YORK/HABITAT NETWORKING INITIATIVE (Y/HNI)
The York/Habitat Networking Initiative was part of a larger 'Project on Human Settlements' carried out by the Faculty of Environmental Studies (FES) at York University in Toronto, between 1986 and 1989. The United Nations Centre for Human Settlements (Habitat), which relocated its Information Office for North America and the Caribbean to the faculty in 1986 also participated. The project was sponsored by the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation, a crown corporation of the federal government, whose focus is on improving housing and shelter conditions.
The Project on Human Settlements was a multi-faceted one, with four main elements:
There was a great deal of overlap among these four areas of responsibility, since all of them provided a knowledge of the national and international human settlements environment, as well as a large number of contacts, to those working on the networking initiative.
The focus on networking was meant to enhance the role of the Habitat Information Office so that it would become more than a distributor of information. In partnership with FES, it would also become a catalyst and active participant in the process of problem-framing, research, policy making and project development. The end result would be the promotion of a more integrated, holistic approach to deal more effectively with settlements issues, both locally and globally, by those individuals and organizations with interests and activities in this area.
This was to be brought about through the provision of settings to bring together key members of various constituencies immediately involved in the field of human settlements. These constituencies included: academics, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), the private sector, government, and international agencies.
The implementation of the networking initiative was primarily carried out by a core team nicknamed the 'Habgroup'. It consisted primarily of the FES/York Project Co-ordinator, four graduate student assistants, and the Habitat Information Officer and his Executive Assistant.
The main activities undertaken by the Habgroup included: the official opening of the Habitat office, a mailout survey, participation in an international conference on homelessness, a series of constituency meetings, establishing a contacts database, and individual networking projects by each student assistant. These activities will be briefly described in the following pages.
Official Opening of the Habitat Office
The first opportunity to begin actively networking within the field came in March 1987 at a gathering of over 100 people invited to FES for the formal opening of the Habitat Information Office. In preparation for this event, the Habgroup met several times to draw up a list of potential invitees, in order to ensure adequate representation from each of the involved constituencies. It turned out that the only sector that was under-represented at the opening was the private sector and this was primarily because of the organizing team's lack of contacts in that area.
It was a day-long affair with an agenda carefully designed to provide participants with opportunities to speak to one another. In addition to speeches by government officials and a panel discussion by experts emphasizing the need for innovative approaches of a more holistic, trans-disciplinary nature, there were a number of breaks for coffee, lunch and cocktails. These breaks enabled the invitees to get to know one another and share information on their activities.
The opening was judged to be very successful by those in attendance. It raised the profile of the office and the faculty in a positive manner and allowed the participants to experience a wider sense of community based on the integrating concept of human settlements rather than just their constituency operations.
Though the occasion provided an opportunity to make a number of personal contacts locally, there were no attendees from outside of Canada and few from outside of Toronto. This may have been because the event was relatively short and largely ceremonial.
Interaction at a personal level enabled individuals to be evaluated for a variety of factors, of which perhaps the most important were:
- their knowledge base
- their contacts
- the nature of their organization and their role within it
- their present and planned activities
- their resources
- their personality and style of interaction
- their beliefs and values
- their willingness and ability for further collaboration.
Mass Mailout of Survey Questionnaire
During April and May, research was done to compile a list of people throughout North America who might be interested in joining the expanding network of contacts. There were three avenues of this research:
1. the Information Office's membership list for the Habitat News periodical, which is mailed quarterly to over 1500 members;
2. indexes of the various universities with programs in urban geography and international development, found in the reference section of the university library;
3. phone calls to individuals in umbrella organizations in fields related to human settlements and international development, for advice on who might be worthwhile contacts.
Finally, fifty individuals and organizations were chosen on the basis of their anticipated interest in the York/Habitat Initiative to be recipients of a mail-out survey questionnaire. The questionnaire was designed to gather information about these people, their activities, and their interest level in actively participating in the network.
The results were disappointing. Only one questionnaire was returned. The Habgroup later came to the conclusion that the paucity of returns may have been due to the following factors:
many of the survey packages were addressed to university departments, thereby not giving any particular person responsibility for responding; Habitat was not well-known; the concept of human settlements was too general to promote a close identification among more specialized researchers.
The United Nations proclaimed 1987 as the International Year of Shelter for the Homeless (IYSH), with the United Nations Centre for Human Settlements (UNCHS / Habitat) being given primary responsibility for promoting it. One of the main activities that took place in Canada was a national IYSH conference from September 13 - 16 in Ottawa whose theme was "New Partnerships - Building for the Future". It was to reflect the necessity for innovative co-operation between the various sectors involved in housing and social development. The sponsors were the Canadian Association of Housing and Renewal Officials (CAHRO) and the International Council on Social Welfare - Canada (ICSW).
