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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Space for 8,000 new homes, most of them affordable... Why it's time to demolish Buckingham Palace

Get a lovely new housing estate, there. Image: Getty.

Scene: a council meeting.

Councillor 1: They say it’s going to cost £369m to repair and bring up to modern standards.

Councillor 2: £369m? Lambeth balked at paying just £14m to repair Cressingham Gardens. They said they’d rather knock it down and start again.

Councillor 1: Then we’re agreed? We knock Buckingham Palace down and build new housing there instead.

Obviously this would never happen. For a start, Buckingham Palace is Grade I listed, but… just imagine. Imagine if refurbishment costs were deemed disproportionate and, like many council estates before it, the palace was marked for “regeneration”.

State events transfer to Kensington Palace, St James’s and Windsor. The Crown Estate is persuaded, as good PR, to sell the land at a nominal fee to City Hall or a housing association. What could we build on roughly 21 hectares of land, within walking distance of transport and green space?

The area’s a conservation zone (Westminster Council’s Royal Parks conservation area, to be exact), so modernist towers are out. Pete Redman, a housing policy and research consultant at TradeRisks, calculates that the site could provide “parks, plazas, offices, cafes and 8,000 new dwellings without overlooking the top floor restaurant of the London Hilton Park Lane”.

Now, the Hilton is 100m tall, and we doubt Westminster’s planning committee would go anywhere near that. To get 8,000 homes, you need a density of 380 u/ha (units per hectare), which is pretty high, but still within the range permitted by City Hall, whose density matrix allows up to 405 u/ha (though they’d be one or two bedroom flats at this density) in an area with good public transport links. We can all agree that Buckingham Palace is excellently connected.

So what could the development look like? Lewisham Gateway is achieving a density of 350u/ha with blocks between eight and 25 storeys. On the other hand, Notting Hill Housing’s Micawber Street development manages the same density with mansion blocks and mews houses, no more than seven storeys high. It’s also a relatively small site, and so doesn’t take into account the impact of streets and public space.

Bermondsey Spa might be a better comparison. That achieves a density of 333u/ha over an area slightly larger than Lewisham Gateway (but still one-tenth of the Buckingham Palace site), with no buildings higher than 10 storeys.

The Buck House project seems perfect for the Create Streets model, which advocates terraced streets over multi-storey buildings. Director Nicholas Boys Smith, while not enthusiastic about bulldozing the palace, cites areas of London with existing high densities that we think of as being idyllic neighbourhoods: Pimlico (about 175u/ha) or Ladbroke Grove (about 230u/ha).


“You can get to very high densities with narrow streets and medium rise buildings,” he says. “Pimlico is four to six storeys, though of course the number of units depends on the size of the homes. The point is to develop a masterplan that sets the parameters of what’s acceptable first – how wide the streets are, types of open space, pedestrian only areas – before you get to the homes.”

Boys Smith goes on to talk about the importance of working collaboratively with the community before embarking on a design. In this scenario, there is no existing community – but it should be possible to identify potential future residents. Remember, in our fantasy the Crown Estate has been guilt-tripped into handing over the land for a song, which means it’s feasible for a housing association to develop the area and keep properties genuinely affordable.

Westminster Council estimates it needs an additional 5,600 social rented homes a year to meet demand. It has a waiting list of 5,500 households in immediate need, and knows of another 20,000 which can’t afford market rents. Even if we accepted a density level similar to Ladbroke Grove, that’s 4,830 homes where Buckingham Palace currently stands. A Bermondsey Spa-style density would generate nearly 7,000 homes.

There’s precedent for affordability, too. To take one example, the Peabody Trust is able to build genuinely affordable homes in part because local authorities give it land. In a Peabody development in Kensington and Chelsea, only 25 per cent of homes were sold on the open market. Similarly, 30 per cent of all L&Q’s new starts in 2016 were for commercial sale.

In other words, this development wouldn’t need to be all luxury flats with a few token affordable homes thrown in.

A kindly soul within City Hall did some rough and ready sums based on the figure of 8,000 homes, and reckoned that perhaps 1,500 would have to be sold to cover demolition and construction costs, which would leave around 80 per cent affordable. And putting the development in the hands of a housing association, financed through sales – at, let’s remember, Mayfair prices – should keep rents based on salaries rather than market rates.

Now, if we can just persuade Historic England to ditch that pesky Grade I listing. After all, the Queen actually prefers Windsor Castle…

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