Changing Course: Old Cities, New Challenges

Changing Course
Photo by Hao Pan on Unsplash

Over the past few weeks we’ve been shining a light on the work of the Think City Institute, both in its education and advocacy roles, and its mission to create and sustain a new generation of placemaking experts. We spoke to Dr. Richard Engelhardt, an historian, archaeologist, and anthropologist who is a longtime advisor to Think City. 

A former UNESCO Regional Advisor for Culture for Asia and the Pacific, Richard is one of the architects of the Think City Institute, and was instrumental in creating its Sustainable Heritage Management course, a six-month online learning programme organized in collaboration with UNESCO Bangkok.

Building on the success of that course, framed around the UNESCO’s Competence Framework for Cultural Heritage Management, TCI recently announced the launch of Old Cities, New Challenges 2021, an online adaptation of a course that Think City has operated for a number of years. 

Presented in association with the Getty Conservation Institute, Old Cities, New Challenges 2021 (OCNC21) is the second in a series of courses for urban conservation in Southeast Asia. Operating over 12 weeks from September 11 2021, this interactive online course seeks to provide participants with a more comprehensive understanding of conservation methodologies and provide them with effective, practical tools and techniques they can use in their own conservation, heritage or placemaking practice. 

We caught up with TCI Lead Duncan Cave to talk about the new course, challenges in creating online and distance learning platforms during a pandemic and the role that the institute has to introduce and shape a new generation of grassroots urban advocates.

How did you come to get involved with Think City and TCI?

Duncan Cave: I’ve been with Think City since 2013. I come from a background of law and business. I was working in Hong Kong and New Zealand prior to coming to Malaysia. 

I joined Think City when it was mostly just a grants vehicle to kickstart the urban regeneration of George Town. I was impressed with what the team was doing, which seemed to me [to be] attempting to answer many of the questions that I had as a citizen, [as] somebody who lives in a city. You know, why were we allowing our cities to become more and more homogenous and anonymous. And why weren’t we fixing those really simple problems, such as broken pavements? Why had we given over the planning of the city to cars? And so, when I had the opportunity to join Think City, I jumped at it.

People know Think City. They know what it does. They’ve seen the results of its work. How does the Think City Institute extend its mission and ethos?

Duncan Cave: You might say that the institute has been in gestation for almost a decade. From the very commencement of Think City, we recognized the importance of documenting what we’re doing, so that, if one day, it ceases to exist, our learnings wouldn’t be lost.

Very early on, we saw the need for capacity building with those who work within the sphere of what we call citymaking and we’ve been running courses with international and local partners for around 10 years now. This has sort of been done on a needs basis rather than with a fully plotted strategic roadmap. In 2019, we thought that we should try to formalize what we were doing and take our learnings from over the past 10 years and create a knowledge repository, as well as a capacity building organization. And so, the idea of TCI was born. 

We felt that there were gaps in what was available locally for those interested in citymaking. At university, students can learn certain skills when they’re doing a degree in architecture or town planning or the like, but we wanted to bring real-world situations and apply best practice from around the world and try and make sense of that in terms of the Malaysian and Southeast Asian context.

In terms of those offerings, how are the courses at TCI shaped by the work that Think City does?

Duncan Cave: We try to complement our community’s practice, but we’re not beholden. We have freedom to explore other areas of knowledge. Perhaps, [something that] isn’t being covered by one of our teams but is being covered by a partner organization that has expertise in this area.

Having said that, Think City is an impact-driven organization. So, we are working on projects and programmes that we feel are of high importance here in Malaysia and also in Southeast Asia. So, with that in mind, I think that much of what we cover, the Institute will naturally reflect what our communities are doing as want to have as much impact as possible.

Going back to that point about the acquisition of new skills. What is your vision for the Think City Institute?  What kind of evolution would you like to see and what kind of skills building do you think it can promote?

