Designing the future with children at the Trento Smart City Week

Last Friday Chiara, Paolo, Giulia and I facilitated a workshop with the students of the last year of the primary school of Vela, Trento, in the context of the Trento Smart City Week in piazza Duomo. The theme of the workshop was a creative and imaginative exercise: designing a child-friendly Trento of the future. We created three groups of seven children each, and employed the methodologies of design thinking and participatory design: we started from a set of old pictures of Trento to think about how the city was different back then, and how much it has changed. Then, we tried to reflect upon how it was like to live back then, riding horses and washing clothes all together in the square fountain. We thought about the positive and negative aspects of that life, and of how the Austrian people moved the course of the river Adige away from the city center to limit flood and water damage.

Designing a child-friendly Trento of the future.

Children working at the poster of their future Trento.

We used a big poster with a simple map of the city (that we had drawn the day before, not without fun) and started to think how the children would like Trento to be in the future. As the ideas flew, we took into consideration every proposal, discussing the tradeoffs, finding agreements , writing and drawing, cutting and pasting, building fountains, playgrounds, bridges, drawing windmills in the mountains. The children had plenty of ideas that touched a
variety of aspects of the city life: sustainability, mobility, security, education, facilities for children and plans for easy access to those facilities. They proposed alternative ways for fostering sustainable mobility, such as cars and airplanes that use air as fuel, electric skateboards, tandem bicycles for entire families, mobile platforms that run through the city connecting key junctions.

Children envisioned an inclusive city.

Smart bins, more bicycles and playground are some of the ideas that were proposed for the future Trento.

They drew smart bins to make recycling easier, and systems to produce drinkable water from snow. They envisioned an inclusive city where there is work for everyone, where children are not abandoned, education is accessible to everyone but is also fun, and you can pay with smiles. A city where virtual money would be used as a way to limit and contain criminality, disseminated with playgrounds of aesthetical and artistic value, made not with plastic but with natural materials such as wood. Playground that would be cleverly placed in proximity of cultural and historical sites, for an easier connection between the city’s cultural heritage and children’s right to play, which I find resembling Art. 31 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989):

…the right of the child to rest and leisure, to engage in play and recreational activities appropriate to the age of the child and to participate freely in cultural life and the arts.

In our mini-workshop, we tried to foster reflection and discussion. For instance, when asked to reflect on the meaning and consequences of sustainability, the students recognized that reaching a balance between comfort and sustainability can be difficult, and that sometimes, to be more environmental-friendly we need to give up a little bit of personal comfort. At times, it wasn’t easy to engage in a civic and open discussion respectful of human rights, especially regarding hot topics like security (when asked how to deal with thieves, one child firmly shouted “We kill them all!”).

We followed a trend in which children are not any more passive objects of city planning and design, but rather actors at the center of the design process. In this way, they experiment a new sense of agency and self-efficacy, they start to consider themselves as decision-makers, they learn and creativity, practice discussion, deliberation processes, democracy values, problem-solving, and they feel the responsibility of their own decisions.

We need to go further.

But we need to go one step further. If we really want to plant the seeds of change, we need to think not just about the process (participatory ways to involve children as decision-makers for city planning) but also at the outcomes. If we want to make a real difference in children’s lives and their way to experience the city and the comunity, we also have to be pragmatic and foster practical hands-on activities that can apply small changes to the urban environment, to make change and social innovation become real.

We also need to avoid the controversial outcomes of the Lord of the Flies. Participatory methods are a powerful tool, but I think we need to learn not to abuse them to avoid vicious spirals, to keep in mind that we are working with little people who are still growing, trying to build themselves, understand where’s the line between right and wrong, moral and immoral, and have yet to learn many things (and skills) that we take for granted. We should consciously provide them the boundaries of morality and civic participation, within which children can be free to experiment – we need to find a balance between their decisional power and the structure and rules that we deem right.

As always when working with children, it was a very formative and insightful experience. And as it often happens after working with them, as I was helping my colleagues to clean up and hang the posters, I reflected about how I was impressed and touched by the enthusiasm of these little people who can so effortlessly be so creative and open-minded. I really wish them to nurture this creativity to become active and conscientious citizens in the future.

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