Since the early 1990s, culture and creative industries have been seen as means to revitalise urban areas. With the concepts of the creative class and the creative city, culture has been positioned as an attractor to all kinds of other businesses. However, as recognised in the past decade, culture’s impact on Northern American and European cities has been ambiguous: while its instrumentalisation has often led to tangible results in the field of real estate through the gentrification, commercialisation and touristification of neighbourhoods, the inherent creativity and imagination of artists and cultural producers have rarely found their way to effectively inseminate other professional fields, logics of co-existence or ways of life.
Culture’s real impact is in changing people’s mindsets, through opening new spaces in people’s lives for new thoughts, sensibilities and connections. While culture in anthropological sense refers to ways of seeing the world and all activities within a society, culture-led urban regeneration has often been working with a more restricted idea of culture, drawing borders around cultural institutions, artist spaces and performance venues, and occasionally extending these borders to include places of culture-related consumption. However, if cultural innovators want to affect society outside art and cultural venues, they have to infiltrate other realms, lending their tools and way of thinking to activities outside the cultural realm. In order to make these other fields more susceptible to embrace the sensibility, receptiveness and empathy of cultural workers, we have to better understand how we can build new connections and exchange between culture and “non-culture.” For this, we need to explore the service gaps, local needs and underused resources in a given area.
On a grey Spring day, I visited the offices of MEET Perspectives, a consultancy company that participates in the CUP4Creativity project. Just a short tram ride from Bartók Béla Avenue, MEET’s office is located a few steps from the Danube river, a presence that gives the company some air and perspective beyond its daily routine. I was received by László Ágoston, a sociologist turned business consultant, who showed me around in the organisation’s office, offering a great diversity of spaces for meetings, group work, one-to-one encounters or individual concentration.
Ágoston, in his early 40s, has a portfolio ranging from classical sociological surveys, opinion polls, service design and participatory processes. He co-founded MEET with a group of design strategists to put their knowledge in the service of private businesses as well as municipalities. MEET is an engaged proponent of service design, an approach that puts current or prospective users of services in the centre of project planning, implementation and management. As a result of “making sense of the reality of stakeholders,” as the organisation’s website announces it, MEET promises to “build services people love.” Such an approach, Ágoston claims, results in products and processes that correspond to user needs and preferences. “It is self-evident for designers in industrial design or commercial design that one should not start designing something from an expert point of view, but look at the perspectives of the people involved as a starting point,” explains Ágoston. “From there, you can identify problems, challenges and solutions to those challenges. In any product or service, it is crucial to incorporate the perspective of customers, users, whom we have to serve with our work and efforts.”
MEET, although providing consultancy services to public and private organisations, does not look at itself as a consultancy in the classical sense. “We are not, and don't want to be consultants who tell you what to do and how to do it,” underlines Ágoston. “We bring a process and an approach, we guard it, and we go through it together. It is very important that our partners bring their internal organisational and sectoral knowledge and we add the knowledge framework and the result is a good and beautiful solution.” This is indeed an important perspective when designing interactions and exchange between different groups that inhabit the same neighbourhood but have very little connection by default. Through understanding better the role of MEET in CUP4Creativity, we can have a better grasp of some of the less tangible dimensions of the project: the importance of relationships in a local ecosystem.
Service design as a concept was developed in the early 2000s to mark the difference of the design process between classical (industrial) products and services. While industrial designers can define most aspects and uses of a classical design object, service designers conceive a more holistic experience by anticipating different behavioural patterns and creating a variety of scripts for the interaction between the user and the service provider.
Utilising the service design approach requires an in-depth inquiry into current and prospective user preferences. Thus, in essence, service designers are (social) scientists trying to understand people, their needs and preferences in different contexts. “In design thinking,” explains Ágoston, “based on the double diamond methodology, we start always with research that provides a lens to look into the context that we want to understand. Based on that, we make strategic maps, firstly, then secondly, one can look at solutions, developing a concept always started from a stakeholder perspective.” This is then followed by a filtering based on viability and feasibility, where viability refers to how well it fits with the business, sustainability or initiative in question and feasibility to whether there is sufficient monetary, time, technological or human resources available.
Service design turns the classic urban design process upside down. In more traditional urban transformation projects, the lack of consultation with local residents and other stakeholders can prove costly and result in a lack of trust. Even in those processes that include community participation, there is an expert – an architect, landscape architect or urban designer – who ultimately designs the new urban realm and then discusses it with residents. A service design approach turns this logic around by starting with interviews, observations and analyses that serve as a basis for identifying the various attitudes of stakeholders, their interactions and relationship with the area in question. This does not directly lead to an architectural concept but to insights from the users’ viewpoint that can inform the architectural concept and can be discussed at various platforms.
