Ποιειν Και Πραττειν - create and do

Ambiguity in Organisation and the Culture of Ambivalence: Making Sense of the BOM-Experience by Stefan Nieuwinkel

Stefan Nieuwinckel is responsible for research and evaluation of BOM (Agency for District Development); after having attended the Fifth Seminar and workshop 2, he followed up his presentation by re-writing his paper, while including specifically some of the key concepts mentioned by Andrι Loeckx. Stefan wrote in his introductory letter to the revised paper the following:

"I tried to integrate some of my reflections after our seminar in my paper. For me the fact that I have 'reflected' about what was going on in the seminar is the best prove it has attained its objective.

As Hatto stated the 'seminar had a complexity of its own'. That's true, and complexity is not always easy to live with. At the same time it is the most stimulating part of life."

Antwerp 5 August 1994


In this paper I want to introduce the BOM-experience and try to make sense of it from the point of view of 'planning for a city of cultures'. BOM is an agency for development of the most deprived part of Antwerp's 19th century belt. It is a partnership of public and private organisations, set up in 1990. Projects have been realised in the areas of economic development, training, housing and culture. First, I shall present the BOM-experience at some length. Then I elaborate a little on the question how 'planning', 'local development' and 'culture' can be interrelated.

1. The BOM-experience

1.1 Developing the 'kansarmoede'-concept

The BOM-concept of poverty draws upon an 'ecological' concept of poverty. Many aspects of poverty are considered in their inter relatedness and their continuity over generations. A weak position on the labour market implies a weak position on the housing and health market. A weak position on the labour market of the first generation implies a weak position in the school system of the next generation, and hence the weak position of that generation on the labour market.

Certainly in a city that kind of poverty becomes readable in space. The 'spontaneous' dynamics of the city pushes the poor out of the better districts and pulls them towards the worse ones. Poor housing quality and a poor quality of the public domain becomes part of the poverty web. These districts become unattractive for the rest of the city, hence the economic decline. Schools in the district become 'marginal' ones, which, in turn, affects the chances of the younger generation. So, the spatial condensation becomes an integrating part of the continuing mechanism of poverty.

A study of the University of Antwerp, which aimed at the 'mapping' of that ecological poverty concept and resulted in an 'Atlas of Poverty' (Marynissen, e.a;, 1987; Marynissen, e.a;, 1988) catalysed the start of BOM. In the Steering Committee of the study the main public and private agencies in the field of poverty were represented. An important by-product of the study was a more shared definition of poverty, which was the base for the later partnership.

When it was decided to take joined action, a project area was selected confirming the findings of the study. A short description of the project area and a quick overview of the main statistical indicators (of course, updated since the Poverty Atlas) are given.

1.2 A brief history of the project area

The selected project area is the north-eastern district of the Antwerp inner city, part of the nineteenth century belt. This district is the result of expansion between the Spanish walls (the current 'leien') and the new Brialmont ramparts (Antwerp's ring-road). At the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, construction within that belt boomed.

The north-east part of the 19th century belt absorbed the growing city's proletariat from the very outset: city dwellers swept away by redevelopment from the old city centre when the Scheldt quays were straightened, the country proletariat who came to seek work in the port.....The area soon became an accumulation of small, low quality housing, with no planned street pattern and many blind-alleys.

The area has had typical patterns of immigration and emigration from the very outset. Inhabitants which become more affluent leave the neighbourhood, and usually head for the city outskirts or the green belt around Antwerp. The new proletariat or sub proletariat arrives. From the 60's onwards it consisted of Moroccan or Turkish immigrants. However, this group is also leaving and is being replaced by refugees from the South and East.

The non-housing function of the neighbourhood is also disappearing. Artisan's activities are also in decline and small corner shops are gradually disappearing because car owners now visit hyper markets out of town. Furthermore, the authorities lost interest in this area for at least one generation.

