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VILCO is a participatory action-research project aimed at understanding how local authorities and community groups can collaborate more closely to increase the resilience of local processes in favour of the environment. The project is funded by Innoviris as part of the Cocreate programme.

Project Partners

The VILCO team is a partnership between a wide range of players who believe in sustainable development in Brussels and take the view that, where ecology and the living environment are concerned, this necessarily involves strengthening the resilience of civic engagement in the local community.

The partnership consists of public bodies (Brulocalis, Brussels Environment), participatory process facilitators (21 Solutions), a think tank on civic engagement (Foundation for Future Generations), designers of public services (Strategic Design Scenarios) and scientists (Stéphane Moyson, UCL). Another group of important partners of the project consists of the Living Labs, experimental spaces consisting of community initiatives and the local authorities.

Living Labs

According to Wikipedia:

‘A Living Lab brings together public and private actors, companies, non-profit organisations and individuals with the aim of testing new services, tools or methods in real-life conditions. It involves bringing research out of laboratories and into everyday life, often with a strategic view of the potential uses of new technologies. This all happens through cooperation between local authorities, companies, research laboratories and potential users. The idea is to foster open innovation, share networks and involve users from the start of the design process.’ 

The VILCO project brings together project owners (non-profits, companies and researchers), community initiatives and local authorities in the Living Labs.

In terms of initiatives, the Participative Sustainable Neighbourhoods (St. Job, Oxydable, Logis-Floréal and Le Coin du Balai en Transition) and the In Transition initiatives (Brussels and Etterbeek in Transition) have become involved in the project. These two types of community initiative have a strong presence in Brussels, but differ in terms of their organisation, background and governance. These initiatives’ participation in the project is purely voluntary.

In terms of local authorities, the project benefits from the involvement of four municipalities and a regional body, Brussels Environment. The municipalities involved in the VILCO project are those of the City of Brussels, Etterbeek, Uccle and Watermael-Boitsfort. A municipality’s participation in this type of project must be approved by the municipal board. Each municipality then decides how much time to allocate to research, and who will be tasked with carrying it out. In some cases, there is political participation (aldermen), while in others, officials are delegated and are allocated time to participate in the process.

Since March 2018, the project’s stakeholders have met regularly to engage in dialogue and identify existing problems relevant to the research theme and possible projects to start in order to improve collaboration. The ultimate goal is to identify possible improvement ‘work sites’, to jointly create innovative solutions and to test them.

These meetings are organised and designed by a team of facilitators. For each work phase, methodologies and tools which are suited to the meetings’ objectives are proposed and deployed.

Third Party Support

Where the need arises the VILCO team, calls on the services of a Scientific Committee composed of researchers and grassroots organisations (stakeholders) and a support centre provided by Innoviris which offers advice and thoughts, as well as premises where those involved in similar projects can swap experiences.

The rich mix of different perspectives and points of view emanating from this large and diverse group of actors leads to complex results. However, this diversity is not an obstacle to working together throughout the process (from diagnosis to experimentation and monitoring the solutions being tested for implementation) to try to meet the research objectives and improve collaboration between community initiatives and local authorities. The skills and expertise deployed in the search for innovative solutions are diverse and many: the researchers’ ability to analyse and achieve objectivity, a thorough understanding of the functioning of public institutions, a knowledge of community initiatives and the functioning of grassroots associations. These skills help in designing experimental set-ups and in being able to facilitate these processes.

This text seeks to explore the role of third parties in a participatory process. It focuses in more detail on observing the role of facilitators in setting up co-construction processes to search for solutions to a given problem.

The facilitator’s role is to design the best possible meeting to help achieve the desired results. As a third party, the facilitator is tasked with supporting the group’s progress towards the goals it has set itself. Various tools and techniques can help accomplish this task. In the Vilco project, we have designed and implemented different opportunities for all participants corresponding to the objectives of the project’s different steps and stages.

But why bring in third parties? Neutrality, safety and equality are the three key words that will help us answer this question.


We define as neutral an independent person with no personal interest in the results of the process. Third parties are able to provide an external perspective and take a more objective look at the processes underway. An external facilitator can, among other things, more easily introduce methodologies, tools and know-how useful to the smooth running of a collaborative process, while ensuring coherence between the exchanges and the results expected.

Facilitating opportunities for exchange has been found to be indispensable for setting up a collaborative process. An external facilitator with no objectives of his or her own to achieve will find it easier to support the group in accomplishing its objectives. The main mission of an external facilitator is to support and empower the group to find solutions itself.