If we look at the municipality as a service – government as a service –, designing the service based on the needs and preferences of people is pertinent. However, public administrations often have bad incentive structures and tend to promote risk-averse behaviour. Therefore it is important to align the work of public servants better with local needs and to transform municipalities into more agile public service provider entities.
MEET engaged in CUP4Creativity at various levels. The Urban Innovative Actions-financed project was conceived to create an environment prone to innovation and experimentation, with a strong focus on connecting residents, cultural organisations, artists, creatives and technology entrepreneurs via their needs, resources and services. In this context, MEET undertook research to support the design of the new art & tech centre Adaptér and the digital platform Insert, by exploring the demand and supply sides around the platform, identifying potential user profiles and examining existing and possible connections between different local actors. MEET’s qualitative research was interwoven with the quantitative research of KÉK, another partner in the consortium, and the two methods did effectively support each other to create a more comprehensive and thorough picture of the Újbuda district, its cultural offers, needs and potential connection points.
In order to understand the impact of an intervention in a neighbourhood, one needs to understand better how the area and its services function before any action. To pave the way for the Insert platform and Adaptér in Újbuda, MEET set itself to explore the district’s cultural offer, its key target groups, residents’ relationship with the municipality and its cultural institutions, as well as their needs and the ways the future platform could serve these. The organisation also examined the appeal of new services potentially offered by the platform, like matching users with events according to their interests.
In a first “as is” workshop with consortium partners, MEET mapped the stakeholders of the future ecosystem around the platform and the new venues, with specific attention to different segments of the target group: local residents including students and pensioners, people working in the area, local patriots or activists, as well as artists. In the subsequential fieldwork that lasted more than two months, MEET interviewed over 120 people evenly distributed across the twelve neighbourhoods of the district, reached through networks of acquaintance but also spontaneous encounters. MEET members sometimes stumbled upon music groups that were formed via Facebook, a group of elderly table tennis players, organising their access to a neighbouring school’s gym, or a father manually collecting arts and crafts events for his kids across the district from various platforms. “We have found exactly the kind of initiatives that Insert wants to support or propagate,” explains Ágoston. “And if we can understand the driving force, the laws, the effects, the difficulties that affect these initiatives without insert, then we can design a much more intelligent instrument to support it.”
How can we build on this knowledge of actors in Újbuda, in creating new instruments, venues and platforms to connect them? How do different people and different initiatives connect organically and how can this connection be supported and promoted? One of the main lessons of MEET’s research is that activism of all sorts is already omnipresent in Újbuda, especially in the Bartók District – a feature all the more apparent if compared to other districts of Budapest. This scene of activist residents and local patriots has been established through numerous bottom up and grassroots initiatives, with a lot of enthusiasm, but in spontaneous and rather ad-hoc fashion. The research also concluded that in order to start establishing networks between individuals and initiatives or further build the existing ecosystem, the project has to target those who are already active and make them interested in bringing in new people and further initiatives. “We proposed a strategy to address first the people who already act as activists and catalysts of local change,” recalls Ágoston, “and then they can help us reach other people who are susceptible to mobilisation.”
Another important lesson from the research is that there is no sharp line between cultural and “non-cultural” initiatives or activities. “Are the people attending a botany workshop doing something cultural? The very fact that people are doing something they are interested in,” explains Ágoston, “is a fertile ground for doing other things. After all, our task is to find people who are good at something and have organised themselves to create something from scratch. And to have a community to connect with another community, because this is how culture is transmitted.”
Such an inclusive idea of culture helps ecosystemic thinking in a city or neighbourhood. If we take into account the impact of culture on “non-culture” and the other way around, we can better understand existing and possible value flows between different fields and actors, and we can conceive denser networks of collaboration beyond disciplines, strengthening social cohesion and countering polarisation. A more open understanding of cultural services – highlighting culture’s interaction with local commerce, education, sports, social services, ecological transition, for example – leads to a concept of cultural institutions that goes beyond a set of physical venues. “For me, the INSERT programme is a cultural centre 4.0,” suggests Ágoston. “When a municipality understands that a cultural centre is not a building, a property with a finite number of rooms, but an integrated platform, which can respond to and support very local needs along certain values, in a transparent way, throughout the whole area.”
In this understanding, the outcomes of CUP4Creativity – the future Adaptér, the renovated artist studios and Insert are flagship venues in a broader cultural network spread across the neighbourhood. With the help of new connections generated by the new platform, events and spaces, these venues are complemented by other underused spaces turned event venues, such as private living rooms, storage spaces, garages, company meeting rooms, making the case for a more distributed idea of culture.