Citizen engagement: straddling past and present to enact social progress - RSA

Citizen engagement: straddling past and present to enact social progress


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Dr Jayne Meyer Tucker responds to the RSA ANZ blogging challenge, hosted in collaboration with 92Y as part of the Seven Days of Genius Festival - a global festival celebrating the power of new ideas. She reflects on a visit to Berlin where there are lessons to be learned around citizen engagement from past and future perspectives.

To speak of citizen engagement, I believe you need to be a citizen--which I am--possibly a novelty in this digital age! I also satisfy this criteria as I often describe myself as a global citizen, considering both the northern and southern hemispheres as home. On a recent summer in the northern hemisphere, I visited Berlin, where there are many lessons around citizen engagement that can be considered from both a past and future perspective. I was so empowered on this visit that I not only wrote the Abstract for my PhD but a Blog, which I have revisited for the purposes of the ‘Seven Days of Genius Festival Challenge’.

My interests were provoked not only by Berlin’s history, notably the city’s involvement in World Wars I and II, but by the current contemporary debates that exist within Berlin itself. These debates are primarily around Berlin’s progress since the later 20th century and how the memories of events are best celebrated and/or forgotten. The message of this piece is intended to pay suitable homage to the powerful impact of removing barriers, silos or even physical walls for society to fulfil the new ways that are required to enact future progress. The 21st century brings new paradigms that must achieve a more equitable environment and fairness for all people.

At times of travel I am always reminded of the myriad of opportunities in the southern hemisphere and particularly in Australia. There are of course challenges all over the world in all countries around citizen engagement, but Australia is young in its development to learn the lessons of those that have gone before. In addition, a heightened need to listen to the lessons from the ‘first people’ and not in the way that history has shown to be unsuccessful. Either way, the opportunities for citizen engagement are not endless and therefore the time to act is now.

Returning to my experiences in Berlin, I refer to the stamps I gained at Checkpoint Charlie (iconic border crossing point between East Berlin and West Berlin during the Cold war). The tourist attraction based on a location with a history of such oppression was representative of the contemporary debates within Berlin that I was introduced to.

You do not have to look too hard in the history archives to learn or be reminded of the unscrupulous actions of the first and second World Wars. This was a time when not all citizens were engaged and the divide was most detrimental. Recently, Berlin has shown a way to use creative thinking to bridge its past and present and to bring disparate groups together to address social concerns. It is also a great example of how a city has coped with the duality and tensions between its post war demise and current day vibrancy.

I use the word vibrant not because of the architecture in Berlin, which is definitely not built on the terms of brightness (although the glass dome of the Reichstag Building is definitely a contemporary icon). It is more the willingness to do what I refer to from my research as STRADDLE™ the tensions between past and present. This balance is incurred in the city’s attempts to speak to its negative history (for example, by keeping elements of the Berlin wall and the cobbled stone strip of no man’s land between the East and West Berlin wall), whilst also trying to forget the trauma of its past. The former brings tourists and is/could be a reminder of what must not happen again; while the latter is the desire to move on and forget.

The stimulus for these discussions and my bringing a link back to STRADDLE™ is in recognition that to be successful in citizen engagement and particularly the new paradigm (purpose economy), it is necessary to find the balance between tensions such as celebration vs closure and/or structure vs spontaneity. In my opinion, success for citizen engagement lies in the balancing of such dualities. For example, it was necessary for the wall to be brought down--bringing both the east and west together to form a unified city of Berlin (including such action being an extended and important national and global model). Almost in equal measures, it was important that some reminders were kept; and not only as a form of explanation but more importantly to prevent the same behaviours from ever occurring again (a topic bigger than the Seven Days of Genius Challenge, but when considered as a global sentiment makes me pause for thought).

Going back to the southern hemisphere and the Australian context, there are some similarities, particularly with the need to deal with the complex societal issues that citizens face. To do so effectively, it requires a bold and enabling leadership style and, yes, it requires the ability to embrace ambiguity. This was most evident in Berlin's straddle between celebration vs closure and the answer will always be a bit of both.

Berlin has been most successful in taking this new paradigm to another level--accepting that they cannot make the past right and such learnings must not be forgotten. In an equal measure, to look forward to the future and to constantly embrace the ambiguous scenarios that evolve--this is the vibrancy that pulses through Berlin and makes you feel very alive.

In summary, whatever the issue may be for citizen engagement, it needs to be relevant and/or ‘fit for purpose’ with respect to prevailing paradigms, but not repetitive of experiences that do not work. Equally, for citizen engagement the ability to STRADDLE™ and/or maintain a form of flexibility that can withstand fast changing times as demanded by the 21st century is paramount no matter where you live in the world!


Dr Jayne Meyer Tucker, Thinker, Writer and Social Engineer considers ‘consequences’ incorporating the pursuit of connecting and achieving a socially inclusive ecosystem. Jayne's PhD explored the competition paradox and tensions between local capabilities within a global footprint. 

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