Can “co-creation” help cities find a new way to solve their problems?

Hamburg: one of the cities exploring the benefits of “co-creation”. Image: Getty.

Every city is a puzzle. Where do you build new houses? What happens to traffic flow if you add another pedestrian crossing to a busy road? Why aren't more people using the sports facilities at their local park?

Questions like these, along with countless others that touch upon everything from bus shelters to bollards, are the sort of thing that keep urban planners up at night. Sometimes they dream up the right answer; sometimes their solutions anger local communities – especially if those communities feel they haven’t been properly consulted.

But what if there was a way to tap into the collective wisdom of citizens and involve them in shaping their surroundings?

That’s the promise of co-creation, which aims to break down hierarchies between local government, business, academia, citizens and other stakeholders. Ideally it should lead to greater innovation, better targeting of resources and an increased sense of ownership of projects and their outcomes. In short, it’s a bi- or multi-directional approach to problem solving, rather than a top-down or bottom-up one.


Private sector companies have been toying with the technique for some time, drawing on the loyalty of their customers to tap into ideas that might not arise in the boardroom and foster support for new products. Then there's OpenIDEO, a well-established "design and innovation" platform for people who want to use their talents to solve global challenges such as climate change and the energy crisis.

Now an increasing number of cities are using co-creation platforms to tackle challenging issues like mobility, air quality and urban regeneration too. The Nexthamburg project, for example, was launched in 2009 to source innovative and creative ideas for urban development in Hamburg.

Medellín, Columbia, has also developed a platform called Mi Medellín to sound-out citizen solutions to urban challenges. And Better Reykjavik allows Reykjavik citizens to submit their ideas for everything from school opening times to new playgrounds, and played a key part in the transformation of the main commercial street in the city, the Laugavegur, to a pedestrian only zone.

OrganiCity, a €7.2m EU-funded project, aims to apply co-creative practices to three leading smart cities: Aarhus, London and Santander. Rather than searching for the perfect solution to every urban problem, the project aims to shift the focus of smart city intiatives toward experimentation. At its core lies a recognition that if smart cities haven’t delivered on their promise so far, it’s because they’ve all too often been viewed as a series of technological challenges that need to be solved, rather than a complex cultural, financial, legal and organisational one.

A screenshot from Mi Medellín. Click to expand.

Aarhus, London and Santander are very different cities – culturally, organisationally and size-wise – so experiments which work across all three cities could eventually work in other cities that join the project. A quarter of the OrganiCity budget (€1.8m) will also be set aside for an estimated 25-35 projects suggested by citizens. There will be two open calls for submissions; the base challenges for the first open call in January 2016 are mobility, air quality and connecting communities (which is a particular concern for London citizens).

“There's lots of stuff the bottom-up approach can do,” says John Lynch, who's leading the project on behalf of Future Cities Catapult, “but there's lots that it can't. And the top-down approach tends to be ‘go to the public and do a qualitative analysis or survey, or run a couple of focus groups and meet-ups, or stick a piece of paper on a lamppost and hope someone reads it’. We're hoping we can, as far as experimentation goes, make it a bit more of a mutual process.”

Lynch hopes the platform will ultimately act as a networking and enabling service for innovation. “Imagine if, when you have an idea, there's a lounge you can go to where you can find out how to run a workshop and develop it further,” he says, “or about some technology you can immediately hook onto, or someone who has a similar idea who you could collaborate with.”

Ideas for experiments will be sourced through a combination of workshops, meetups, conferences and online discussion on message boards and social media. The hope is that a more open approach to experimentation will stop smart city projects becoming trapped within health, environmental and urban mobility silos, which can limit the overall effectiveness of a smart city.

Along for the ride

It's not hard to see how co-creation could also help tackle some of the problems associated with urban regeneration projects, which alienate long-standing communities. Dr Rachel Sara, the programme leader for Master of Architecture course at the University of the West of England, believes co-creation can also help to break down barriers between academia and citizens too.

By way of example, she points to Hands-on-Bristol, a co-creative initiative which saw students and academics collaborating with the Bristol community on a number of live projects. Nooks and Crannies, for instance, focused on the redesign of a link bridge and access lane; while the Redcliffe Wharf Outdoor swimming project produced a design for clean, safe and financially viable swimming within Bristol Harbour.

A screenshot from Hands-on-Bristol. Click to expand.

These projects allowed students to experience the conflicting agendas of diverse groups, and local citizens got to benefit from resources that often remains trapped within the university. “We wanted an architectural education to be much more connected with the city in which it's a part,” says Sara. She describes the live projects as “forms of cultural and community activism” that aim to “empower the participants to take direct action and change their spaces to better suit their needs”.

The form-filling, red-tape and town hall meetings that are the bread and butter of traditional public participation can seem rather stale in comparison to platforms like CitizenLab, a new civic engagement platform that any city can roll-out. It allows anyone to come up with an idea, post it, interact with other people's ideas and upvote their favourite ones via anonymous polls. Gamification techniques are also used to reward citizens for their input; every action they take results in an increase of their engagement score. This in turn leads to citizen badges and real-life benefits like theatre tickets.


