Wohnen in Berlin #2: The Concept of Pecha Kucha in Politics

Pecha Kucha is originally a format for “informal and fun gatherings where creative people get together and share their ideas”. In the process of developing the Stadtentwicklungsplan “StEP Wohnen” for Berlin, the Senatsverwaltung für Stadtentwicklung und Umwelt used this rather innovative concept to develop interdisciplinary discussion. To evaluate this interesting step of the Senate, I ask: How does the format Pecha Kucha function in politics? And is it the right tool when wanting to develop mutual understanding and further, dialogue?

On 4th March I spent a sunny afternoon in the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung on Hiroshimastraße, Berlin. Inside was warm and indeed, the rather pessimistic street name set the tone of the day:

It is the third session of “Wohnen in Berlin”; the Finale, the day where the Stadtentwicklungsplan 2013 Berlin (StEP Wohnen) is to be presented. The program includes an introduction from Senator für Stadtentwicklung und Umwelt Michael Müller followed by the presentation of the plan associated with hope and disappointment, the Stadtentwicklungsplan, by Reiner Nagel, Head of Stadt- und Freiraumsplanung.

Diversity is the Keyword

The theme of this third session is “Auf der Mischung kommt es an” (Diversity is the keyword) and as in the past two sessions, the more formal contributions are accompanied with the format of Pecha Kucha; a model of presentation through which a diverse group of participants has the opportunity to have a say. In detail, Pecha Kucha means chitchat and allows the participants to show 20 slides of powerpoint, each lasting 20 seconds; summarized: 20 images x 20 sec.  Pecha Kucha creates a platform for the creative class where they can present and articulate their projects. The format presents a way to include a diversity of voices in the debate and in that sense, a good and democratic method. It is practiced all over the world at the so-called Pecha Kucha Nights and has at this bright day found its place in Berlin.

Apart from the majority of the audience, I am here to see how Pecha Kucha develops in the forum of politics. I was a frequent guest at the Pecha Kucha Nights in Copenhagen and am quite fascinated of the concept. Originally being a forum for creative startups, I am a bit critical for this idea of somehow formalizing a transient and carefree concept in such a serious debate. Moreover, I am interested in, if it is a method to start the discussion, which the Senate has invited everybody to join.

The Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung is filled to the brim. Along with myself, many Berliners had showed up on this sunny day to share their interest in the future of their city and moreover, their own future. The audience counts different citizen groups but the pensioners won the critical majority. Hitherto, the air was tense and when Michael Müller steps on the podium, it becomes emotional.

Suddenly a whole group of demonstrators takes over the stage with a megaphone, banner and the paroles: “Mieten stopp” (Stop the rent increase) and “Ihr habt eure Pläne ohne uns gemacht” (You have made your plans without us) and are after their speech carried out with applauses of the audience. The ground under the politicians becomes unsteady: Under curses and spontaneous ironic applauses from the audience, mainly pensioners, both the introduction by the Senator and the following presentation are carried out.

Supported by numerous and unfortunately unreadable graphs, Nagel presents the problems and solutions of the urban Berlinian future. In 2030, Berlin will grow with 250.000 citizens and at present state; the city cannot embrace this amount of migrants. The StEP Wohnen lists seven solutions to this problem, the most important being “Berlin braucht Wohnungsneubau für alle” (Berlin needs new flats for everybody). The plan is to expand the building mass within the S-Bahn Ring, which is a statement that creates a row of questions from the audience. After the presentation, a few of the persistent hands are selected to formulate their question for Nagel. In total 6 questions are allowed. All questions asked are emotional and while asking, one even breaks into tears. Everybody wants answers explaining the rapid increase in rent and how the Senate is going to build new payable flats for the less fortunate. Everybody doubts the idea of diversity.

Left in a latent aggression, the debate moves on to Pecha Kucha (PK). Not being the best base from which to begin the chitchat, it goes surprisingly painless. The chitchatters are Sebastian Jung (mieterstadt.de), Stefanie Frensch (HOWOGE), Bernhard Hummel (Miethäuser Syndikat), Paul Eldak (DSK), Henrik Thomsen (CAA Immo), Kirstien Ring (AA Projects/Selfmade City Berlin) and Stefan Komoß (Area mayor of Marzahn-Hellersdorf Berlin).

