The latest in our series of articles in which Nesta explores smart city initiatives that combine tried and tested hardware with “collaborative technologies”. The series draws on the innovation charity’s recent report, Rethinking smart cities from the ground up.
Who gets to decide how a city is planned – what gets built, how space is used, which areas get redeveloped?
Residents of Bangalore, a rapidly growing city in southern India, recently explored these issues with Next Bengaluru, a project designed to create a community vision for the redevelopment of the Shanthingar neighbourhood. Using online maps and a forum, alongside community events, the MOD institute, a local NGO, crowdsourced over 600 ideas to start a discussion with city officials about the redevelopment of the area.
Planning doesn’t usually happen like this. The process is normally much more top-down, dominated by architects, developers and other experts. When citizens are consulted, it can often feel a bit like the scene in the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, in which Arthur Dent is told that plans to demolish his house have been on display for months, in a basement, behind a locked door bearing a sign reading “Beware of the leopard”.
This is perhaps a little unfair to planners, who do regularly consult citizens, and often complain about lack of citizen engagement in the process. Part of the problem may be that traditional methods of engagement, such as community meetings or sending letters to those that might be affected by a proposed change, often fail to catch the attention of time-poor people.
Digital technologies offer citizens the tools to have a much greater impact on the planning process. In Bangalore, residents used the online Bengaluru Change Map to map abandoned spaces, a major issue of concern as they often end up being used as rubbish dumps. The project team behind Next Bangaluru then developed a pilot app, that will enable residents to map abandoned urban spaces via smartphone and SMS.
A screenshot of the planning map on the Next Bengaluru website.
Local residents support’ for the project stands in sharp contrast to the public opposition to the Bangalore Development Authority’s recent attempt to push through a new masterplan for the city: that lead to complaints from community groups that citizens weren’t being given enough time to comment on the plans.
Digital technologies could help city governments engage much more directly with citizens, tapping into their local knowledge to identify and address issues that matter most to them.
Tom Saunders is a senior researcher, and Florence Engasser a research assistant, at Nesta, the UK innovation charity. They are the authors of the "Rethinking smart cities from the ground up" report.