concerned. Its contribution to the idea of developing and modelling a context-specific and culturally-sensitive participatory governance framework that builds agency and responsibility in all local stakeholders, including government, community members, civil society organisations and the private sector is one which is not only necessary, but urgent.