1.3 Some statistical indicators

North-East Antwerp is the district with the highest number of foreigners in the city. 27% is non-Belgian and most are Turks or Moroccans (approximately 18% of the population). Different neighbourhoods within the district have different ethnic make-ups: "China Town" near the central station, a strong Moroccan presence around Krugerpark and a Turkish community near Van Kerckhovenstr. In the population under 18 years about 50% is of non-Belgian nationality. Of all the city districts, the BOM-district is the only one with a net increase of the population, due to the growing number of non-Belgians.

In June '93, 16% of the active population of North-East Antwerp was unemployed ("not working unemployed") according to the statistics of the Flemish Service for Employment Counselling. The city average is 8.7%. The degree of unemployment in the district is, therefore, almost twice the city average.

When early in the nineties the economy went better for a short period of time, the unemployment rate of the city declined. In the BOM-district it remained stable. And when recession takes over, it strikes harder in the district. Between 1989 and 1993 there is a relative growth of the unemployment rate of about 34% in the city, while it is about 45% in the BOM-area.

The houses in the project area are old and many are dilapidated. More than 75% were built before 1946 (city average: 47%). Only 63% of houses meet the minimum standards set by the National Housing Institute whilst the city average is 82%.

There is also a marked lack of open space. Only 4% of the houses have a garden of minimum 50 m2 (city average: 21%). Per inhabitant there is only 4 m2 of public space (city 15 m2). These figures date from the 1981 census. The 1991 update is not yet available.

1.4 BOM's anti-poverty strategy

1.4.1 Limitations of local action

In building up a realistic strategy the first concern must be an awareness of the limited role of a local anti-poverty project. If one stresses the economic roots of poverty, it is evident that the influence of any local action on international mechanisms is negligible. The 'hard' social security debate (a national matter) is also beyond the scope of local action.

1.4.2 A 'development' area

The area we demarcated as project area is rather large (the area has as many inhabitants as a middle sized Flemish town). This choice has been made consciously, in order to experiment with new forms of action. This seems the minimum scale for a real 'development' approach, aiming at structural changes in the regional network.

1.4.3 The action domains

The multidimensionality of poverty is a theoretical concept. You can 'study' the inter relatedness of poverty dimensions, but any policy has to make choices concerning the dimensions to operate on. From the very beginning, the BOM has chosen the more 'hard' domains: economy and housing. The reason is twofold. First, these domains can be considered as the 'hard core' domains of poverty, and if you aim at 're-integration' you must work on these domains. Second, within the district many other initiatives had taken on already the 'softer' domains, and BOM wanted to be complementary, rather than concurrential.

The initial option remains, but it has grown into three organisational 'axes' along which projects are developed: the socio-economic axis, the housing axis and the socio-cultural axis.

By now, on the economic axis, three 'sub axes' become visible in the organisation: Training and Work Experience (both centred around re-integration of specified target groups in the economy) and Economic Development (centred around economic regeneration of the district).

1.4.4 Focal points

The traditional 'anti-poverty'-policy actions are focused towards specified target groups, such as the long term unemployed, school dropouts, etc.. However important this approach, in a development strategy it has to be complemented with actions which improve the position of the area as a whole.

The complementarity of both types of actions must be stressed. When working only with specified target groups (the 'most deprived'), one risks a desolidarisation of the better groups. But focusing on the district as a whole has as a 'natural' consequence that the most deprived are forgotten.

An additional argument for focusing on the district as a whole, which becomes more important, is that the city and urban culture are in crisis. The city 'needs' viable and characteristic districts to maintain its own viability. Here is an argument to formulate a more offensive strategy to attract investments to the 19th century belt.

1.5 Promoting services versus articulating interests

Another choice that should be made is the choice between an action aimed at 'providing specific target groups with services', and an action supporting the 'articulation of interests' of specific groups. In the first case, the products that are being offered are emphasised, in the second case processes are emphasised. In the first case, the target group is considered a 'client', in the second case a 'participant'.