Like many other co-creation platforms, CitizenLab is designed to shift participation in urban planning beyond a select group of vocal citizens who have the time and motivation to attend town hall meetings. "That’s the main advantage of online civic engagement,” says Wietse Van Ransbeeck, founder and chief executive Of CitizenLab. “You can reach an audience that otherwise you would never reach."

With cities facing increasingly complex issues around affordable housing, public transit, gentrification and climate change, it seems likely that more of them will seek to tap into an underutilised resource: citizens with smart ideas.

"I believe we're moving beyond an era where we are willing to let the state decide what our neighbourhoods need," says Sara. Given how many cities are now experimenting with co-creation techniques, it seems she might well be right.

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Southern Rail is resuming full service – but how did the company's industrial relations get so bad?

A happy day last August. Image: Getty.

“I cannot simply operate outside the law, however much I might be tempted to, however much people might want me to,” a pained Chris Grayling said on TV on 13 December. As the first all-out drivers’ strike shut down the entirety of Southern’s network, the transport secretary insisted to interviewers he was powerless in this struggle between unions and a private rail operator.

But rewind to February and Grayling’s Department for Transport was putting out a very different message. “Over the next three years we’re going to be having punch-ups and we will see industrial action and I want your support,” Peter Wilkinson, the Department’s passenger services director, told a public meeting:

“We have got to break them. [Train drivers] have all borrowed money to buy cars and got credit cards. They can’t afford to spend too long on strike and I will push them into that place. They will have to decide if they want to give a good service or get the hell out of my industry.”

Wilkinson was forced to apologise for his comments. But when Southern began to implement driver-only operation, replacing conductors with non-safety-critical “on-board supervisors”, unions weren’t convinced by claims it was all about improved customer service. “This is a national fight – we’re not going to let them pick off one group of workers at a time,” a spokesman for the rail union RMT said in April.

The strikes have been repeatedly characterised as being about who opens and closes train doors. Journalists might consider this the best way to capture the distinction between different modes of train operation – but it’s also the easiest way to dismiss and ridicule the dispute.

The reality is that with driver-only operation, all operational functions are removed from conductors. It’s then left to drivers to assess – at each station – whether it’s safe to leave the platform. Aslef, the train drivers’ union, says this requires its members to look at dozens of CCTV images in a matter of seconds. And ultimately, trains can run with just the driver.

While Southern has promised not to dismiss its current workforce, unions fear that removing the guarantee of a second member of staff will eventually lead to them being ditched altogether. Who would look after passengers if the driver became incapacitated?

In an article, BBC political editor Laura Kuenssberg suggested the dispute was also fuelled by rivalry between the RMT, which represents the conductors, and Aslef. Though the relationship between the two unions hasn’t always been easy, she misses the point entirely.

At a TUC fringe meeting in 2014, I watched RMT delegates accuse drivers of being happy to accept pay-rises in exchange for implementing driver-only operation. Aslef insisted this was not its approach, and the following year the union’s conference endorsed a motion calling for no extension of the method, and for guards to be restored where they had already been axed.

Surely the real theme of the Southern dispute is the unity of the workforce. Conductors are striking against de-skilling, drivers are striking against taking on additional duties, and the mandate for action among both groups is overwhelming.

It’s true, however, that a walk-out of drivers can have a much bigger impact than a conductors’ strike – given that 60 per cent of Southern services are already driver-only. And this is why Southern’s owner Govia Thameslink Railway, Britain’s worst-performing railway, has been so keen to prevent Aslef from going on strike. When Gatwick Express (also part of GTR) drivers refused to drive new 12-carriage trains without guards in April, the company secured a court injunction preventing striking over driver-only trains. It did so again in June after drivers voted to strike, with the High Court agreeing the ballot had included drivers on irrelevant routes.


When drivers balloted again in August, lawyers went over the ballot with a fine tooth-comb and forced the union to re-ballot over a technicality, fittingly, about doors. This week’s strike was only allowed because first the High Court, and then the Court of Appeal, ruled it was not an infringement of EU freedom of movement laws. When GTR launched this bid in the courts, a senior trade unionist told me it was in “wanky wonderland” if it thought it would win.

You’d think such expensive litigation would be risky for a company facing the ire of frustrated passengers. Things have got so bad some have moved house or switched to driving to work instead. But GTR, unlike most of Britain’s private railways, doesn’t operate on the normal franchise model. Rather than collecting fare revenue, the company is paid a set fee by the government – and so it has far lesser risks.

Critics say this has made Southern ideal as a test-ground for taking on the unions over driver-only operation, claiming the government wants to make it national as part of a cost-cutting drive.

But even with such a good deal on a plate, chaos has followed Southern bosses everywhere. At the Transport Select Committee in July, the firm faced heavy criticism for failing to recruit enough staff at the start of the contract. Southern has accused unions of unofficial action through high levels of staff sickness. But are these really a surprise when industrial relations are so bad and workers are threatened with the sack?

The Committee issued a withering report – but that was where its powers stopped. Transport secretary Grayling is also refusing to act, and the company is, after all, owned by a FTSE 250 firm and a French transport group. The only people with the power to do anything, it seems, are the workers. As hell-raising as their strike may be, perhaps it’s time we celebrated it.

Conrad Landin is the Morning Star's industrial correspondent. This article previously appeared on our sister site, the Staggers.

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