Institutional resilience or how the ASToN local teams are growing stronger to fight new challenges and uncertainties
ASToN is a network of 11 African cities working together through projects to transform urban governance practices digitally. When COVID struck, it brought with it a huge amount of uncertainty and the ASToN network faced new questions: Would cities be able to continue their projects? How to build a network that relies on bringing people together in times of social distancing and online meetings? With the project ongoing, these were just some of the questions the ASToN team was trying to answer. While the Secretariat was revising its working method, the 11 local teams also had to find their own way to carry out their work.
COVID-19 was one global disruption, but there were other sources of local disturbances that also came in the way of the ASToN cities’ progress like political changes, social unrest, climate-change flooding, and changes within the coordination teams. All these moments shook the progress of the 11 projects, but they also presented an opportunity for the local teams to build their resilience, grow stronger, and continue advancing their projects. As the cities navigate through these challenges, and they make transitions in urban planning and governance via their ASToN projects, it is important to note that resilience is a critical factor that may add to their well-being. It enables cities to find resources to experiment and innovate in the face of uncertainty, withstand shocks, and build the capacity to bounce forward post-crises.
For the network of 11 cities and their leading secretariat, institutional resilience is not (all) about a speedy recovery and getting the projects back on the rails again. It also involves the ability to adapt and respond to disruptions, exchange knowledge and learn in order to become stronger, all while sustaining a strong vision for a progressive digital transition, backed by the leadership to make that a reality.
To understand how the ASToN local teams and municipalities are growing their institutional resilience, this article presents the good practices employed by 2 of the ASToN cities as shared by their local coordinators: Martin Ssekajja — Kampala’s project coordinator, and Landry Ahomadikpohou Sèmè-Podji’s local coordinator.
Bouncing forward by integrating and adapting to change
By resilience, we mean how an entity is able to respond to shocks and uncertainties and grow stronger as a result of that experience. Researchers and experts have identified 3 possible approaches:
1. Groups, communities or teams can bounce back and quickly return to their initial state. (Basically, you go back to the initial stage, and work on moving forward from there)
2. They can absorb the shock and continue with business as usual. (It is as if nothing happened, and progress made is not hindered)
3. And last but not least, they can bounce forward by integrating and adapting to change, and developing a growth path.
But this is a theory, whereas the complexity of the real world these three approaches are harder to embrace. Throughout the interview with Landry, Sèmè-Podji’s local coordinator, he confessed that “it’s not easy at all to adapt when faced with surprises and uncertainties.” But like Martin, Kampala’s project coordinator, mentioned on numerous occasions, “just because there is a change, the project should not stop, it is essential to ensure project continuity”. To support this process of adaptation and help their teams grow stronger, the two local leaders offered three pieces of advice. First, it is important to acknowledge the problem, second, have a second in command, and third, ensure all your partners and team members have equal access to all project information.
Acknowledge the problem to find the right solution
Martin’s advice for a faster adaptation process is to always start by accepting the existence of a problem. The next step as he describes it is to analyze together with your team how they can approach the problem and who are the people who can help. Once the roles have been assigned, for Martin it is important that resources are dedicated to the ones acting on solving these different problems. For their ASToN project, this is the method that the Kampala team employed when they had to adapt the local legal framework to the experimentation phase according to ASToN’s timeline. The local team recognized that the local procurement process would take time, and as a result, they attempted to plan ahead for the experimentation phase. By timely acknowledging the presence of a problem, the Kampala team was able to gather the right resources to tackle it. They were able to modify their actions to address the unexpected situation and therefore adapt and become more resilient.
Finding a sidekick to lead in times of need
Changes within the political leadership, or within the local team can block the advancement of the project and create uncertainty among the team members or involved partners. Both the Kampala and Sèmè-Podji teams had to adjust to new group dynamics. When Kampala’s project coordinator had to leave for another project, the team stayed in action. Martin said that “what we normally do right from the beginning, is that we assign more people, additional people. At the beginning of the project, we had one of our project officers fully dedicated to the project, but in the background, we assigned several other people to support her. So even when she left it was easy for the support team to adapt. They didn’t find the project new so this is what allowed us to quickly adapt”.
