Supporting more democratic, responsive urban planning and design

By Peter Baeck and Sophie Reynolds | 02 July 2020

COVID-19 has had a profound effect on local government, forcing changes that would otherwise have taken years. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the focus on making the most of data and new technologies to enable new forms of local government services. 

However, with this focus comes a risk of repeating many of the mistakes made by the last decade of ‘Smart City’ initiatives, putting technology before people with public backlash and failed pilots that don’t reflect peoples lived experiences as a result. 

However, with the right focus technology and new uses of data can also be a tool for creating a new relationship with citizens and empowering communities. The biggest opportunity in this area is the use of technology to better mobilise  the collective intelligence of the city - enabling people and communities to solve city challenges such as campaigning against air pollution or providing mutual aid during lockdown. 

One area where the wisdom of citizens can play a vital role is in planning. Experience has taught us that imposing controversial large-scale urban projects on citizens without their input or involvement is an invitation to vicious backlash. While offline consultations, co-design workshops, surveys and other methods have helped architects and planners understand and involve communities, innovation in technology and online platforms is enabling new ways of using the collective intelligence of whole cities and communities in the urban planning and design process. Below we look at three different opportunities in this area for smart cities:

  1. Enabling more people to get involved in urban planning and design 

Most of us have some experience with FixMyStreet, an app which allows citizens to report localised information about problems such as potholes to their local authorities. Many councils are already using it to better target their efforts. But FixMyStreet is now just one of a range of collaborative platforms and projects developed to involve citizens better in planning.

For example, in 2015, as they worked to remodel Plaza de España in Madrid, the city council created the Decide Madrid platform to involve citizens in all stages of redevelopment - from identifying the needs and ideas for the redevelopment of the square which shaped the invitation to tender through to commenting and voting on the proposals submitted by architects. The successful proposal for remodelling the plaza was selected after it received 183,476 votes from citizens giving the authority a huge mandate for the work. And in Australia, the gamified online platform Plan Brimbank dispenses with planning jargon in favour of simple concepts and visuals to solicit input from the local community on their views about planning schemes. Brimbank City Council successfully used the platform to carry out its strategic review. Through a blended process of online and offline engagement, it reached  nearly 2,000 users aged 15-80 and was particularly popular among typically harder to reach younger age-groups.

2.  Using novel and citizen-generated data to better understand the diversity of the city and its needs 

New and often citizen-generated sources of data can radically speed up and enhance traditional data collection for urban planning processes. 

Bhuvan is a single platform, used in India, where different stakeholders can collaborate - with greater speed than before - to produce city master plans. Bhuvan integrates crowdsourced local infrastructure data added through an app, with satellite data to create maps that help cities with effective land-use management and responsive planning.

Citizen-generated data is also being harnessed to facilitate and encourage greater diversity and equality of place too. Data shows that in big urban areas, people tend to cluster by income, even at the micro-level of restaurants, cafes, bars, and shops, reducing integration. The Atlas of Inequality, in Boston, in the US, uses data about individual patterns of movement, so that policymakers and business owners can plan for a greater diversity in interactions between city residents of different income levels.

3. Using collaborative technologies to manage and share assets

Just as they provide new opportunities for understanding urban needs and involving people in planning and design, CI-based approaches can be used to change how local places and assets are managed and governed once they have been put in place. This can help ensure that places continue to reflect the needs of the community, even if these change over time. 

One way of doing this is through the increasingly popular idea of crowdfunded community investment and ownership of assets. Projekts Skatepark (Manchester)- is just one example of many across the country of local residents transforming underused spaces - in this case the space under a motorway - into useful community amenities.

At the moment the use of smart city strategies still tends to be limited to larger cities with more resources. However when integrated effectively, and in combination with collective intelligence approaches that enable citizens to have a bigger say in shaping their cities - they can support more democratic, responsive urban planning and design at all levels of government. Something we badly need if we are to rise to the challenges and opportunities of our post-pandemic world.

Peter Baeck is head of the Centre for Collective Intelligence Design at Nesta and Sophie Reynolds is a researcher at Nesta

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