In a collaborative process, a facilitator must ensure that the emerging solutions are generated collectively in a framework that has been established collectively. This is called a ‘benevolent’ or ‘safe’ framework. It aims to protect the participants, help them to feel confident, and allow high-quality exchanges in a relaxed and friendly setting. This is reflected in a series of rules to be followed:

  • Speak in the first person (based on your own needs)
  • Don’t make personal attacks
  • Listen before speaking
  • Everyone is responsible for what they say!
  • All ideas are good ideas!

The facilitator in these processes aims to uphold this framework. He or she has the task of:

  • Ensuring that everyone has a chance to speak
  • Creating a listening environment
  • Letting each person have time to speak
  • Being attentive to the verbal and the non-verbal (to the feelings of the participants)
  • Identifying conflict when it emerges
  • etc.

Equality and empowerment

We take as our starting point the principle that many heads are better than one, and that everyone has knowledge and insights to share. For this knowledge to emerge, it is necessary, first of all for everyone to feel able to express their own needs and opinions, but also for all voices to have an equal weight in the discussions. In line with these considerations, in order to support and encourage groups to work collectively and find solutions it is essential to create an environment propitious to collaboration.

This environment can be set up by having equal opportunities for participants to express their ideas and opinions (without distinctions made according to role and status), a framework that gives everyone the freedom to express opinions, stimulating proactivity and a constructive attitude, etc. We believe that the facilitator can, by means of questioning and dialogue, support and empower participants to intervene, have the courage to give opinions, and feel legitimate within a group.

Tools such as collective intelligence techniques can facilitate these processes: helping the participants to adopt different positions and bring out the different options and points of view, encouraging uninhibited involvement of participants, generating innovative ideas, but also highlighting new solutions deriving from all the points of view expressed and generating new knowledge that is worth more than the sum of the different points of view.

Nevertheless, it is important to be clear that it is neither the tools nor the methods that ensure the success of a collaborative process: there is no miracle recipe. The posture adopted plays a crucial role here in facilitating the processes

Methodology and Tools

The methodology applied in the VILCO project’s Living Labs is based on the following principles:

  • Diversity and equality: our Living Labs are made up of a varied group of participants. They bring together citizens who are active in community transition projects, workers in municipal and regional administrative bodies, aldermen in some cases, researchers, facilitators and others – all taking part in the same way and on the same footing.
  • Making experience the starting point: the workshops and activities emphasise real-life experience. Participants share their involvement in past situations, in order to understand these experiences, deduce good practices from them, and also, by means of sharing, to talk about situations that may be experienced in a different way according to each person’s position, and thus enrich the debate.
  • Demystifying: by allowing participants to work alongside people in charge of public functions (local politicians or workers in administrative bodies) and giving them behind-the-scenes access, some of VILCO’s tools help to demystify politics and institutions. For example, the ‘Live my life’ scheme offers an immersion experience in the life of an elected official or municipal worker in order to understand the scope of their work, gain an insight into their constraints, their room for manoeuvre, and the internal functioning of their organisation.
  • Easy handling: the tools are made to be easily transmitted, and a toolbox will be developed so that they can be used in other geographical areas – or indeed other contexts and settings.
  • Visuals: attention is paid to providing tools to present a situation, problem or particular dimension visually.
  • Experimentation: the VILCO project aims to test new ways of collaborating, through either corrective action or transformative action. The experiment will take place at different levels: at the level of the prototype (test, pilot project), the model (simulation), the projection (scenario), etc. Testing, experimentation and projection enable us both to improve our knowledge of a process by asking the right questions, and to lay the foundations for new actions or behaviours based on concrete experiences gained in a secure environment. They also enable projections to be made for the future.
  • A new space: the project enables new spaces for dialogue to be set up, as well as creating a place where interactions can take place. This is why the workshops are designed as collective workspaces, with opportunities for interchange, joint construction of and experimentation with new practices and the introduction of innovative ways of thinking.
  • Adaptation and continuous improvement: the tools that are developed are constantly reassessed in order to suggest improvements and ensure that they are adapted to each situation.
  • A methodology based on different phases: diagnosis, action and evaluation.

The VILCO project has taken place in several phases, during which various different tools have been created.

Involvement of Community Initiatives

In recent years, many community initiatives have been started by proactive individuals. To date, no fewer than 1,200 community initiatives have been listed by the Responsible Consumers’ Network in Belgium.

These citizens are taking action in different areas, expressing their need to participate in the management of the city and the creation of living environments through the collective appropriation of urban spaces. Despite the number of citizens involved, the profile of the members of these initiatives is unfortunately not very diverse.