Landry recognizes that as the project coordinator he has a similar approach. He works closely with his team and the second local coordinator, Farid Salako. Together with Landry, Farid follows all aspects of their ASToN project and is always involved in all project meetings and activities. For Landry, this is part of his own strategy to ensure that whatever happens, the project can continue and that there is someone else who can pick up the pace. This practice encourages a truly participatory environment, allowing team members to share their responsibilities, vision, and achievements. By embracing these interactions and interdependencies among team members, the accountability and workload get evenly distributed as opposed to relying on a single member for resources. Counting on various members of the team and tapping into the multiple resources and knowledge they have to offer can lead to creating a solid backup to address unforeseen challenges, and may be considered good planning.
Equal access to information
To help their teams grow stronger and build united local action groups, it is important to ensure that the same level of information is accessible to everyone. This approach is what Landry nurtures throughout his daily work for the ASToN project. Through emails, phone calls, meetings, or discussions, the Sèmè-Podji local coordinator makes sure “that everyone knows all that I know about our ASToN project. This helps to maintain trust in the management of the project and above all, it ensures a certain inclusion and participation of everyone in the progress of the project.” As Landry mentions, this method helps to ask for help when needed, but also for the team members to quickly step in when required.
Accessing knowledge and learning to become more resilient
Constant learning and access to information and knowledge enhance the collective capacity of institutions to respond to and influence the course of actions when uncertainties arise. For the ASToN cities, this pool of information also emerged from the experimentation projects, the ASToN network, and the advancement of their ASToN project. As both project coordinators also emphasized, learning is a key attribute when aiming to enhance your institutional resilience.
Experimentation as a source of learning
For the ASToN cities, the experimentation phase serves the 11 municipalities to test assumptions about their Local Action Plans, in order to understand what needs to be changed. These moments are a rich source of learning. The outcomes emerging from testing ideas are helping the ASToN cities to build their capacity to withstand shocks and thus increase their institutional resilience.
Throughout the conversation with the 2 project leaders, they both recognized the importance of capitalizing on the good practices that emerged internally while advancing their ASToN project. At the moment this practice is not in place due to a lack of resources and it is under-prioritized. Nevertheless, both local leaders have shown their interest in implementing a capitalization approach. Gathering the internal knowledge that emerges throughout the projects is beneficial for both current and future local team members, municipal teams, and project partners. As they learn from each other’s experiences and professional expertise, local members can enhance their skills and employ learnings within new contexts defined by uncertainties.
Leadership and vision can bring everyone together around a common cause
Coming together and working towards a shared goal is an essential part of building resilience. Leaders understand this key aspect and they focus their actions and build strategies to rally everyone around a common vision. For the ASToN cities, this happens by building cohesion around the overall goals, leading the way, and visualizing and disseminating your vision to all actors.
When everyone gets together around a common purpose, the project’s vision may be advanced.
So, building cohesion around the common goal of a digital transition for sustainable and inclusive cities helps to keep partners and local teams engaged and ready to carry on and persevere even during difficult times. As Landry emphasized, “this is for the good of all of us and it is something that we all share in common”. For him, the outcomes of Sèmè-Podji’s ASToN project, the implementation of a digital tool for land management, and the digitalization of the system are all part of the bigger vision that will benefit everyone. For this purpose, he became an advocate of Sèmè-Podji’s ASToN project and shares insights about their project whenever he has the occasion. Landry is fully dedicated to making everyone realize and understand the importance of the work they are doing together. When the political leaders changed in Sèmè-Podji, Landry was still part of the local ASToN team. As he recalls, “I could answer all the questions the new political leaders had. Because I knew the history of the project, I shared why we did what we did up to now.” Knowing the reasoning and objectives of all the activities helped Landry gain the support of the new political team and bring them on board with the project.