The BOM considers it to be an important choice to provide services. There are different grounds for this choice: there are already many actors in Antwerp, and more specifically in the project area, who work on the articulation of interests. The entire action of community work focuses on it (with sometimes very specific projects for the most deprived), and also other private initiatives successfully try to achieve the same goal. In various areas, exactly the provision of services for the district is lacking. This bears upon both market distribution and establishing priorities.

A second consideration is that the articulation of interests pre requires a feeling of (group) identity. Various initiatives try to promote group formation on the basis of a specific factor of exclusion, such as the group of 'poor people from generation to generation'. This is less expedient when approaching the district at large. As a matter of fact, the entire district will be associated with this factor of exclusion, which would also discredit the less deprived people. A recent evolution, to which the BOM has contributed, is the promotion of a positive image (not the factor of exclusion, but the opportunities of the district are being focused upon). Hence it is the priority of the BOM to work on a positive image, supported by quality improving interventions in the neighbourhood (no hot air).

1.5.1 Project developer versus co-ordinator

'Project developer' means that the development and running of projects is done by one's own staff. 'Co-ordinator' means that one particularly stimulates third parties to develop projects, and that the projects of third parties are geared towards one another.

At the beginning, the BOM attached equal importance to both. The action shows that until now BOM has displayed itself as a project developer. The importance of co-ordination of initiatives has not been denied, but it is not clear which instruments should be used to let it happen in a significant way. Anyway, BOM would never have been acknowledged as 'co-ordinator' without first having proven its ability to realise its own projects in the field. On the other hand, own projects can make a co-ordinating role significantly more difficult, as in many cases one will be regarded as an 'interested party'.

1.6 BOM as an organisation

In this section a short rather 'organigrammatic description of this organisation of BOM is given. This des-cription has to be complemented with a more process oriented description which can be found in section 6.

Three external parties have their stake in the BOM-management structure: the partners, the inhabitants and the POVERTY III-programme. The 'partners' are the seven organisations which founded the BOM: the city of Antwerp, the Local Welfare Authority, the Flemish Employment Agency, the Provincial Welfare Authority, the King Baudouin Foundation, the Regional Institute for Community Development and the University of Antwerp (UIA). The basic line is that as far as possible a political responsible person has a seat in the General Assembly and that a leading official or a staff member of the partner organisation has a seat in the Board of Directors.

The main arrangement for the inhabitants to participate in BOM's structures is the so called 'Initiative Group'. This group monitors the actions of BOM and comes up with new ideas. According to the Statutory, two representatives of this group have their seat on the Board of Directors.

Most important in the task structure of BOM is the central role played by the operational team as the bridge between the Management and the Task Structure, and the three 'development lines' (Socio-Economic, Housing, Socio-cultural) according to the BOM's basic strategic options. Members of the operational team have project responsibility at the start of a project, but as soon as possible responsibility is passed on to a project manager.

The financial structure of BOM needs some consideration too. BOM started with a subsidy under POVERTY III, the anti-poverty programme of the European Community (DG V). This programme ended in June 1994. From the beginning of 1995, BOM is responsible for an Urban Pilot Project of the European Community (DG XVI). Additional European financial supports come from ESF and Euroform. At the regional level BOM takes part in the Anti-Poverty Programme of the Flemish Community (VFIK) and some means are granted on a bilateral basis. Apart from these 'structural' funding (structural means: certain for more than one year), a lot of financial assistance's, but of a very fragmented nature is attracted. Important for the strategy of BOM is that the different means are too small to develop serious projects, but that the combination of means makes these projects feasible.

1.7 Actions

1.7.1 ATEC: training for the labour market

In 1991, the training centre ATEC started with the first course for PC technician. It gives long-termed unemployed training with good employment prospects. 70% of persons who participated in the training programme have found work. The key to success is the thorough examination of the labour market prior to starting the course and the tailored programme given by enthusiastic instructors.