The Habitat Information Office set up and staffed a display booth there on behalf of UNCHS. The Habgroup and a number of FES faculty and students were there to attend the seminars and workshops as well as meet various people in the field of human settlements, including the Executive Director of UNCHS, who delivered the keynote address.
On the whole, the formal sessions did not seem very constructive, with many of the presentations only re-iterating what most in the audience already knew. The informal activities seemed much more interesting and useful because of the opportunity there was for interpersonal networking.
Informal socializing, during coffee breaks, meals and other lulls in conference proceedings, seems to break down the constraints imposed by more formal situations. People can talk about anything they want, rather than feeling a need to confine their discussion to a single topic. Participants ask questions, express opinions and provide information on items of concern. Finding points of mutual interest, sharing experiential anecdotes, and relating present activities are the normal topics of conversation.
Strangers meet best in small groups of three or four, from which it is easier to extricate oneself should the company not be to one's liking. Groups of two or three appear conducive to more in-depth discussion on a topic. Personality convergence is as important to good networking as mutual interests, so a good networker will generally also be an empathetic, sociable person. It helps to have a number of personal 'business' cards to hand out to those you meet, as well as a pocket notepad for getting names, telephone numbers, and detailed information.
There were three informal occasions at the conference that offered the chance to make contacts: the Innovative Shelter Exposition, the special breakfast for the executive director of UNCHS, and the wine and cheese cocktail hours.
The Shelter Exposition featured about sixty information booths with exhibitors from the UN, government departments, and organizations and industry representatives active in innovative housing and social development. It was very easy to make contact with people in this setting. The arrangement of the tables was conducive to lengthy, relaxed conversations and the display materials acted as good icebreakers. Nametags came in very handy - the names and organizational affiliations could be read at a distance, simplifying the identification of new contacts.
A special breakfast, to which about two dozen key people had been invited, was prepared for the Habitat director. It was an excellent opportunity to note how carefully the invitees had been selected. In any field, there is always a group of people who, by virtue of their office, their work, or their writings, help shape the identity of the field as a whole. They provide the leadership and direction, and often the resources, for the activities in that field to be carried out. Though, as any Washington socialite hosting a cocktail party knows, it is very useful to bring such people together, it is very difficult to do so. Schedules of busy people are notoriously hard to synchronize, even for an early-morning breakfast hour. In this case, a basic list of people who would contribute to, and benefit most from interaction in, such an 'enriched' environment was drawn up with the 60% rule in mind. This rule states that of those personally invited, even including those who have confirmed they would be there, only 60% actually will come.
The occasion proved to be very successful, with a great number of ideas and business cards exchanged. Interaction was aided by the conscious effort made by Habgroup members in attendance to introduce people to one another and facilitate the beginning of conversations. A smaller room had been chosen for the event so that the social distance between conversants was cut down, leading to a more intimate atmosphere.
The wine and cheese parties at the conference were good places to go to meet people. Here was where participants were at their most relaxed, no doubt helped by a glass or two of wine. The personality factor in networking seems to come into play in these circumstances much more so than in other informal situations. One has the opportunity to circulate in an unhurried way among a generally large crowd of people, most of whom are receptive to meeting strangers. The lack of time pressure, the 'party' nature of the event, and the need to relieve the stress built up during a long day of conference attendance, all contribute to an impetus to seek out those whom one can enjoy oneself with. Often it means gravitating toward those one knows already, but frequently it allows one to make contact with new people whose personalities are synchronized with one's own. Potential bonds of friendship are there, sometimes leading to commitments of further interaction after the conference is over. This kind of networking is a very natural one and contacts made on this basis can be quite fruitful.
The Habgroup met on numerous occasions to plan and coordinate the York/Habitat networking initiative. The purpose was to involve as many people in the field of human settlements as possible in on-going, action-oriented, collaborative endeavours with each other, Habitat, and York University. Such an approach, it was assumed, would be more successful in dealing with the multi-disciplinary nature of settlement problems than previous approaches involving academics almost exclusively.
The Habgroup thought it best to divide the potential participants into various constituencies and invite them to York in a series of meetings. These constituencies were: Academics, Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs), Private Sector, and Government. Besides these categories, it was felt that, due to the nature of the Faculty of Environmental Studies and its proximity to the York/Habitat initiative, meetings of both the students and faculty in FES should also be arranged.
