From Student to Social Innovator

Alejandra Rivera graduated from 4CITIES in 2019 with an abiding interest in social innovation and hopes of joining a planning or architectural firm. Shortly after graduation, the COVID-19 crisis began and her plans went out the window. Now she oversees research on the built environment in multiple countries for the Institute for Human Rights and Business. 4CITIES sat down with her recently to discuss the unpredictable and ultimately rewarding path she has tread in moving from student to professional social innovator.

Good to see you again, Alejandra. When I reached out to you about having this discussion you were in Brussels for a conference. Have you been doing a lot of traveling? Where in the world are you right now?

At the moment I’m in my European base camp in Torrevieja, a small town in Spain in the Costa Blanca. I think I’ve just continued the 4CITIES lifestyle since graduating. I’ve been lucky enough to do consulting work with various international organizations. Earlier this year I had a project in Cartagena, Colombia. Then in March, I went to London for a work retreat for one week and then to Turkey for a one-week academic workshop in Kocaeli, an industrial city close to Istanbul. But I stayed six weeks in Istanbul to get to know the city better while working remotely. After Turkey I went to Delhi because a 4CITIES friend from Cohort 10 was getting married. We had a mini-reunion there – it was so nice! – and I stayed three months more in India and Nepal traveling to different cities before going to the Maldives, and from there then back to Europe. When you wrote to me I had just finished a workshop in the Netherlands and was on my way to Brussels for the ISOCARP World Planning Congress, where I presented an article on “Healthy Cities as a Human Right”. So, it’s been a mix of traveling for work and also for wanderlust.

If the Internet is correct, you are currently working at the Institute for Human Rights and Business as the Global Program Manager for the Built Environment.

As of July, yes. I actually started working with the Institute for Human Rights and Business (IHRB) in February, 2021, as a consultant with an external contract for two or three months to do an investigation and submit a specific report. Thankfully, they liked my work and the perspective I brought to it and they extended my consultancy agreement for three more months, then six more months. In July, 2022, we were able to secure funding for a big project for the next two years and I came on board as Global Program Manager to help implement the project. Before the funding, the Program for the Built Environment was only in Europe, but we wanted to expand this notion of human rights in the built environment, of social justice in the ways we think and design cities. More specifically, I manage the research process of our project on “just transitions in the built environment”. We will perform field research in eight cities worldwide, two at the same time, so right now I’m working with researchers in Prague (Czechia) and Lagos (Nigeria).

What’s actually involved in managing these projects? What does a normal day of work look like?

I wouldn’t say there is one ‘typical day’ because there are many things going on at the same time. I was responsible for designing and developing the research strategy, the plan, the methodology, and everything that we’re going to investigate in these eight cities. And then also supervising the recruitment process and the research work of the local researchers. In the mornings, I have weekly check-ins with the researchers in Prague and Lagos. They conduct the research, but I oversee what they do and I support them however I can, by being present during interviews, or contacting people, or making sure we’re adhering to the timeline. And I oversee implementation of the program strategy, so how the project fits into the overall objectives of the Built Environment Program of IHRB. We also work with external partners, with the many people working in this space from different perspectives or on climate change or other aspects of transition processes. So, I connect a lot with different organizations and we have some multi-stakeholder initiatives where our goals and programs align.

How do you take a topic like “a just transition of the built environment” and bring that down to more specific research questions or a set of aims? What is it you want to find out in each city and how do you connect that knowledge back to the bigger issues?

That’s one of the main challenges that we are working on: how to operationalize abstract concepts like “just transition”, which can be an empty buzzword. Everybody talks about a just transition, but what is it, really, and how do you begin to look at it in the field? People from governments, from industry, they often lack a clear understanding on the concept of just transition, so sometimes we can’t even refer to that term. We focus instead on the elements of a just transition: e.g. social justice in the way we think of cities, how we plan them, finance them, construct them, what the social considerations are that we should have in place for these processes. And of course what needs to be done to deal with environmental and social issues in tandem.

Basically, we situate social justice within the ecological transition. We start with national climate change adaptation plans, as well as, what cities are trying to do to be more green, and we do a policy analysis scanning for social considerations. One example is the right to housing. You might be familiar with Barcelona’s plan to guarantee housing as a right, but most cities are not so advanced on housing rights or topics such as (construction) workers’ rights, civic participation processes, addressing discrimination, or aiming to be more transparent. We have several principles we look for in the policies themselves, but also in the interviews we conduct. When we talk to the government, or to companies, we get a sense of whether or not they really understand, and care for these issues, and we help to effectively deal with them.

How did you end up getting into all of this? What was the path that took you from 4CITIES to where you are now? Or did it start even before 4CITIES?