In addition to the PC technician course, other courses have been set up. One course which merits particular attention is the training programme for PC operator for young migrant women. This gives them an alternative to the so called "traditional" sectors there are usually relegated to.

1.7.2 WerkWijzer (Work Guide)

On 1 May 1993, the WerkWijzer (Work Guide) was set up. It bundles all information concerning training for and mediation on the labour market. It is a 'partnership on the work floor' of the main public and non profit agencies in the field of training and mediation. It has provided 350 people with counselling to help them find work.

1.7.3 Work experience projects

Work experience projects are a unique formula for linking employment experience to improving the district's infrastructure. Students from Part-time School (CDO) are offered part-time employment. "Serious" construction projects are realised under expert supervision.

The sports centre was the first project of this kind. It was built by a team composed mainly of CDO students and will be placed at the disposal of youths and youth associations. In the meanwhile, two other building projects have commenced: a training centre, where ATec will find shelter and where a Neighbourhood Workshop will be created and the renovation of an old school, bought be a consortium of socio-cultural associations in the district.

1.7.4 Enterprise centre

The Enterprise centre has been a top priority of BOM from the very outset. It is considered as the vehicle for economic regeneration of the district. After four years of searching and exploring, the conditions necessary for getting the project off the ground have been completed.

The means granted to BOM through the Urban Pilot Project (DG XVI) make it possible to realise the project. A former school building will be renovated and will house 28 small enterprises and central management and logistic services.

Contrary to so-called "traditional" enterprise centres, NOA aims to become a "centre of economic activity". Businesses which are not actually established in the centre can also receive customer-related services and support. Newcomers who expand will receive active support to help them find a new office within the district, thus starting a chain reaction of economic revival. In the long-term this means the creation of a considerable number of jobs. It is up to ATec and WorkWijzer to persuade young entrepreneurs to give opportunities to well trained people from the district.

This project was/is clearly the most difficult BOM-project. We had to convince the 'social' field that this 'economic' project can be part of an anti-poverty policy and the 'economic' field that a project conceived by an 'anti-poverty agency' can have economic viability.

1.7.5 Insert Enterprise

BOM always wanted to create jobs for long term unemployed in the 'regular' economy as well. Only late in the BOM-history the Flemish government came up with a policy framework called 'Insert Enterprises'. An Insert Enterprise is an enterprise set up especially for granting work to long term unemployed. During the first three years a salary subsidy is given to compensate for the lower productivity.

BOM considered to start some enterprises itself. But now it is decided not to enter that field, but to offer personnel management services to enterprises under that regulation. A first contract has been signed.

1.7.6 Housing Guide: personal housing advice

7000 families in the district have become clients of WoonWijzer (House Guide). It provides information on how to apply for renovation grants and so on. D-I-Y enthusiasts can borrow material at special rates.

In two of the district's areas, there is a project which counsels people who wish to renovate their own home. The objective is to improve the quality of housing on a large scale. There is an on-going experiment with regards to pre-financing of grants and collective purchases. The fund for the prefinancing is granted by SOMA, the City Agency for Real Estate Development in the 19th century belt. Community workers of the Regional Institute for Community Development take care of the intensive counselling programme.

1.7.7 The Local Newspaper

The local newspaper is delivered 4 times per year to 22.000 letter boxes. A council of editors, composed of local inhabitants, is constantly on the look-out for the latest news in the district. The starting point is that the Local Newspaper may not be a gazette of grievances; it has to reveal both the positive and negative aspects of the district.

1.7.8 The District Development Plan

This newly issued project of BOM needs to be briefly introduced. With this project BOM takes for the first time a more 'co-ordinating' role. Heavy emphasis is put on the planning process, which can be described as an exploration with the different actors of common views and complementary objectives and the establishment of collaboration.

2. Sense making exercise

2.1 Ambivalence and ambiguity

For the sense making exercise the paper presented by Andrι Loeckx (Urban place and flow, Towards a Culture of Ambivalence) was very stimulating. For me the central thesis of his paper is that every city is heterogeneous, and that 'urbanity' as a cultural artefact emerges out of that heterogeneity. Appreciating the heterogeneity of the city not as 'disorganised society', but as 'ambivalent source of culture' seems crucial to give the city its right place in a 'Europe of Cultures'. In that sense 'ambivalent urbanity' becomes a programmatic devise.

The central question for urban planners is, of course: can "ambivalent urbanity" be planned or designed and can we imagine policy instruments to "implement" it? If we analyse the 20th century experience of 'planning for development', the answer seems negative. As Louis Baeck argued in his paper, 20th century development strategies are 'one dimension', our planning and implementing instruments seem to reflect a 'culture of monovalence'. This one sidedness pervades all our institutions, be it governmental or private ones. So, if we want 'a policy for ambivalent urbanity', we need institutions, new forms of organising. 1

In order to reflect upon these new forms of organising, the concept of 'rationality in / of organisations' is crucial. The basic concept of 'organisation' in Western Civilisation of the last century is that of 'rational co-acting of people to meet a well established predefined objective'. At the same time that rationality is questioned time and again. Every participant in or observer of organisations sees not only rationality and order, but also irrationality and ambiguity, if not chaos in the organisations. (In many workings groups the theme of 'new forms of organisations' or a 'new breed of managers' emerged. In the working groups related to job creation and to culture and economics this theme was mentioned from the point of view of integrating working and learning, which is necessary for the individual as well as for the organisation as a whole to cope with complexity. In this paper the theme is elaborated from the point of view of desired output of organisations.)

Here a pragmatic shift seems to occur. Whereas it was clear for managers and organisation scientists until the seventies that chaos had to be abolished, the new generation seems to value chaos and irrationality as source of new forms. Chaos no longer has to be abolished, but has to be managed. Ambiguity is an inherent part of organising, and even necessary for the survival of the organisation in the long run.

In this reflective part I want to link the concept of a 'culture of ambivalence' and that of 'the ambiguity of organisations'. The line of the argument is as follows. First I argue that rational organisations are not feasible. Then I question the desirability of rational organisations. In the end I want to introduce further questions concerning the future development of the concept of the 'culture of ambivalence' and a new definition of organisational effectiveness.

2.2 Rational organisations are not feasible

As mentioned in section 1.1 BOM starts from an ecological poverty concept. Poverty is a complex of interacting factors, and should be tackled as different factors prevailing at the same time. But the great frustration of the welfare state seems to be the inability to set up such an integrated approach. Bureaucracy and professionalism are by definition oriented towards specialisation, isolating subsequently the poverty dimensions. So, there is a great gap between our understanding of poverty in its multidimensional complexity and the policy instruments we develop to cope with that complexity: a 'rich' (multidimensional) concept of poverty contrasts with the 'poor' policy instruments we use.

Of course, there are many reasons for this inability to act in a coherent way: 'a lack of political will', 'the incompetence of the officials' and so on. However, all the reasons mentioned suggest there is a cure for this inability. If only we could convince the politicians, if only we could motivate and train officials, we can obtain a coherent policy.

I do not believe in this possibility of 'omnipotence'. Of the many good reasons for my scepsis, I only want to mention one. One of the axioms of the comprehensive policy approach is that it should start from 'complete knowledge' or 'as much knowledge as possible'. Already in the fifties Nobel prize winner Herbert Simon demonstrated the impossibility of this axiom. The source of error seems to me the statical concept of knowledge we use. If we consider knowledge as something growing out of our acting in a changing world, we must acknowledge that policy not only starts from (incomplete) knowledge, but that policy (a form of deliberated action) also generates knowledge. This demonstrates the logical impossibility of 'action on the basis of complete knowledge': after the action there is knowledge that was not 'knowable' before our action.

2.3 Rational organisations are not desirable

In the above section I started from a relative neutral concept of poverty. The ecological concept is just the most accurate way to describe our understanding of poverty. If we follow Loeckx and consider 'the culture of ambiguity' as a programmatic devise we can go one step further: we put a positive value on the heterogeneity of the city, and we want to invent a policy that can maintain enough heterogeneity so that culture can flourish. If we speak about 'the culture of ambivalence', it is about something we desire.

Of course, the concept of 'culture of ambivalence' needs more elaboration. In his paper Loeckx gives some hints when introducing the concepts of 'type' and 'analogy': 'the historical urban scene is a "collage" of architectural objects and fragments whereby the unexpected suddenly shines out from a combination of familiar typological features'. Analogy establishes links between unique, non-exchangeable forms and their typological ranges. It suggests a relative coherence based on a "logique de l'ΰ peu prθs" (Bourdieu). Moreover, beyond and between the coherence of these ranges appear hybrids, loose fragments, anomalies, mutations, innovations'.

Again the concept of knowledge, as it is used in the 'rational organisation'-discourse is crucial in our argumentation of the undesirability of rational organisations. Rational organisations are at their best when they can operate on 'fully defined problems', as if they can 'solve' problems. But, as the quotation of Loeckx demonstrates, the culture of ambivalence cannot be fully defined. Traditional knowledge cannot handle the 'logique de l'ΰ peu prθs', and has great difficulties with 'non closed ranges of variations'.

2.4 Organising for ambivalence

Our present day authorities know the failure of bureaucratic synoptical policy models. In many variations the theme of administrative reorganisation is played. One pervading theme seems to be that parts of the former 'comprehensive' bureaucracy need more autonomy. This is true, but it is only part of the story. Sooner or later the 'autonomous' organisations meet in concrete space. And then again the question is: how will this meeting be organised? Will it be only chance or a vague market principle that regulates the interaction between organisations, or can we conceive of mechanisms with an inherent possibility to create synergy's?

So we not only need to think about principles and mechanisms or organisation autonomy, but also about principles and mechanisms to link different 'autonomous' organisations. It is again Herbert Simon who introduced innovative ideas concerning this linking, which can be summarised under the heading of 'loosely coupled systems'. The traditional 'rational organisation'-theorists plead for relatively few and relatively stable connections between parts of organisation. In the loosely coupled systems-view every part of the organisation can be linked with many parts, but there are mechanisms for temporarily loosening and tightening these relations.

BOM can be considered as an experiment with forms of loose coupling. Even without 'traditional' co-ordination somewhere at government level or high in the administrative hierarchy different 'fragments' of policy can be captured on the local level and can be integrated close to implementation. So, the BOM-model combines a 'realist' view of incrementalism of policy formation with the domain for more long-term acts to tackle complex problems. The 'putting pieces together'-approach of BOM is in that respect not only an approach out of need, but an essential part of its identity within the organisation field.

3. Recommendations for 'Culture: Building Stone of Europe 2002'

In this paper I tried to establish some links about how we consider the world 'out there' and the way we try to act in organised manner in this world. The crucial step is considering the heterogeneity of the world out there as endemic, and even as the source of culture. Traditional ways of 'rational' organising are unable to capture that heterogeneity and to work within heterogeneity. The best think a rational organisation can do is destroying heterogeneity, but this seems the worst what can happen to a viable culture. New forms of organising which combine autonomy with temporal links between autonomous units must be developed.

In future conferences the concept of 'culture of ambivalence' as well as the new forms of organisation need elaboration. At this stage they are merely theoretical notions. We need more practical demonstrations of what these concepts may mean for the next century.

The way to proceed seems an action learning strategy. What ambivalence really means becomes clear not while sitting in the arm chair, but while reflecting on what we doing in our every day life. Most people can handle a lot of ambiguity in their daily life's, and even appreciate it sometimes as ambivalence. Once more, our theoretical notions are far behind the art of living we developed out of our every day praxis.

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