Pecha Kucha in Politics: A Constructive Communication?

All of the above present their projects, their praise and critique. The Pecha Kucha in the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung worked technically as it should. Many of the presentations stuck much more to format, short and clear, than those I have been acquainted with during my visits to the Copenhagen PK Nights. Along the way, the audience joins in with either acknowledging or ironic cries and applauses. This response culture resembles and even exceeds what I have heard at my numerous PK Nights in Copenhagen.

An overall conclusion can agree on Pecha Kucha as being an innovative communicative model in politics. As it remains a model though, one has to adapt it to the premise in question. Is this fancy, and occasionally superficial, presentation tool of the creative class suitable for discussing such an emotionally loaded political topic?

According to my memory, PK is mostly filled with laughs, which is at the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung on the contrary influenced by strong emotions. Here the PK is not only for fun. I ask myself, if it can still be characterized as Pecha Kucha. Sure, the format is there and the participants follow the rules but the audience is not relaxed and is not letting themselves be inspired, more letting this afternoon be a vent for their anger.

I am not sure though, if the failure to reach a mutual understanding is a product of this new interpretation of the PK-concept in politics or merely a dysfunction in the general development of the plan itself. From my point of view, three relations obstruct an understanding through PK concerning the political topic of “living”:

Firstly, the concept of Pecha Kucha can be used to introduce cooperation between the pros and cons when dealing with the theme living. The Senate has realized that a dialogue between the former and the latter is longer process and uses alternative methods to articulate and embrace the different opinions of the debate. In my opinion, it is an innovative draw but this particular theme requires cautious steps.

The concept could bring lucidity into the debate. By lucidity, I mean introducing the constructive ideas, which are able to develop the discussion into a productive consensus. The question is though, if the opinions on the theme “living” has not polarized to such an extent that a consensus seems unattainable. At the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, the different presentations yet again sketched out the polarity of the conflict but a bridge here in between remained distant.

One could argue that the concept of PK in itself never would be able bridge opinions. Yet, it provides a format where alternative suggestions can find their way into the debate and redirect the focus from the impossible. By the PK on StEP Wohnen, these examples were absent. Yet, the last speaker, Stefan Komoß, argued for an improvement of schools and other educational institutions, held appealed for another type of decision-making and other values than the dichotomy of pro and con. By presenting more of this type of lucidity, the PK could provide a constructive extension of the field of discussion than the reduction of for or against.

Secondly, one of the cautious steps in the debate could be to adapt one’s communicative tools to the recipient group. As the majority of the audience was pensioners, one could ask why exactly this concept has been deployed in this age context and further argue that the pensioners form the wrong age group to test the concept of Pecha Kucha up against.

Thirdly, as Copenhagener I observe the Berlinian “living” conflict at a distance and can deduce that the difficulty of creating a constructive citizen participate program in Berlin seems like a hard nut to crack. The Berliners like to have a say about their city, the extensive the better. The dilemma is related to eternal discussion between representative and direct democracy and the question: Who has the right to decide? And to what extend?

At the moment, the social democratic government of Berlin suffers from the negative press of the economic failure of the BER airport. As a result, they have lost terrain and legitimacy in the debate and therefore, the arguments for more direct democracy in political decisions concerning urban planning are increasing. From my point of view, this has unfortunately motivated the citizens to mobilize their opinions against the government instead of mobilizing them towards a solution.

To the right of me, a version of today’s program lies next to a leftover demonstration flyer. Its headline lights up in the more or less empty conference hall: ” Ihr habt eure Pläne ohne uns gemacht”. On this 4th March, many have listened. Yet, not everyone understood and was unable to intervene. The concept of Pecha Kucha is indeed a fresh breeze through the numerous amount of formal political presentation – a good first step – but when letting it remain a communicative model, it looses its power to create diversity in a discussion and it remains on paper.

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