These community initiatives, which often relate to environmental and social concerns, focus on areas such as food (collective or solidarity-based purchasing groups), energy (renewable energy cooperatives), alternative services and currencies (local exchange schemes), management of green spaces, housing, etc.

The VILCO research-action project features two types of community initiative, Participative Sustainable Neighbourhoods and the In Transition Initiatives, both of which are initiated by and for citizens. They have an environmental focus and the urban space is their main field of action. The main ways in which they differ are in their background, modes of financing and governance.

Participative Sustainable Neighbourhoods (PSNs)

Participative Sustainable Neighbourhoods (PSNs) is the name given to neighbourhoods where citizens have benefited or benefit from the support of Brussels Environment (the regional body in charge of the environment in Brussels) to run projects related to urban sustainability in an atmosphere of friendly participation.

The PSNs, which were created in 2004, allow groups of citizens to access support to implement local projects in their neighbourhood. With this support, they can redevelop a neglected public space, set up bike parking areas, install community beehives, develop a local exchange scheme, or set up a place where people can donate unwanted items, or a repair café, for example. There are currently 46 PSNs in the Brussels-Capital Region.

Cities in Transition

The Cities in Transition network is a social movement that brings together groups running Transition initiatives in their municipality: a process that involves the community and aims to ensure the city’s resilience (capacity to withstand economic and/or ecological crises) in the face of the two-fold challenge of peak oil and climate change.

According to the Transition model, such initiatives offer a platform for encounter and exchange between citizens driven by a desire to increase the resilience of their city to a future oil shock. They are interested in subjects such as energy, housing, food, transport, culture, well-being and education. These various community initiatives have come together in a national network, which now includes a large and growing number of initiatives in Wallonia and Brussels.

Citizen Involvement

The motivations that led the different Living Lab members to take part in the VILCO research-action project are many and varied. Generally, the choice to get involved with VILCO depends on a willingness to seize opportunities and on a win-win situation between the participants. Citizens and local authorities give their time, energy, knowledge and skills to the project, and in this way contribute both to the search for solutions for their own particular cases and situations, and to a wider study that aims to have an impact beyond the issues in their own area. As certain issues, such as global warming and the breakdown of social ties, have emerged, such citizens have started to play an important role, and have been generously proactive in their search for innovative solutions. Rather than waiting for the authorities to come up with answers, they have organised themselves to provide concrete answers and embarked on projects to respond to the different issues: waste reduction, greenhouse gas reduction through the development of active mobility projects, the creation of social spaces in the city, the setting up of local currencies, schemes to promote a local and circular economy, and so on.

However, running these projects requires a certain amount of input and organisational ability. These citizens have therefore had to find suitable ways of working, and learn to organise themselves, be resilient, reconcile people’s differing expectations, be proactive and remain aware of their limitations. The members of these initiatives thus see the VILCO project as an opportunity to reflect on the problems they may encounter, such as the perpetuation of actions and projects in the long term and the mobilisation and diversification of target publics.

The citizens hope, among other things, that VILCO can help simplify community work, and encourage and strengthen ‘links between citizens, voluntary organisations, companies and authorities, to establish genuine collaboration in order to make the changes needed to build a community that is more resilient, more supportive and more ecological’.

Ultimately, at the heart of citizens’ participation in this research-action process, there is also an interest in and determination to co-build a new form of governance within their communities. This theme is dear to the various initiatives involved in the project, which, at their different levels, organise themselves and think about new ways of working, acting and making decisions together.

Modes of Governance in Community Initiatives

‘Governance’ is a term that has been much used in recent years, but that eludes a clear and precise definition. The term is ‘used in various different fields such as political science, sociology, public administration and urban and regional development, and today has many meanings and lends itself to many uses’.

The term originally came from the corporate world, but was later borrowed by political science. Today it is often associated with the way the state and its decision-making bodies are organised. For the most part, it refers to the decentralisation of modes of decision-making, the transparency of decision-making processes, and the effectiveness of public action (good governance).

In political science, governance is the science of the functioning of government bodies. In an essay on the subject, John Pitseys thus argues that governance is a ‘normative ideal associated with transparency, ethics, effectiveness of public action, etc. –a talismanic word that embodies various fantastical notions associated with public action while at the same time exemplifying the reassuring vocabulary of technical objectivity’. The reason why the term is becoming increasingly common is that in recent years, citizens have been getting organised, taking an active part in society and seeking greater involvement in decision-making and changes to the way the state is organised. They are demanding better management of ‘the commons’, and more effectiveness, transparency and democracy.

These initiatives are themselves exploring and experimenting with new modes of ‘governance’ at their own level.

