District Laboratories (‘laboratori di quartiere’) in the City of Bologna

Martina Trettel, Eurac Research

Relevance of the Practice

The district laboratories (laboratori di quartiere) are an initiative of the City of Bologna, started in 2017 and continued each year thereafter. Bologna is a medium-sized city, with 389,009 inhabitants and a density of 2419,87 people per km², and it is the capital city of the Region Emilia-Romagna which strongly promotes participatory instruments and policies. This is demonstrated by the fact that in 2010 the region adopted an organic law on civic engagement in local and regional policymaking[1] which was recently reformed in 2018.

In this participation-friendly environment, Bologna represents an interesting example because it shows a way in which large urban local governments can still manage – despite their size – to involve citizens in local decision-making. It also has to be noted that the City of Bologna, in line with the Region in which it is situated, has a long tradition of cooperative movements, and in the field of public debate and civic participation it has developed a long series of initiatives and shared actions. In the last 15 years Bologna has tried to devise innovative policies for co-designing urban development and taking care of common goods together with citizens.[2]

Description of the Practice

Bologna established in 2005 the Urban Innovation Foundation (previously called Urban Centre Bologna) with the purpose of connecting citizens and policymakers in an efficient and sustainable way. In the framework of the activities of the foundation, the Civic Imagination Office (Ufficio immaginazione civica), in particular, operates as a development and research laboratory and connects the resources, choices and projects of the administration with the needs and capabilities of citizens and communities.

The main tool through which this office operates are the district laboratories that started in 2017. These are organized and managed by the Governance Unit, the city Districts, and the University of Bologna. They are intended as spaces of interaction among public servants of the City of Bologna and organized and non-organized groups of citizens. The aim is to activate and manage participatory processes in order to map, listen, consult, co-design, report and measure what is happening in the neighborhoods of Bologna.[3]

District labs are intended to be permanent. In fact, as stated by one of the project creators Michele d’Alena in an interview: ‘At the beginning of every year we design the team, with the resources, and then we go to the neighborhood to involve the community and enterprises.  We can build up social capital, we can learn new instruments, we can learn with the people how we can do better, and we know every year much more about the city’.[4]

Concretely, the district labs are organized over three different phases, repeated every year.

First, the Civic Imagination Office sets out the strategic guidelines and selects the neighborhoods in which labs should be activated, as they take place every year in different neighborhoods. Secondly, the Office meets the relevant stakeholders of each neighborhood in order to collaboratively identify problems, priorities, available resources and consequently design the framework for the development of each district public space. In a third and final phase, the Office opens the process to all citizens, through the implementation of community engagement initiatives, among others offline and online meetings, performances, neighborhoods walks, bike rides etc., mainly in order to attract the attention of the public to the participatory activities. Furthermore, workshops open to all citizens are organized through the Open Space method to give to all participants the opportunity to advance proposals on how to improve life in the district and discuss these together with the relevant stakeholders and people responsible in the administration (see image). Once all the proposals have been advanced, and project ideas are finally shaped, all residents can vote through a ballot for one winning project in each district. The latter will then be implemented during the year.

Assessment of the Practice

To some extent the district labs are similar to other practices included in this report. It has been pointed out, for example, that they can be seen as an evolution of the regulations on common goods.[5] Moreover, the district labs are in a way also similar to practices of participatory budgeting, as the municipality’s administration devotes some resources to the organization of deliberative gatherings where citizens together with other relevant stakeholders decide which project should be activated in order to improve the life quality of the neighborhood. However, the district labs are something that reaches beyond participatory budgeting by creating a permanent participatory initiative in the different districts, where citizens can meet with different purposes, through the above-mentioned community engagement initiatives, and not only with the aim of identifying specific projects. As for the Open Space method, it is key to know how solutions were elaborated and evaluated during these meetings. This is because the capacity of problem-solving, i.e. the extent to which the outcomes of the participatory processes are both effective in addressing the problem at hand and implementable for the administration, is a crucial indicator for the success or failure of mechanisms involving local populations.[6]

As for the concrete outcomes, it can be said that the district labs produced a number of tangible positive results which are reflected in innovative projects each year and extensive participation. As for the numbers of citizens involved, more than 2,000 took part in the workshops in 2017 and more than 2,500 in 2018. Importantly, the district labs also drew attention to and provided answers for certain non-material needs and they also worked in a way as a recruitment mechanism by collecting competences that the local administration did not have.[7]

The practice can be positively assessed not only by looking at numbers but also given the fact that the district labs have become a permanent part of the municipality’s policymaking structure by redefining the relation between the local administration and citizens. Rather than being only passive information receivers, the latter can be active players able to promote change and innovative solutions for their city.[8]

References to Scientific and Non-Scientific Publications

—— ‘Tornano a Bologna i Laboratori di Quartiere’ (Modena 2000, 21 May 2019) <https://www.modena2000.it/2019/05/21/tornano-a-bologna-i-laboratori-di-quartiere/>

Ciancaglini M, ‘Tra democrazia partecipativa e concertazione. La legge regionale 3/2010 dell’Emilia-Romagna’ (2011) 2 Le Istituzioni del Federalismo 215

D’Alena M, ‘Ripartono i laboratori di quartiere’ (La comunità è il messaggio, 4 April 2020) <http://www.micheledalena.it/2019/04/ripartono-i-laboratori-di-quartiere/>  

—— Beolchi S and Paolazzi S, ‘Civic Imagination Office as a Platform to Design a Collaborative City’ (ServDes2018. Service Design Proof of Concept Conference, Milan, June 2018)

Fletcher S, ‘Civic Engagement and Urban Co-Creation in Bologna (2010-present)’ (Participedia, 7 July 2019) <https://participedia.net/case/5950>

[1] Marco Ciancaglini, ‘Tra democrazia partecipativa e concertazione. La legge regionale 3/2010 dell’Emilia-Romagna’ (2011) 2 Le Istituzioni del Federalismo 215.

[2] Michele d’Alena, Simona Beolchi and Stefania Paolazzi, ‘Civic Imagination Office as a Platform to Design a Collaborative City’ (ServDes2018. Service Design Proof of Concept Conference, Milan, June 2018).

[3] ibid.

[4] See Rob Hopkins, ‘Bologna, the City with a “Civic Imagination Office”’ (resilience, 7 March 2019) <https://www.resilience.org/stories/2019-03-07/bologna-the-city-with-a-civic-imagination-office/>.

[5] Interview with anonymous expert, Faculty of Law, University of Trento (29 June 2021).

[6] Statement by Gianfranco Pomatto, Researcher, IRES Piedmont (LoGov Country Workshop, Public Participation in Local Decision-Making, 19 March 2021).

[7] Interview with anonymous expert, Urban Innovation Foundation Bologna (11 June 2021).

[8] See ‘Laboratori di Quartiere’ (Comune di Bologna) <http://partecipa.comune.bologna.it/laboratori-di-quartiere>.