It has been such a ride. Looking back, it has been a bit chaotic. None of this was in my mind before 4CITIES. After I graduated in September, 2019, my plan was to stay in Spain, in Madrid, for a longer period or possibly settle there. I started doing another master’s program in international cooperation for development. That was for one year, and my plan was to stay there or get residency through that. In March, 2020, I was getting close to graduating when COVID hit and threw all my plans out the window. It really made me question myself. Did I really want to be here? Was I going in the direction that I want in my life? I freaked out a lot at that time because I was still a student and I didn’t have a job. I applied to as many jobs as I could. I sent like 100 applications! If a job sounded somewhat familiar and I knew I could do it, I applied. But of course because of COVID everyone stopped hiring. Quite the opposite, companies were firing people.

This was all nerve-wracking, but a tremendous learning experience. I learned to let go and to change gears when needed. I thought “okay, the application process is not going to work and I need to do something else”. So, I started sending messages in LinkedIn to people that work in organizations that I like and I said, “I just graduated. This is my profile. I like your organization. These are my skills. How can I help?” Rather than asking for a job I offered help. Most ignored me, many said no, but a couple of people wrote back and said, “actually, yes, we need help, and you have a good profile.” Little did I know that this hustling process would lead me to become a consultant with the UN Economic Commission for Latin America, based in Santiago de Chile.

That first consultancy job was analyzing how COVID impacted land-locked countries in the region, so it’s ironically because of COVID that I got my career started as a consultant. I also consulted for the EU project “Lightness”, one of those Horizon 2020 projects on sustainability and community engagement, and then another project at the UN. I started getting a bit of traction with consulting and had a bit of an identity shift. I was no longer just another newly graduated student looking for a job, I was a professional consultant. This changed the way I saw myself, and also how organizations perceived me. I also arrived at the IHRB Built Environment Program through a consulting role.

Did you feel prepared by your education and life experience for the work you’ve been doing, or did you have to just dive in and figure it all out on the fly?

One of the things I liked the most about 4CITIES is that we applied a critical lens to everything we saw. If there was a new city marketing campaign, we’d want to know what was behind it. What are they trying to do? What forces are really at work here? That critical view is very, very important for any job and especially for what I do now. I did my thesis in social innovation and really felt like I found my thing, but then when I applied to various jobs there was a bit of a mismatch. Architecture companies and design studios or engineering companies, they’re very technical and they were looking for technical specialists. When I changed to consulting it became easier to explain that I am a specialist on the social dimension of the built environment, and to look for who was in need of that.

That actually became quite a strong asset to have, because now investors are requiring their organizations or their companies to report on ESG (environment, social, and governance) factors. Many of them say, “okay, we’re doing this and that on environment and governance, but how should we address the social?” Sometimes, they have no idea how to do social sustainability, and that’s exactly the gap that I saw, and that I’m trying to fill. Being well-rounded with a high-degree of mobility (and “lack of stability”) has turned from something that I had to justify, to actually being an asset. Also, being comfortable with traveling, adapting to foreign places, and building a network all over the world, are additional things that 4CITIES prepared me for.

And in regards to the learning curve, I could point to my most recent jump from consulting to managing. As a consultant, my job was to share my expertise and provide advice, but when I became manager of the Built Environment Program at IHRB I had an entirely new set of responsibilities, including researchers oversight, fundraising, or building coalitions with other organizations at higher levels: with other program managers, with CEOs, with directors, etc. Now I’m interacting more with these people and looking for synergies and opportunities of collaboration to go towards the same goals of social justice in the built environment. It’s been a significant step forward, and a challenge that I am enjoying, while learning and growing into the position.

It is clear that you’re working on topics that interest you, but are you able to engage them the way that you would prefer? It’s natural for all of us to have idealistic notions of what we want to do and how we’re going to go about doing it while studying, but what kind of adjustments have you had to make to the cultural or political or institutional contexts that you find yourself working within?

Yes, there’s a lot of adjusting that one has to do. As students we tend to be overly critical sometimes, or enthusiastically idealistic, but when you go out into the world to try to change it, sometimes you hit a wall. I’ve not hit a hard wall myself, I’ve tried to stay an activist and stick to my ideals, but maybe the channels and the processes have changed. You think as a student, maybe the way to change the world is to go out in the street with my sign and protest and be part of the social movement. And that’s indeed important, but it’s just one type of activism. So, I like to think in the work that I do now, I’m still an activist, but at an international policy level. For example, now I have plans to go to COP27 in Egypt, where decision-makers from literally the whole world will be: governments, industry, scientists, NGOs, everybody that has to do with climate change will be there. I’ll be there to represent the Built Environment Program of the Institute, and to be that voice, to be the activist that poses questions about the social dimension, about social justice, about what we are doing in these areas when we think of climate change. To me this is a very, very cool thing to do, and also a privilege! I’ve been very lucky to find a platform such as IHRB where I can use my professional skills fueled by my personal passion to work and advocate, at this level, for the changes we want to see in the world.


Some of Alejandra’s works: