Learning in Local Collaboration, Groningen – MSc thesis Iris Bekius


By: Iris Bekius, MSc Leisure, Tourism and Environment.

Below a summary of my MSc thesis: Learning in Local Collaboration; A reflexive case study in Groningen, Northern Netherlands.

At the moment, the Dutch government is in a process of deregulation, commonly referred to as participation society. Throughout the country municipalities translate policies in line with this political goal, among which my hometown Groningen. For the municipality of Groningen deregulation includes calling on citizens to come up with ideas for neighbourhood initiatives, which will then be evaluated by civil servants on their potential to succeed.

One initiative that is supported by the municipality is Pad2Wijken (Path2Neighborhoods), initiated by a committee in the neighbourhood Helpman to secure a green zone: a 10 kilometre long ecological edible green walking path through the neighbourhoods Helpman and De Wijert. Since the opening of the path in May 2014 groups of residents, schools and organisations in the neighbourhoods can adopt green plots along the path. On their plot they can create a flower meadow, orchard, vegetable garden, insect hotel, or anything else green and sustainable.

The study describes the development of this neighbourhood initiative and its connection to the broader collaboration project of creating a neighbourhood cooperative. The idea for the cooperative originated from a green intermediate vocational school and obtained a pilot status through a covenant with the municipality in December 2014. Targets of the cooperative include the health and wellbeing of people in the neighbourhoods, sustainability, self-sufficiency, solitary elderly people, and creating opportunities for initiatives. For the municipality the goal of this pilot is to test and further develop area focused working by neighbourhood teams- and aldermen. Instead of defining what area focused working comprises beforehand, the goal is to find this out via a pilot experiment. My study does not so much focus on the formal organisations as these have hardly been developed yet, but analysed relations between people and how these serve learning processes regarding the establishment of neighbourhood initiatives through self-organization, using the concepts of social capital and social learning.

My research was conducted as a reflexive case study of multiparty collaboration, using research methods of participant observation including the organization of an event, and in-depth interviews. By selecting accounts from an extensive research journal a rich context was added to the paper, making both the experiences of the researcher explicit as well as giving insights into the social environment of the participants. In response to the research question, six attributes were identified to explain social capital and social learning:

• Continuity
• Diversity
• Collaboration
• Trust
• Capacity building
• Learning

Social capital was assessed by determining the interactions and the extent to which these generate a basis of trust and enable capacity building through collaboration. Capacity building involves learning, including the use of diversity and dissonance in order to find new and innovative solutions.

The research findings show that the Pad2Wijken working group is rather isolated from the neighbourhood and broader participation has not really occurred yet. Results also show a lack of continuity and trust, as a solid and reliable base of stakeholders and organizers was missing due to the fact that initial members were too busy or became sick. As the focus of meetings was mainly on arranging practical issues, there was little opportunity for informal bonding. Participants did feel like they learned a lot during the process, but not from each other. Consequently, capacities were not generated through social interaction and the learning that occurred was more individual than collective. Even though meetings were planned shortly after events for the purpose of reflection, in reality this reflection was not very thorough and usually stranded in a discussion of trivialities. In the end, the small and fairly homogenous group of volunteers did not find a way to challenge underlying assumptions and patterns, which is a condition for social learning to occur.

The main form of social capital that was generated resulted from resources that were derived from pre-existing networks of individual actors; mainly contacts of the initiator within the municipality. In the process there was a tendency of conflict avoidance amongst the participants and even though this was never discussed, they all recognised that this resulted in the lack of a necessary ‘edge’. Until now the potential of diversity has not been deployed to move forward and the dominant discourse about the vision of the project has become somewhat rigid. As neighbourhood participation has not occurred by itself, the members of the working group have now set their hopes on the neighbourhood cooperative to revitalise the project.

Still, there is hope for the future as the next step is the connection of Pad2Wijken to the cooperative pilot. The intention of the pilot is to go fundamentally deeper in the learning process, reframing underlying assumptions and patterns and then going even further to create a real shift and change external context factors. Even though social learning has not clearly occurred yet in the process, it has been recognized by the participants – including the initiators of the neighbourhood cooperative pilot – as an important condition for taking the project further.

My research contributes to the understanding of multiparty collaboration on the neighbourhood level by explicating interaction patterns and their results. It touches upon possibilities for alternative ways to organise an innovative project by focusing on the process. By reflexively exploring theoretical claims in practice, the study presents a unique view on the effects of present-day societal developments and national policies implemented by a municipality and taken up by citizens.

I will continue following the process as a member of the research team that monitors and evaluates the development of the neighbourhood cooperative, as well as other cooperatives that are being established throughout the Northern Netherlands.

More information can be obtained via irisbekius@gmail.com.