The purpose of the meetings was to define issues and develop a process by which these issues may be addressed. In particular, feedback on the role of the Habitat Information Office as a catalyst or facilitator of such a process was sought. The initiative would serve to develop a trans-sectoral 'working group' of dedicated people who would apply themselves to advancing the emergent network. It would also apply itself to identifying and implementing projects that would not otherwise be possible.
The choice of who to invite to these meetings was not an easy one. It was decided that those who were thought to be good networkers would be good choices. They would bring with them: contacts, fresh and broad perspectives, and experience in designing processes of this nature. A wide range of interests were to be included: geographers, planners, civil administrators, housing specialists, community human service workers, self-help organizers, educators, communications experts, specialists in environmental issues, among others. Again, as in the case of the official opening of the Habitat office, most of those invited were local to Toronto and personal contacts of Habgroup members.
The meetings generally lasted about 3 hours and had the same agenda format. The general schedule was:
- a social meal (luncheon or snack foods) [45 minutes]
- background given on the York/Habitat Initiative [15 minutes]
- self-introduction by participants, explaining their involvement in the field of human settlements [20-30 minutes]
- discussion on the goals and approaches of the 'network' to be formed as a result of the Initiative [30 minutes]
- discussion of needs and potential collaboration with Habitat office [45 minutes]
- presentation of projects being undertaken by the Graduate Assistant members of the Habgroup [20 minutes]
On November 5 1987, a meeting was called to discuss the topic of Human Settlements and the potential role of the FES/UNCHS (Habitat) connection. All students in the Faculty were invited to come and contribute ideas. It was expected that many would take advantage of this opportunity to appraise an area that is multi-disciplinary, indicative of the global problematique, and directly pertinent to their local realm of activity.
Why only ten students actually showed up may have had less to do with conflicting schedules (a demonstration for peace in Latin America took place at that time) than with the way the subject was perceived. It was surmised that: human settlements, perhaps because of its all-encompassing nature, was not an easily focused-on, 'sexy' topic; that people saw it primarily in terms of Third World rural development and therefore not applicable to their study interests in the Canadian context; and that both the UNCHS organization and its FES Habitat Information office had not developed a high enough profile to capture people's attention and elicit involvement, especially at a busy time in the term.
While the turnout to the meeting was much less than hoped for, the students who did show up provided an interesting discussion of the topic of Human Settlements and how it might relate to their studies at FES which included: community development, pathology of urbanization, tourism, suburbanization, film/video documentaries, co-operative development strategies, rural development, international law and ecologically-sustainable development, processes in development, and computer networking.
The suggestion that received the most interest was the proposal to hold workshops attended by people knowledgeable in the field of human settlements. This would not only allow for information exchange and learning, but would have the practical benefit of giving FES students connection to potential employers, partners and colleagues.
Ten academics from York, University of Toronto and Ryerson Polytechnical Institute met with Habgroup members at FES in November 1987. Their fields included anthropology, politics, education, planning, urban history, geography and environmental studies.
After an informal luncheon, they discussed human settlements issues, their interests and activities, and the potential liaison between themselves and Habitat. The following, excerpted from a followup letter to attendees, are the main items suggested as important roles and activities for the Habitat Information Office and those who wished to involve themselves with it.
"The current role of the information office to disseminate information upon request as well as maintain a basic library of international journals and U.N. materials should be continued. What is needed, however, is both a horizontal and vertical development of this existing resource. Its nature should reflect an expanded concept of Human Settlements, i.e., a wider variety of materials as well as a more comprehensive approach to each individual area. This resulting resource would provide a valuable asset to those conducting research in the human settlements area...
A research and development network could be established to provide a sharing of information on research being conducted in developing countries. This sharing could be between the constituencies themselves and could facilitate the development of resource bases in developing countries. The information could be disseminated through a computer network, journal or newsletter...
...the possibility of creating a working group that would approach the human settlements area in an expanded wholistic sense. The group could take on projects such as a newsletter or journal and begin to promote human settlements as the focus for international development.
The issue of funding of the group's activities and its relationship to other institutions would have to be explored. The working group would be a vehicle for drawing in participants in a broad range of human settlements activity and operate as a forum for the exchange of ideas and information in addition to the development of potential projects...
...a high-quality academic journal be established as a collaborative effort involving Habitat. This journal would feature articles relating to Human Settlements written from a multi-disciplinary perspective, a perspective that current journals do not seem to have. The aim of the publication would be to 're-frame' the issues to promote a wholistic approach...
...members of the proposed advisory group, and any others interested in human settlements, (could) maintain on-going communication via computer conferencing. A locally-based computer network called Web could provide this service relatively inexpensively..."
