Get Ready to Become an Urban Change Manager

Urs Thomann is a Swiss urban planner and a co-founder of the CANactions School in Kyiv and Amsterdam – a unique educational platform where different actors of urban change meet. Bringing together planners, economists, politicians, activists, the school promotes a collaborative approach to urban development and supports multiple initiatives throughout Ukraine. In this interview, Urs shares his vision on urbanism education and the challenges of urban professions.

What is CANactions and what was the story behind this idea?
CANactions School was founded in 2015 in the most dramatic moment of Ukraine’s modern history: the war in Donbass, the discredited political system and the deep economic crisis have led to increasing scepticism towards the possibility of real change. At the same time, these factors have triggered a growing social demand for a fundamentally new type of relationships between citizens, businesses and authorities in different aspects of everyday life – from cultural to spatial. But who are these people that could become active change-makers and facilitate the process of building new types of connections in Ukrainian cities? What tools and approaches would they need to use to successfully deal with the complexity of current challenges? CANactions was established as an attempt to find answers to these questions.”

Urs Thomann

How is it different from traditional planning schools?
“Interdisciplinarity, the “learning-by-doing” approach and the practical orientation have become the School’s key principles and shaped its structure. We believe that the impetus for city development must come from local groups, and that’s why we aim to create a collaboration between different stakeholders and teach them to speak a common language, listen to each other and be flexible. Our programs let people with diverse backgrounds and interests – local activists, politicians, civil servants, urban professionals – work together on real-world projects as a group.

“Over the years, CANactions School has been testing and sharpening its methodology — integral and interdisciplinary in its nature — to present design and planning processes as “continuous oscillation” towards a consensual vision of the place. The School’s ambition to connect often opposite and conflicting actors by means of design and planning is, in fact, the way to overcome both the totalistic and naive logic of modernism and the cynical/ironic postmodernist position.”

Are there any examples of the projects realised by the CANactions’ students?
“Our students often keep working together on their independent projects even after the program ends, and CANactions supports these initiatives. One such project is a new cultural center in a former water tower in Zhytomyr, run by a group of our students – architects, urban planners, project managers and economists from different Ukrainian cities. Using our methodology, they brought together the city administration, an urban development agency and an NGO to create a mixture of viewpoints about the tower’s role in the city and work out its development strategy.

“The team has not only focused on adaptive reuse but also introduced the principles of strategic design in their work. Such an approach allowed the participants to elaborate on an interdisciplinary and comprehensive concept. Last but not least, the working group was able to bind and strengthen the current development strategy of the whole city, offering new scenarios for the tower’s renovation. This approach helped the project win the public competition, and now it is being implemented in collaboration with the Zhytomyr City Council and international NGOs.”

In your opinion, what new urban professions will emerge in the future? What skills will be crucial for these professions?
“The core philosophy of our school is not to strive for new professions, but to enhance cooperation between people with different backgrounds. Citizens, politicians, architects, engineers, philosophers – they all have a major impact on how cities develop, and that’s why it’s so important to move towards a more collaborative and comprehensive approach. To improve our cities, we need people – from politicians to activists – who can embrace complexity and synthesize rather than polarize. Having different mixtures of skills and core competencies, these people should become “stabilizers” for the urban system. This ability to create better understanding and smooth interaction between various professions and stakeholders is the core competence we teach in our educational programs. In opposite to the predominant approach where different specialists are being separated from each other, we prepare our student to become Urban Change Managers, who can successfully navigate urban transformation.”