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Feature

A cultural catalyst

The Copenhagen Urban Lab redefines the notion of sharing

SHARE Nov–Dec 2019

Catalyst Creation

Creation, Uma Gokhale, 83 Oranges

Courtesy of the artist

Between 11:30 a.m. and 2 p.m. every weekday, employees at the Danish engineering consultancy Rambøll walk away from their devices and desks and head to a light-filled atrium that extends seven floors and acts as a central artery along which common spaces are located, including the canteen. Here, 1,500 individuals gather—not to listen to a lecture or sit through a meeting, but to share a company-catered meal, a daily practice of communal lunch that encourages them to get to know one another in an informal way.

This August, I was one of eight professionals from around the world who work in urban planning, engineering, natural resource and systems management, policy, and economics invited to participate in a workshop in Denmark known as the Copenhagen Urban Lab. Organized by Rambøll and hosted by various public and private sponsors, the Lab had a mission—to develop mitigation strategies for urban heat island in the cities of Copenhagen and Frederiksberg. The one requirement? That our class eat every meal together, in the spirit of Danish culture.

That those 10 days enhanced my knowledge of the impacts of urban heat isn’t surprising. More important, the collaborative experience led me to reexamine my own notions about sharing, from the group dynamic during each meal to unexpected discussions about spirit animals. Underlying the program’s agenda was one simple rule: “You will be and act as one group for the entire Lab.” This thread of unity and collectivism embodies the Nordic region’s cultural, political, and corporate ecosystem, which supports cross-sectional sharing and provides a road map for how designers can encourage a similar platform for interaction within the profession. The methods and objectives regarding how we were to share knowledge with one another helped clarify expectations, making them feel much more personal and human than the “sharing economy,”which has been upheld as the gold standard of next-generation problem solving.

Eight professionals (from the US, India, Ireland, the United Kingdom, Germany, Singapore, Iran, and Philippines) participated in the workshop in Denmark.
Copenhagen Urban Lab 2019

As a concept and practice, the sharing economy continues to generate as much buzz as the industries and companies with which it’s associated. Online platforms such as Uber, Airbnb, and bike-share programs have made the sharing economy synonymous with consumable goods and services exchanged between peers, all through the ease of a phone app or online site. The definition should be broader. The international environmental network Friends of the Earth, for instance, defines it as a system that focuses on citywide sharing as a means for improving environmental sustainability and equity among citizens.

Indeed, the model is evolving to create a stronger collective body of knowledge based on human experience and expertise. This new iteration can best be described as “a culture of sharing,” a more collaborative interaction and exchange of information and ideas, uninhibited by notions of competitive confidentiality.

In some places, a sharing culture is already deeply embedded in society; we can learn from those examples to develop an environment for the free and open flow of information. The recently published book Generation Share (Policy Press) covers more than 200 case studies on how sharing culture is transforming lives, “from the woman who created a school based on sharing and brought the birds back to an impoverished, polluted neighborhood to the farmer-footballer who shares his love of gardening to bring peace [to] a divided community.” American interpretations of capitalism, competition, and individualism can sometimes promote secrecy, valuing intellectual property over everything else. The Lab, by contrast, flipped isolated competitiveness on its head.

Organized by a cross-section of corporate, municipal, and nonprofit players, the Lab was led by Rambøll, cohosted by the City of Copenhagen and the municipality of Frederiksberg, and supported by the Young Water Professionals Denmark, a member-driven network for young professionals within the Danish water-resource management and planning sector. Influencers from various backgrounds were brought together to work toward a mutual objective of exploring mitigation strategies for the impacts of urban heat islands.

A one-group approach

The rule that we “be and act as one group” was reiterated as an expectation not only for how we were to learn but also for how we were to exchange information and spend our spare time. Before we arrived, the Lab organizers established objectives for exchanging data that would benefit all—from gaining insight from knowledgeable participants to sharing the Nordic approach to urban planning, water management, and climate resilience and adaptation. Our agenda included an academic program with 17 presentations.

Hans Ulrik Rosengaard, an assistant professor at Roskilde University east of Copenhagen, outlined the Danish concept of “facework,” explaining that Danes are not accustomed to saying please and thank you. Facework encourages the practice of sensing and accommodating other standards of decorum by acknowledging that “usual assumptions about social behavior might not work” in a multicultural setting, Rosengaard said. Openness and tolerance are vital and provide a toolbox for how to problem solve as a group by respecting cultural differences and perspectives.

Throughout the duration of the Lab, we embraced Danish dining culture, learning how differences can affect understanding. In the United States, workers typically eat lunch at their desks alone or leave their office individually. At Rambøll, employees get to know one another, professionally and personally, over those informal lunches. A range of icebreakers (covering such topics as What spirit animal are you? How did you view Donald Trump’s scheduled visit to Denmark? What is a true work-life balance?) prompted silly as well as serious conversations in which each person shared his or her personality, political beliefs, and lived experiences. These conversations added depth and color to how we viewed one another and transcended labels that might be associated with our home countries (US, India, Ireland, the United Kingdom, Germany, Singapore, Iran, and Philippines) and areas of expertise.

The practice of those communal meals seeped into how we delegated the rest of our time. Toward the end of the program, a few team members were finalizing information for our final presentation, which overlapped with a scheduled concert. Instead of splitting up, we all stayed as one group to support our team members and missed the concert.

The outcomes

After experiencing this intense environment of learning and group work, we began to form our diverse recommendations.

We had each digested information within the context of our own cultures and areas of expertise. For instance, having connections to both India and the US, I was pairing new information with my own background to formulate recommendations as an urban designer, architect, and resiliency planner. The civil engineer from Ireland, the architect and urban designer from Denmark with connections to Iran, and the microclimate expert from the Philippines took a similar approach. Each of us wrote our ideas on sticky notes and posted them side by side, addressing the local circumstances of Copenhagen and Frederiksberg but also posing universal ideas drawn from our personal experiences. This exercise resulted in our “Kool København” presentation, where we outlined a collection of these strategies as a toolbox for urban heat mitigation, a set of universal strategies that could be contextualized in any of the participants’ respective cities.

The need to find solutions both locally and internationally is critical. By implementing a universal culture of sharing similar to the mutual exchange of information and skills encouraged at the Lab in Denmark, we can envision and have a better shot at testing solutions to help build a resilient future for vulnerable communities.

“If we believe in climate justice,” said Trine Stausgaard Munk, Rambøll’s head of resilience, “we need to find creative ways of breaking down silos, provoking mindset changes, and promoting inclusive processes in urban planning.” By diminishing barriers to information and acknowledging that there is no more time for curating ideas in isolation, we can establish a living community of knowledge to combat our ever-changing environment.

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