This January lunchtime meeting was called to give the teaching faculty of FES an opportunity to get an update on the activities of the York/Habitat collaboration and to discuss how they might become involved. About 20 people came to ask questions and to offer suggestions.
The Initiative Co-ordinator gave an overview of the strategy to build a network of contacts in various constituencies: NGOs, governments, private sector, and academics. The Habitat Assistant explained the traditional role of the information office.
Suggestions from the discussion included:
1. Developing links with others
- mailout questionnaires didn't work when tried last personal connections needed, with tangible results
- link human settlement research in Canada with that in other countries
- establish contact with other universities doing human settlements research - Berkeley, Harvard, MIT
- Association of Collegiate Schools of Planning (conference in Buffalo, Nov. '88) should be invited to Toronto for a meeting with us - some FES faculty are members
- re: twinning of cities - InterMet in early 1970's had the notion of a global network of urban centres - we need a workshop to integrate this office with other organizations with similar foci, once a year
2. Use information technology
- need a comparative database for research, e.g., many 3rd World researchers expressed interest in women's involvement in grassroots development in 8 Canadian cities
- continue move into expanding communications - proposal to create a computer conferencing link between contacts - video and education project
3. Seek out resources
- office should try to seek funding for projects in collaboration with FES faculty
- MIT offers fellowships for space research on human settlements
- CMHC may make some funds available for research
- Habitat internships and assistantships can be solicited for research work
There seemed to be a few good ideas that came out of this meeting, though there was little followup to them by the people invited. This may have been an indication that interest had not been cultivated enough. In view of the fact that the Habitat information officer had not yet been appointed (he arrived five months later), it would have been difficult to make any real decisions to begin any collaborative activities, anyway.
Some meetings appear to be important for political purposes. Colleagues like to be kept informed about local goings-on. The meetings also serve to indicate the local attitude toward specific activities, and hence the likelihood of support and collaboration.
Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs)
There was a poor turnout to the NGO constituency meeting held in March. Of the 15 people invited, only 4 came. The focus of the organizations they represented included adult education worldwide, community economic development in Ontario, and civic infrastructure projects in the Third World.
The following suggestions were made:
It was thought that integration is a good idea but too complex to implement easily. More connections between NGOs and academia are needed but since communication/information must be active don't focus on documents in the information office, focus on money to influence human settlements policy in the world.
Students could do evaluative field studies of NGO field work - CIDA's evaluations are not very useful and often are not made available.
A conference might be organized to collect and disseminate information on projects, research, and actors involved in alternate economic development in Ontario.
York/Habitat must be careful of issues of "turf" when applying for project funds. Joint projects with NGOs must be mutually beneficial.
There seemed to be three main reasons postulated by those in attendance as to why people did not come to the NGO constituency meeting:
1. They were very busy and their schedules wouldn't allow them to participate. This is a very common and important limitation to face-to-face meetings. Perhaps having the option of computer conferencing, which is asynchronous and aspatial, could alleviate this problem.
2. They didn't think it was worth their time. They weren't convinced of the importance of either the subject matter or the multidisciplinary nature of the process. They were not given sufficient expectation of tangible rewards to themselves for participating. The Habitat organization wasn't well-known enough to be seen as an enticing opportunity.
3. Their organizations were more inclined to compete with other NGOs than cooperate with them. This meant it was unlikely that they would know any of the others invited. Their personal and organizational networks would not have extended to groups that might be rivals for funds.
Private sector and government
The next meeting involved both the private sector (mostly members of a realtor's association) and the government (representatives of various municipal, provincial and federal departments). It centred around the topic of 'integrated urban management'. It proceeded much in the same vein as the previous meetings, with similar results. There was a good discussion about the nature of the problems demanding integrated solutions, and many ideas as to what were particular strategies to follow to implement such solutions. There were, however, no concrete, on-going, purposive collaborations that arose following the event.
There were other gatherings in the Faculty involving Habitat. In mid-December of 1987, eight experts in the human settlements field in Canada met at FES to provide CIDA with feedback on its Human Settlements position paper. The Habgroup organized and facilitated this two-day meeting. A month later, another expert session was held there to assist in the writing of the Human Settlements Strategy document of the Canadian government that was presented at the UNCHS Commission conference in New Delhi in April 1988. Both gatherings produced an insight into the content area of the field as well as the process of policy-making. Knowing who the experts in a particular field are enables an organization to bring them together to create policy documents for the benefit of other fields. This also reinforces their being regarded as 'experts' in the future.
