Imagine the scene: amidst the warm aroma of freshly roasted cocoa beans, a chocolatier watched by an entranced audience creates truffles, ganaches and pralines perfumed with fresh herbs, strawberries and citrus, some flavoured with beer brewed in the next street. On the mezzanine above, an exhibition of art also created in the neighbourhood has drawn another crowd keen to critique the works and talk to the artists.
Among the audience on this special day, when artisanal chocolatier Frederic Blondeel threw open the doors of his factory and shop to his neighbours, other local businesses and citizens from across the city, was Tanja Gohlert.
“I had never been to an event in this neighbourhood, which for me was on the other side of town,” she says. “I think it was a wonderful way to bring communities together and say, ‘hey, look what we have to offer here – award-winning chocolates and talented local artists!’”
Overcoming feelings of ‘them and us’
As a diverse city home to more nationalities than any other in the world – 167 at the last count – Brussels has a particular challenge when it comes to creating cohesive communities. On top of this, its 19 commune-structure means much of citizens’ identity comes from which part of town they live in. A ‘them and us’ feeling between locals and European Parliament administrators and representatives can also be a cause of division.
Long-term Brussels resident Rozina Spinnoy, the driving force behind the art and chocolate event, had become so concerned about the community-based issues she was seeing around her that she re-focused her business experience to see if she could tackle them.
“I thought that if I could use my creativity and design skills from working in the hotel industry – as hotels are a community within a community with different elements – surely I could also use them in a new way to help create healthier outdoor spaces and communities,” she explains.
Aiming for community health not business growth
Spinnoy set up a non-profit organisation inspired by the business improvement districts (BIDs) model. Pioneered in North America in the 1960s and 70s as a business-led, business-funded approach to improving a defined commercial area, BIDs had gone on to widespread adoption and variation across Europe. But BIDs Belgium took the concept in another direction.
Spinnoy took two traditional BIDs characteristics – their agility and responsiveness to real problems and their experimental, innovative approach – and added her own unique focus.
My approach is about generating creative, community-based ideas in collaboration with citizens and businesses, getting to the core of how we can try to design solutions and turn theory into practice at ground level,” she says. “I focus a large part of my work on the inclusion aspect of communities and particularly on issues like loneliness and mental health and their impact.”
Underpinning everything BIDs Belgium does is Spinnoy’s view of the value of design and creativity, not for aesthetics, but as a strategy.
“Creativity brings empathy and experimentation to a challenge,” she explains. “A design thinking process is about problem solving, about breaking down all the different steps of a task or project to make it human and life centric.
“In the context of government it can be used in any sector from health to education and development of public spaces, by thinking about the citizen, about those being served. Who are we doing this for? How could we imagine their life to be? It’s about posing the right questions.”
One question that changed everything
When 83-year old retired entrepreneur Jean Goessens approached Spinnoy after she’d given a talk about her work in her own district, he asked her a question: ‘What can we do together’? Widowed and lonely, he was nevertheless well networked in the neighbourhood and his question was the catalyst for the art and chocolate event.
“The event had a socio-economic benefit for the businesses and community involved, with a particular social benefit for local residents experiencing the incredibly happy community feeling the event created,” says Spinnoy.
“We will keep the narrative going by organising art classes in the local cultural centre soon. This will be an intergenerational and intercultural creative project where young and old can come and learn techniques for painting, drawing and sculpture.”
Typical of BIDs Belgium’s small-scale, try-it-and-see approach, this first event has been followed by more formal collaborations. A programme called Calm Space, with the Belgium Design Council and its E3 Innovation Lab, is piloting projects exploring what can be done to create calmness in communities, both in terms of head space and physical space.
One of these, Analogue to Digital, originated in Spinnoy’s own experience as the mother of a child with autism. The pilot brought together pupils from a special educational needs school with a mainstream school to co-create and learn together using creativity and digital tools like 3D printing.
“It was a fantastic workshop,” says Wouter Janssens, a technology teacher at one of the schools involved. “It’s amazing to see how imaginative the children are and how much fun they have when they have the freedom to create.”
According to the Brussels region state secretary, who backed the project, “Mixing children with and without disabilities was a key factor of the event.”
For Spinnoy, the project was one of the most rewarding so far. “Having designed the programme as a means of digital inclusion and to be inclusive of special needs, I was lucky that school directors were very open to experiment.
One school has since applied for European funding to permanently incorporate a STEAM lab – science, technology, engineering and maths with art – into its curriculum.”
Another Calm Space project has a similar inclusive STEAM element – and a very pragmatic purpose. The friendship bench project is a local adaptation of a Zimbabwean idea that Spinnoy found inspirational.
“In response to the dearth of psychiatrists in the city, Harare has placed benches in public spaces where respected older members of the community have the space to talk to people with mental health challenges,” she explains. “I got in touch and explained that I’d love to do a similar project for schools, with the children making the benches themselves.”
Through a collaboration with two schools and the Belgium Design Council, this project is now underway in Brussels.
BIDs Belgium is also involved with projects on a pan-European level where its bold experimental approach is just what’s needed. As the Belgian lead in the European PlaceCity project, it is helping to develop tools cities can use to revitalise public spaces as the heart of the community through the engagement of local citizens to test ideas.
Challenging the status quo – together
While Spinnoy waits for news of a second European project bid, she has her eyes firmly focused, as ever, on the real societal challenges she sees around her. And she is clear that there is a growing need for active citizens, businesses, NGOs, community groups and cities to get together to experiment with ideas for tackling them.
“What’s going on around us, from Black Lives Matter to the gap between rich and poor and climate change, are all things that are very real and very scary,” she says. “Everything affects us all and we need to come together and not live in ignorant bliss. As the saying goes, ‘even if you’re sitting in a Jeep a metre above the ground, the road is still going to flood’. But I have learnt that as citizens we can be empowered to use our voice and our skills to challenge the status quo and take opportunities to create change in our communities.”