In this text, governance refers to efforts to produce collective rules of organisation. This is what we will try to explore. The way that the modes of organisation and functioning within the initiatives are defined is often of crucial importance for the members of community initiatives. Some of the initiatives involved in the VILCO project have held and are holding extensive reflection processes regarding governance. It was also taken into account as an important element during the research phase of initiatives associated with research, given the consortium’s desire to explore new approaches to governance. It should be stressed, however, that not all community initiatives, sustainable neighbourhoods, collective vegetable gardens and other collectives have new modes of governance, or are engaging in reflection on this subject; such reflections and experiments are not accessible to everyone and require many different skills.

Some of the initiatives involved in VILCO, therefore, have their own governance model which has been chosen by the members independently, depending on the local context and available resources, as well as on the skills and motivations of the people running the projects. Among the different initiatives, both points of similarity and differences can be found.

Most of the time, these initiatives differ in their choice of legal form: some are constituted by default as de facto associations, others as non-profit organisations, and still others as residents’ committees. The reasons for these choices are often practical: the need to receive a subsidy, credibility with local authorities or other internal reasons.

However, several points in common can be identified between them. Firstly, most initiatives reflect on their internal organisation and decision-making procedures. This results in very democratic organisational structures with shared decision-making spaces, although every initiative is different, defining and creating its own mode of governance.

We note that ‘sociocracy’ is often a mode of governance that community groups feel drawn to. ‘This is a method of decision-making and governance that allows an organisation, whatever its size, to function effectively without a centralised power structure in a self-organised and distributed decision-making manner.’ The model draws its democratic strength from the fact that everyone participates in and is valued in all processes, allowing innovative and shared ideas to emerge.

In practical terms, this mode of governance leads to a decentralised structure composed of various circles, with everyone participating in decision-making. This is made possible with the help of collective intelligence tools, which use questions and dialogue to bring to light different options and points of view and at the same time promote the emergence of new solutions based on all the views expressed. Shared solutions can then be collectively created, resulting from discussion and exchange between many different actors.

Several of the initiatives involved in the VILCO project have opted for a decentralised mode of governance with a central core, also called a central or coordinating committee, and working groups open to all. Such initiatives are characterised by a questioning and negotiating stance aimed at continuously improving the reflection processes and the decisions which are taken internally.

They have a positive vision of the future and a real desire to contribute to change.

The In Transition initiatives, based on the experience of other initiatives and of the Transitions Network, which supports them, tests and experiments with alternative techniques, tools and methods of governance. In the Sustainable Neighbourhoods initiatives, such experiments are conducted less formally, perhaps, and in a more spontaneous and disparate way. With the help of the support team, these different collectives can identify the mode of governance and way of working best suited to the people in the collective, or work on an ad hoc basis according to the needs of their members.

Variable Geometry of Involvement and Difficulties of Collaboration

Involvement in the VILCO project is characterised by variable geometry. Neither the amount of time given by the various actors involved nor the way in which their work is rewarded is the same.

It has been agreed that the members of the consortium will have 80% of the pay for their work in the project covered by the subsidy from Innoviris. The remaining 20% is provided by the bodies that are investing in the project on their own account.

The participants in the Livings Labs are not paid from the subsidy. The difference between them is the amount paid by their organisation. The municipalities and the Region have decided to become involved in the project and one or more officials are the contact people for VILCO. These officials may spend some of their work time on the project, but this can turn out to be insufficient and some unpaid time may need to be spent on it as well. All time spent working on the initiatives is on a voluntary basis.

Despite the motivation and high level of involvement of Living Lab members, certain difficulties make this process less smooth. Ever since the project was first envisaged, we knew that time and agendas would be an issue. We were aware that it would be difficult to find times that were suitable for both the initiatives and the local authorities. Those working on the initiatives are volunteers, and can only set aside time for these activities in the evening or at weekends. Conversely, civil servants and representatives of the local authorities cannot always provide services in the evening. In addition, personal commitments and unforeseen events all serve to complicate matters. This gives rise to a first series of significant problems for collaboration.

To anticipate this difficulty and try to overcome it, we have earmarked an expense budget for the initiatives involved in the research . This budget has a twofold purpose. The first is to limit obstacles to participation and enable all citizens to participate equally in our activities and events, as the need to pay a babysitter or travel expenses can be a barrier to citizen participation. The second purpose is to provide a token recompense for the time and expertise devoted to the project.

A solution still needs to be found to encourage officials and representatives of local authorities to get involved outside working hours. This is an important issue in the VILCO process. Perhaps this is something that could be tested experimentally.

Further Information