Tucked away in a discreet corner of Sants, a group of architects, designers, and social scientists are quietly but tirelessly working to reshape Barcelona’s public spaces and improve the quality of urban life for residents.
"Convivencia," says Clement Rames, the 29-year-old co-founder of aquí, a grassroots social innovation collective whose mission it is to create a more liveable and sustainable future in collaboration with the communities they serve.
"In English, it would literally translate to 'coexistence'. But it's a bit stronger than that,” he explains, emphasising its focus on harmonious living and communities taking agency over their own public spaces.
This idea came up a few times discussing aquí's work in the barrios of Barcelona, which, with the backing of the EIT Community’s New European Bauhaus’ (NEB) Ignite initiative, has helped transform these neighbourhoods using simple yet innovative ideas.
A grassroots operation from the get-go
Sharing insights into aquí's journey, Clement describes the group's unique approach to design and their journey towards a more inclusive and equitable cityscape, at a time when questions of gentrification and the use of the public realm are once again on the agenda throughout Europe.
"In our first project we collaborated with neighbours of all ages and backgrounds to build urban furniture that encouraged social interaction," Clement says. "Witnessing people come together, using the finished product, and seeing it become an integral part of the community was incredibly fulfilling for us."
Clement co-founded aquí, alongside urban designer Lea Karrasch, as an organisation whose work would extend from the pair’s activist beginnings. The pair saw a need for design solutions that were at once aesthetically pleasing, environmentally conscious, and widely accessible.
“We had to use whatever we could to start the project,” Lea says, “whether that be contacts in local government or reclaimed materials. It was a very grassroots operation from the get-go.”
Both had previously been involved in workshops and protests within Barcelona, fighting for cleaner air and better urban environments during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Finding growth under the EIT Community's NEB initiative
"Through that initial phase, we built an association. That’s how we came across the EIT Community’s NEB Ignite initiative. Their funding was crucial in allowing us to undertake our first project,” Clement says. aquí has since become a worker cooperative, with the team growing to five committed professionals.
EIT Community’s NEB initiative – under which they run programmes in education, innovation, and business - is part of the European Commission’s European Green Deal, supporting designers, entrepreneurs, innovators, and startups working on improving sustainability and inclusivity in peoples’ daily lives.
The Ignite initiative’s event series, in which small consortiums of arts centres, social enterprises, and citizens’ associations come together to celebrate their shared values and goals, operate as a kind of incubator for the best entrepreneurial ideas emerging at the grassroots level to tackle the challenges faced by communities across the continent.
The event hosts select a jury of experts to give teams with most credible business solutions a chance to realise their ideas through the Grow NEB programme. The programme allows selected groups to better define their projects with the help of mentors and to prototype a beta version of their idea. Clement says this enabled aquí to expand their research and development efforts, implement new ideas, and collaborate with other like-minded people and organisations.
Another thing, he says, is the EIT Community banner has bestowed a kind of legitimacy to their work.
It gives us more weight when reaching out to other organisations and individuals. And personally, it confirmed to us that our ideas aren't crazy. Having the backing of the EIT Community and NEB helped us believe that these projects could be implemented, so in that way it’s been a huge help.
Clement Rames, Co-founder of aquí
For Clement, aquí both embodies and fosters its core principles of sustainability, solidarity, and diversity, which he considers a strength in their approach.
"It's funny because Lea's German, I'm French, and the rest of the team are from Catalonia. And although three of our team members are designers by training, one is also a sociologist, another an urban planner, and I'm an engineer. This multidisciplinary background means our understanding of design varies quite a bit from convention."
A way in which aquí distinguish themselves is their philosophy, which is centred around “solidarity, rather than charity”, as Clement says. Their aim is to empower people and foster a collective sense of responsibility for Barcelona’s neighbourhoods.
"For us, it's about building power and agency at the community level, creating ecosystems of care in which entire communities work together and take responsibility for their own wellbeing.”
aquí sees bottom-up collaborations as the future of city design
“We're not super saviours who can just wave a magic wand at these problems. Rather, we’re trying to build solutions together with other initiatives and community groups to help create lasting connections that extend beyond immediate assistance."
