At Open Cities Lab, we work hard to conceptualise our vision for impact and a practical approach to realising this impact. This blog features an interview with OCL’s CEO Richard Gevers, and the Gender Equality and Social Inclusion lead, Thandi Bhengu to give a deeper look into the introduction and development of the new “Gender Equality and Social Inclusion” domain and the vision for it going forward.
Rich, can you talk a bit about the operational structure of Open Cities Lab and how it guides project work?
The organisation is structured through what we have been calling a ‘functional matrix’ in which all of our projects are implemented. It is composed of impact pillars and domains or key capabilities down the side. Essentially, the functional matrix is a framework for working towards our overall mission. The impact pillars hold up the mission, which is around creating inclusive urban spaces and improving social cohesion through more open and transparent democratic governance practices. The domains are the “how” behind project work and the skills of the team, while also representing the areas that we’d like to develop more capabilities in, which is where the Gender Equality and Social Inclusion domain came in.
In the early days, we were still trying to define how we envisioned the organization having impact on the issues that we were passionate about solving. The process to get to where we are now was very iterative, and in a way, we let the mission evolve from the organisation and the people, rather than defining it before we had a clear sense of our unique offering. The move to develop an operational structure that reflects this “self awareness” was one of the most recent steps of this process, and has helped orient us in what is an emerging field.
What sparked the addition of the Gender Equality and Social Inclusion domain?
I wanted to create something that not only advocated for inclusion and openness, but that also embodied these principles in the way that it operates. Fast forward to where we are now, we’re at a point where there are leaders throughout the organisation and team members are encouraged to lead their own space and while each domain contributes to a project differently, they are all equally critical to the entire organization.
The addition of Gender Equality and Social Inclusion came out of a recognition that up until recently, our domains were largely based around technical capabilities. In our iteration process, we realized that the domains as a function provided a useful frame to think through key capabilities that we should be striving towards, not only focusing on key capabilities we already have. We started to think about the domains as the DNA of projects, what we want projects to be made of and to not only serve projects, but to also represent how we as an organisation view the world. We wanted to ensure that our mission and what we actually do are aligned, and make sure that our culture reflects our mission.
How do you envision OCL playing a role in the broader GE&SI conversation? What perspective is unique to OCL?
I think our most unique perspective in this work is that we see the link to larger impact as starting within our own organisation and relationships. We believe it is of the utmost importance to embody these ideals and perspectives in our culture. Different to some of our other projects, GE&SI work is not a categorized product or project, but intrinsic to who we are. Eventually, we hope we can translate this work into practical, implementable, and foundational outputs and platforms, but our main focus at this point is to educate ourselves on how we can embody principles of gender equality and social inclusion awareness within our team that we can then translate into our work.
Thandi, as the domain lead, what are your goals for the domain? What would you like to see happen?
We need to be intentional in our approach, so I’ve been doing a lot of conceptualising and brainstorming to develop some initial ideas around frameworks and ways to link Gender Equality and Social Inclusion principles to actual project work. I’ve been thinking about this domain in three loose categories to help structure how we grapple with this and set priorities.
The first section is related to incorporating GE&SI principles into the way that OCL collects, analyses and shares data to ensure that marginalised groups are represented equitably. Part of this is recognizing that data is inherently biased and tends to give preference to more traditional identities. Critical to developing a GE&SI data strategy is ensuring that we are considering elements such as intersectionality and making effort to capture those that aren’t easily identified through traditional data capture procedures.
The next important section we are integrating into the GE&SI strategy is in our engagement processes and methods of engagement with communities. Similar to our data strategy, incorporating GE&SI into our engagement processes means structuring engagement sessions in a way that makes it safe for those who might traditionally be excluded to participate, and to integrate a GE&SI lens in our content that we put out.
Further to this, we also need to upskill the team on knowing how to construct engagement scenarios that are inclusive and accessible for many different identities. This also means having the ability to redirect or change the course of an engagement that has perhaps not gone according to plan and needs to be reoriented. In terms of our content, this means training team members on how to write with inclusive language, and establishing a specific GE&SI review process for our content.
What do you think success looks like for OCL in incorporating this work into the domains?
In terms of our direct impact in communities, I think the first prize for us would be a marked increase in participation of traditionally marginalised people in our work. This means not only participating in our engagement sessions, but also finding value in our projects and tools. In our datasets and data capture process, success would mean that any analysis of our datasets shows that we have put in the effort to collect intersectional data, and possibly have the ability to represent intersectionality graphically.
Secondly, a marked change and incorporation of GE&SI principles into the work of our partners is another indicator of success for us. A major part of OCL’s work is done through intermediaries and partnerships with other CSOs. Part of our GE&SI work will include ensuring that intermediaries and partners also have access to our GE&SI framework, and that we spend time helping them understand how to incorporate it into our shared work.
Lastly, as Rich mentioned, it is also important for us to ensure that our organisational culture reflects the principles of social inclusion and gender equality. Success for us also means continuing to build an organisation that is inclusive of all identities, empowers team members to grow professionally, and is actively working to build social cohesion and empathy.
A question for both of you now — what are some of the biggest issues you hope this domain will begin to address?
We have high hopes for the GE&SI domain to have significant impact over the long term, so our vision for this domain at this time is looking at the bigger picture of gender equality and social inclusion issues in the South African context. That being said, one of the major issues we hope to have impact in is the way decisions are made in all levels of government and ensuring that gender equality and social inclusion are key features of government decisions, with a specific focus on decisions that are geared towards supporting and empowering women.
In terms of how we plan to approach this work, we want it to be emergent and iterative. We don’t want to fall into the trap of thinking all meaningful work only takes place in the frame of a project — we believe we can do important and strategic work in an undefined and iterative way by prototyping ideas as a way to see what is having the most traction and positive impact. Ultimately, even though we are formally making a decision to pursue this work, we have the opportunity to make an impact in cities across the continent in our current project work, such as developing data strategies for cities with a GE&SI angle, but want to remain curious and responsive in the process.
The Gender Equality and Social Inclusion domain is a result of Open Cities Lab continuously evaluating whether we are taking steps to achieve our mission. The golden thread within this domain is to ensure that we are demonstrating an understanding of social inclusion and gender equity by incorporating a GE&SI framework into our own organisational structures and culture. While we are eager to define the specific details of what this looks like, we also want to let the process unfold in a way that allows for opportunities to learn and expand our understanding of what this type of work requires. The road ahead is exciting, and we look forward to documenting and sharing our learning process along the way.