Duncan Cave: I would like it to become [a] citymaking forum where all those who have an interest in citymaking come to share their experiences and learnings. There’s so much knowledge out there in this part of the world that needs capturing. We need to sort of tap into that and persuade people to become part of this community and that’s not going to happen overnight. I think, within a couple of years, we might start to see the beginning of this, but I think as we run courses and increase the amount of content that we have on our website, we’re going to start to see more and more people become involved with what we’re doing.

You mentioned real life skills earlier. Who are the people who should be signing up for course at Think City Institute? 

Duncan Cave: Well, we’re not trying to be an academic organization…[or] a university. So, we’re not aiming at students per se. As I mentioned, citymakers, anyone who’s working in in the sphere of citymaking. Mostly, we’re aiming at professionals, but for example, if we’re doing a course on, say, conservation, participants might include architects and town planners, obviously, but then there’s also those who work for related NGOs, such as heritage trusts, or perhaps even property developers. The broader the group of people that we can get to participate in, say, a conservation course, the better it is for our cities.

We want our courses and our publications to be turned into real change at street level.

We hear the term accessibility used a great deal in relation to education.  Is it easier for someone to decide to pursue a course with the Think City Institute based on that proven track record, rather than to complete that more formal process and sign up with a traditional academic institution?

Duncan Cave: Maybe not easier. Because our courses tend to have prerequisites for people to attend.  And then we will select people based upon their background. Having said that, I think it frees us up to broaden the range of people that could attend. So, I was mentioning people who work for an NGO, such as a heritage trust, they do some very important work, and I would rather have somebody who’s not a professional, who’s maybe not got a degree in architecture or town planning, but has a real passion in heritage and is working for a heritage trust. 

Somebody like that might have more impact on their city than somebody who’s been sent by the city council that they work for…they’re not really that interested. It’s perhaps more impactful than easy.

To that point about impact, how do the courses and the institute’s advocacy component complement one another?

Duncan Cave: Our plan is that each course will have a webinar component. Usually that will be to kick off the course. The idea behind that is to try and explain some of the issues to a wider audience. Our hope is that these webinars will reach new audiences, so that they can become part of a movement in that issue to help address those issues. 

In addition to that, we’re going to be having a certain percentage of scholarships available for our courses. The cost of developing our courses is very expensive, but if we can offer scholarships, it means that we’re not excluding those from less advantaged backgrounds in being part of that learning process. So, we still see our advocacy role as very, very important.

With any kind of education programme, credibility is a key factor. People need to know that what they’re learning something that will be valued and recognized. What are some of the partners that Think City Institute is co-creating the course with? 

Duncan Cave: If you go online now, there’s literally thousands and thousands and thousands of courses that you can take from people who are claiming to be experts in their field but you’ve never heard of them before.  We’ve taken a different approach. I mentioned that we’ve been [running] courses for a decade or so now.

We took the approach that we wanted to work with very reputable organizations, right from the beginning. We started working with the Getty Conservation InstituteUNESCOUN Habitat and organizations like this, where we know that the content that they have is of high value and their reputation is also very good. By working with them, I believe that our own capabilities have grown. And I think a reflection of the task, is that now we are approached by a lot of organizations from overseas, from all around the world who now wish to work with Think City and the Think City Institute.

With the pandemic last year, that kind of changed everything. Suddenly, these large organizations like UNESC are wanting to do courses. We had discussed doing something with them, but it was going to be a live course, you know, in-person and suddenly they realize that this isn’t going to happen. We felt that we were in a position to move very quickly, being a smaller organization than someone like UNESCO. We can make decisions easily and quickly and decide to develop something online. 

The response has been very positive. We finished our first course with UNESCO a couple of months ago and they were so happy with it [that] they have come back to us and said, [they’d] like to start working on a second, complementary course and also for something for next year. So, the response has been very positive. 

We’ve been approached by three or four international organizations – I don’t really want to say who they are just yet because negotiations are still [under way] – but to have seen our work with UNESCO and to want to develop content of similar nature with us, we’re very pleased with the approach so far.

Of course, we should discuss the courses themselves. Can you tell us more about that collaboration with UNESCO?