A database of contacts that the York/Habitat Networking Initiative had made over the past year was compiled. The software used was a program in the WordPerfect Library called Notebook. It was designed to give a listing of names, organizations, and telephone numbers as well as separate records with more detailed information on each person and organization. The database could hold up to 2,000 records and allowed for various types of searches. It was started in early February 1988 and various members of the Habgroup added to it on an ongoing basis.
Having a record of the members of a network is very important. It not only is useful as a reference for those immediately involved but also for those who may become involved at a future date. Having one location for telephone numbers and addresses saves a lot of time and trouble, especially when many people have to be phoned or sent mail to. A drawback to this kind of system is that the information on new contacts must be entered soon after they are made, with periodic updates. Computerizing a contact listing such as this makes it very fast and easy to do searches in order to get sublistings of people who share some common characteristics, e.g., live in a certain city or have the same interests.
Graduate Assistant Projects
The four graduate assistants involved in the York/Habitat Networking Initiative each began working on their own individual projects in the Spring of 1988. These exploratory projects were related to human settlements and provided an opportunity to broaden the emerging 'network' of contacts.
One assistant did a workterm in Kingston, Jamaica. He worked with the local UNCHS representative to document project work being done in the Caribbean. He also became involved with grassroots organizations, especially in the health sector, to determine the feasibility of establishing a micro-computer based network throughout the region.
Another visited governmental organizations and NGOs in Ontario to tell them about the Habitat office and to assess their potential involvement with his development of the use of video as a human settlements project management tool. He travelled to Indonesia and did a Video Case Study of a project there.
The third explored needs and identified approaches related to international urban management initiatives currently being developed in Ontario and to began to identify ways of establishing links between central and local agencies as well as government, commercial and community sectors. Contacts and individual meetings were made with key people at local, provincial, federal, and international levels in Ontario.
The fourth student (the author of this paper) explored the potential for using a computer network as a means of enhancing communications among those involved in the human settlements field in Canada. He created Habnet on the Web network and tried to get people to join and use it.
These graduate students' projects greatly expanded theInitiative's network of contacts. They also raised the profile of both York University and the Habitat Information Office. By promoting the concept of a new 'integrated' approach to solving human settlements problems, they perhaps influenced their contacts to be more amenable to pursuing further inter-disciplinary efforts in the future. Their work also offered them invaluable insight into the social dynamics of networking among individuals, organizations and institutions.
Lessons Learned From Y/HNI
It appears that there are limitations to using a series of face-to-face meetings as a method of creating new, interdisciplinary networks. This is especially true, it seems, if the meetings involve different participants each time. The facilitator's ability to keep up the pace of interaction over time, including the mailing out to participants of both invitations to the meetings, telephone confirmation of attendance, and updates on the progress made, will depend on the time and resources allocated to the task. For a network to become action-oriented, good co-ordination is essential. Facilitators should be aware of this and ensure that they make the necessary efforts to fulfill this function.
After the initial statement of ideas for collaboration, there should be a follow-though with a consensual decision on which ideas are do-able by the members of the group within a given timeframe. Then task allocations must be made. A lack of stated commitments that would ensure immediate and sustained collaboration will mean that it is not yet a working network.
Opportunity costs for accommodating new involvements must therefore be considered by participants. They have to decide what they have to change in their present activities in order to take responsibility for any new commitments made.
Face-to-face meetings seem to be a good way to develop a closely knit network of people with shared interests. What is important, though, is that they not only find their "common ground", but that they renew their contact on a frequent enough basis to sustain their participation in the network. There seems to be two main factors in sustaining the connections: extrinsic and intrinsic motivation.
The extrinsic refers to the rewards of participation - the people must feel they come out ahead in the trade-off between their time and what they get out of the meeting. If they come away from the gathering feeling they could have made better use of their time elsewhere, they are not likely to continue coming to subsequent meetings of that group. This means that, for each member, the resources expended on the network must not exceed in value the products of the network.
The intrinsic refers to the feelings induced by the process of networking. Participation may be continued longer in the absence of identifiable rewards if the process of communicating with other members is enjoyed as an end in itself.
Good interpersonal contacts often are the result of mutual back-scratching. Identifying common goals and sharing resources to meet them are good ways to strengthen bonds between members of a network. Doing favours for people without any immediate recompense can lead to reciprocal offers of assistance at a later date. Regardless of whether one eventually gets a favour returned or not, one of the best ways to build a supportive network is for each member to be as helpful to the others as possible. This means paying consideration to more than just one's own needs, and actively increasing one's awareness of the other members' situations and requirements.
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