Martin goes one step further and stresses the importance of engaging all partners, especially his local team when mapping out your vision and strategy. In this way, his team and all actors involved also own and champion it — they have a common goal towards which they work together.
Through discussions and regular weekly meetings, Kampala and Sèmè-Podji team leaders aim to build cohesion. In Kampala, the local group meets every Friday to sit together and discuss. For Martin, this time with the entire group is very important to take place even when the project is at a slower pace. This brings everyone together to exchange ideas and opinions, and thus more people get on board with the project. Sometimes even new projects can emerge. For Kampala, these gatherings allowed citizens and private companies to pick some ideas and implement them. As Martin mentioned, “we are ok with it! Even if it’s our idea, this idea is supposed to solve citizens’ problems”.
Leading the way
Landry works hard to keep Sèmè-Podji’s sense of purpose strong. For this reason, he tries to provide an example to all partners and local team members through his actions and decisions supporting the ASToN project’s goal. He shows flexibility and adapts to all participants’ needs and this helps to keep everyone on board and continue their work. He takes time to present all the advancements of the project, to recount what has been done, for what purpose, and what’s next. This helps to keep everyone feeling concerned about what is going on, and it creates cohesion among all partners and team members: “I show them that I’m still here and that the project is still ongoing”.
Agreeing with Landry, Martin mentions that when working towards a bigger goal, challenges and constraints are countless, “but you keep on going and you keep driving your team towards that. So you need to be a strong leader who can connect with various people so that you can understand the circumstances in which they are working”. Having this knowledge helps leaders to support their team, but also to make choices about how they can continue to implement even smaller parts of the project and thus prove their dedication to the overall vision.
Framing and sharing your vision with all actors
Framing your vision, strategy, and objectives, and communicating it to all levels, is essential for Martin as it helps bring everyone around a common cause. In this way politicians, municipal teams and citizens own and become champions of Kampala’s goal. As part of their Smart City Campaign, Kampala is aiming “ to be a Vibrant, Attractive and Sustainable City”, and their ASToN project is supporting this cause. But for Martin what is key in achieving this goal is to “go beyond technology and make sure everyone understands what we are doing”, and for this communication is essential.
Practices that improve a team’s capacity to become more resilient
Practicing mutual learning, collective capacity building of the team and strategic leadership has enhanced ASToN project teams’ resilience. The ASToN cities show that local and global adversities and uncertainties can be tackled. With the right approaches and empowered teams, the ASToN cities can move forward. The 2 local leaders of Kampala and Sèmè-Podji show that efforts are put in place to move through difficult moments, but also to grow stronger as a team. How successfully these situations will be overcome will depend on how resilient the ASToN cities are.
 Ron Martin and Peter Sunley, while discussing and explaining the concept of resilience, have surveyed the usage of the term resilience across various disciplines. The authors have identified 3 main interpretations of this concept. Resilience as ‘bounce back’ from shocks, where the “system returns, ‘rebounds’, to pre-shock state or path. [It] emphasizes speed and extent of recovery.” The second type of resilience is “the ability to absorb shocks”. This second type “emphasizes [the] stability of system structure, function, and identity in the face of shocks. The size of shock that can be tolerated before [the] system moves to a new state/form. The third type of resilience is a ‘positive adaptability’ in anticipation of, or in response to, shocks. The idea of bouncing forward represents the capacity of a system to maintain the core performances despite the shock by adapting its structure, functions, and organizations. (Martin and Sunley, 2014)
This article was written by SAAM stad, a consultancy agency working at the intersection of innovation, society, economy, and sustainability in urban areas. SAAM stad is supporting the ASToN Network in capturing and sharing the extraordinary stories and experiences of its members.