Duncan Cave: That was the Sustainable Heritage Management course. And this is really aimed at people who will be working in world heritage sites in Southeast Asia. It actually sits within the core competency framework that is being developed by UNESCO. It was a six month-long course. There were five modules that were developed by five different universities from this part of the world. They looked at sustainable development, heritage policies, the laws and regulations, community rights and knowledge, and then heritage, education and interpretation.

[With] this course…there was an element of self-learning. Prerecorded videos and readings. And then there would be a live lecture come tutorial session with each part of the course. That live section is critical. There’s a lot of content out there which is just self-learning. [You need] that live session where [you have] the question and answer [sessions] and the mentoring. I think that was what made the course so successful.

We’ve also just finished another course, which is called Dollars & Sense, which was all about cultural heritage. We partnered with ICOMOS Malaysia for that. They brought in their network of fellow ICOMOS chapters from other parts of the region and this looked at culture, heritage and conservation as one module and cultural heritage economics as another module.

This was very oversubscribed, and I must say thank you to Citi Foundation, who helped fund this with a grant. We had initially wanted to keep this to 35 or 40 participants. We had something like 200 people apply for the course and the calibre was so high of the people applying [that] we increased the class size to 95, which is what the platform, the software would allow us to do. 

We had people from all over the world doing it. We had people from Argentina, Peru, from North America, Africa, Europe, Central Asia as well as you know, Southeast Asia and Australasia, a truly global classroom. 

And it was fabulous. You might expect that when you have a large classroom like that, you’re going to have all sorts of technical problems and it’s hard for people to be involved. But we broke it into small groups of 10, and then they worked together, and it was truly inspiring to see somebody from Argentina working with somebody from Indonesia on a project. It gives me great hope for what we might achieve in the future.

What about forthcoming courses. You mentioned a second round of the Cultural Heritage Management Course and the parties that Think City Institute is in discussions with. What should we be looking out for?

Duncan Cave: The next course that we’ve got coming up [in October], something that excites me as I’ve been working on this as a live in-person course since 2013, I think. This is with the Getty Conservation Institute and it’s called Old Cities New Challenges

Turning this in-person course into an online course presents huge challenges, but it also gives us a great number of opportunities. We can broaden our reach and we can teach more in depth as well. And we can use the technology to teach in interesting new ways.

The course features eight international instructors who are spread over five countries, from California through to New South Wales at the two ends of the spectrum. So, it’s 18 hours or something like that [in terms of] time difference. So having our meetings can be challenging. It’s been anxiety-inducing for some of the speakers [and] instructors, because they’ve not done this before but I’ve assured them that by the end, they’re going to be so gung ho about it that they’ll be setting up their own YouTube channels.

We [held] a webinar [on] the 29th of May [as] the official launch of the course. We are making the application form available on our social media and on Think City Institute’s website from the 1st of June [until 30th June].

Going back to that idea of impact and achievement. If you look ahead five years, where would you like the institute to be and what kind of impact would you like to see it having on the heritage profession around the region?

Duncan Cave: I would definitely like us to be the go-to forum for Southeast Asia.  I would like to us to be seen as the Google of citymaking in this part of the world. We’ve discussed heritage but we cover everything. It’s just coincidence that the first courses have been about conservation and heritage.

We firmly believe that what we’re trying to achieve at the institute is a very much needed service for Malaysia and ASEAN. Because so much of the material out there, be it on placemaking or conservation or social resilience, [has] predominantly been done by European or north American organizations. We must acknowledge that we can’t just do a cut and paste approach to urban regeneration. 

What works in say Birmingham or Berlin or Brooklyn won’t necessarily work in Bangkok. Our building materials are different. The climate is different. Of course, the cultural differences are huge. For example, if you’re creating an open space in the UK, you want to emphasize catching the sun. Whereas, in this part of the world, that’s going to keep people away from the space. 

What we can learn is the principles such as community engagement or community empowerment.

I hope that what we can do is [take] global information [and] shine that through a lens of Southeast Asia and become a thought leader for this part of the world. 

Find out more about Old Cities New Challenges and the rest of Think City Institute’s courses at