Mobilizing agency to address urbanization

A man stands as he rows down a river in MexicoXochimilco, Mexico City is the last remnant of the complex lacustrine system of wetlands that was the basis for agriculture and livelihoods in pre-Columbian times. However, the water is no longer provided by natural springs, but is provided by the discharge of treated wastewater from the neighboring, densely-populated and impoverished borough of Iztapalapa. The water quality is not good, not only because of its source, but also because of numerous illicit discharges of sewage into the wetland from the irregular and expanding urban settlements on the wetland’s fringe. Water quality concerns have undermined fishing and agricultural livelihoods, and threaten the ecotourism activities of the area. MEGADAPT – led by School of Sustainability Professor Hallie Eakin – recently conducted a Transformation lab (T-Lab) in Xochimilco. While there are numerous sustainability challenges associated with Xochimilco, the T-lab focused on the issue of informal/irregular settlements and the urbanization of the historic wetlands. The MEGADAPT team proposed the T-lab as a collaborative arena where participants could discover and mobilize agency to address urbanization. The ‘Big Idea’ from which MEGADAPT designed this lab was that agency in a socio-ecological system (SES) is related to how an individual sees/frames a system, their capacities and their social network. The T-lab was not explicitly designed to achieve a particular pathway towards a specific desired outcome, but to open up the possibility for new kinds of agency – both individual and collective – leaving open how that agency might manifest itself in the system. As the maintenance of a system state in an SES relies on the maintenance of certain agency-driven actions, the MEGADAPT team imagined that inspiring changes in agency itself, rather than targeting changes in actions, could bring about SES change. The ability to discover and mobilize agency was enabled through a methodological design that required actors to reflect on their own perspective of role and agency within the system. The T-lab strategically and purposefully invited participants (agents) with different framings, roles and capacities in order to create a space that would include diversity, and therefore the potential for inducing situations in which individual agents’ framings would be challenged. Participants included representatives from within Xochimilco, academics concerned with Xochimilco, people from Xochimilco or socially connected to Xochimilco, NGOs and one government representative. The MEGADAPT team also selected the group based on the perception that they would be collaborative rather than divisive. Through this joint process of both individual and collective reflection, the team imagined that actors could re-conceptualize and re-frame the urbanization-ecological change process and produce novel pathways forward based on collaboration through shared capacities. A follow-up Transformation Lab will be held at the beginning of June 2017.