Clement Rames, Co-founder of aquí
In terms of impact, the group say they are here for the long haul.
"I'm very lucid about the scope of our impact, which is admittedly quite local right now," Clement says. "But its future growth lies in creating these connections, which then generate greater impact along the line.”
“Through this work we've already seen transformation take shape in various ways. For instance, by planting seeds of intersectionality and gender inclusion, we've witnessed other collectives starting to consider these issues in their own activities. So for us, it's about sparking long-term change and creating a more inclusive and empowered community.”
A native of Belgium, Clement acknowledges the significance of cultural and historical factors in shaping people's perception of their cities and of themselves as active participants in their creation. This understanding of the unique challenges and aspirations of each community is key to aquí's bespoke solution-building – a recognition that context specific design can be essential for effective urban transformation.
"Whenever we start a project in a new neighbourhood, we spend months getting to know the place, the people who live there, the collectives that are already active there, to better understand the lived experience of the place."
He says it took him a long time to learn the local landscape of his adopted city. "I lived in Barcelona for years before I felt like I had the understanding necessary to be able to work here."
Inclusivity and sustainability aren't empty words for aquí and the EIT Community
While securing funding is crucial for aquí's projects, it’s another challenge entirely working with larger institutions who have their own values and ways of working. Navigating these complexities while making a positive impact in a way that respects aquí’s mission can be difficult, Clement admits. “But having folks at EIT Community like Tommaso Emiliani and Marianne Lemberger, who believed in our vision when we were still very small, was huge for us.”
Tommaso is glowing in his praise of the group and their vision of urban spatial justice. “The aquí team was one of the most successful start-ups during the pilot run of NEB’s Grow programme, and had the chance to research and develop the commercial potential for their unique methodologies of citizen engagement,” he said.
“Inclusivity and sustainability aren’t just empty words for them; aquí have actually done the work of forging an involved community of citizens creating new and more liveable urban spaces for everyone. We at the EIT are unequivocally excited about their vision and current successes.”
Projects like aquí’s are beautifully manifesting New European Bauhaus into reality. With the support from the EIT Community NEB, what aquí is building in Sants has become an incredible example of how to put NEB values into practice.
EIT Innovation Project Officer Teresa Thiebaut
Throughout their journey, aquí have witnessed transformative moments affirming the impact of their work; from collaborating with neighbours to build urban furniture encouraging social interaction, to organising an open-air cinema celebrating the diversity of Barcelona, the collective's work has become integral to the communities with whom they work.
We see our approach as collaborative, rather than competitive. Working with local governments, neighbourhood groups, it can take time to build up trust. So it’s essential to stay patient, remain open to dialogue, and seize opportunities at the right moment.”
Lea Karrasch, Co-founder of aquí
aquí's story exemplifies the power of grassroots initiatives in shaping public spaces
for the better. Looking ahead, they envision more synergies between actors across different European cities, enabling the replication of successful initiatives and creating more beautiful and sustainable city spaces.
People over profit
"We want to foster a sense of ownership and pride among neighbourhoods," says Clement. It’s precisely this collaborative philosophy that has enabled aquí to tap into the collective wisdom and creativity of the people they work alongside, ensuring the solutions they design are attuned to the unique context of each space.
Through this collaborative design approach, aquí have helped redefine the concept of placemaking, focussing on process over outcome, and on people over profit. With the support of EIT Community and the New European Bauhaus, they continue to transform Barcelona’s urban landscape one neighbourhood at a time.
As for Clement and Lea, they remain firm believers that innovation need not always be high-tech: simple solutions and local organising can be harnessed to empower communities, promote inclusivity, and create a more liveable urban environment for everyone. This ode to simplicity is what has helped them redefine the concept of placemaking in their home city, in collaboration with one another, working in harmony for the greater good; in convivencia.