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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Why doesn’t London build an RER network, like Paris did?

A commuter walking by a map of the RER B line at the Chatelet-Les Halles station in Paris. Image: Getty.

I’ve heard many people make many different complaints about the Parisian transport system. That it does a bad job of linking a rich, white city with its poorer, more diverse suburbs. That, even as subway systems go, it’s a hostile environment for women. That the whole thing smells distractingly of urine.

I’m familiar with all of these complaints – I’ve often smelt the urine. And I’m aware that, in many ways, London’s is the superior transport network.

And yet I can’t help be jealous of Paris – In large part, because of the RER.

Central Paris. The Metro lines are thinner, and in pastel shades; the RER lines are thicker, and in brighter colours. Image: RATP.

Paris, you see, has not one but two underground railway systems. The more famous one is the original Paris Metro, opened in 1900: that’s the one with those fancy green portals with the word “metropolitain” written above them in a vaguely kooky font.

The Metro, though, mostly serves Paris Intra-muros: the official city, inside the Boulevard Périphérique ring road, site of the city’s last set of walls. As a result, it’s of very little use in most of the city’s suburbs. Its stations are very close together, which places a limit on how fast its trains can cross town. It was also, by the mid 20th century, becoming annoyingly overcrowded.

So starting in the 1960s, the city transport authorities began planning a second underground railway network. The Réseau Express Régional – Regional Express Network – would link suburban lines on either side of Paris, through new heavy rail tunnels beneath the city. Its stations would be much further apart than those of the metro – roughly one every 3km, rather than every 600m – so its trains can run faster.

And fifty years and five lines later, it means that 224 stations in the suburbs of Paris are served by trains which, rather than terminating on the edge of the city, now continue directly through tunnels to its centre.

The RER network today. Image: RATP.

London is, belatedly, doing something similar. The Elizabeth Line, due to open in stages from later this year, will offer express-tube style services linking the suburban lines which run west from Paddington to those which run east from Liverpool Street. And Thameslink has offered cross-town services for 30 years now (albeit not at tube-level frequencies). That, too, is going to add more routes to its network over the next few years, meaning direct trains from the southern suburbs to north London and vice versa.

Yet the vast majority of suburban National Rail services in London still terminate at big mainline stations, most of which are on the edge of the centre. For many journeys, especially from the south of the city, you still need to change to the London Underground.

So, could London ape Paris – and make Thameslink and Crossrail the first element of its own RER network?

In a limited way, of course, it’s doing just that. The next big project after Crossrail is likely to be (original name, this) Crossrail 2. If that gets funding, it’ll be a new south-west to north-east route, connecting some of the suburban lines into Waterloo to those in the Lea Valley.

The proposed route of Crossrail 2. Click to expand.

But it’s not immediately obvious where you could go next – what Crossails 3, 4 or 5 should cover.

That’s because there’s an imbalance in the distribution of the remaining mainline rail services in London. Anyone who’s even remotely familiar with the geography of the city will know that there are far more tube lines to its north. But the corollary of that is that there are far more mainlines to the south.

To usefully absorb some of those, Crossrail 3 would probably need to run south to south in some way. There is actually an obvious way of doing this: build a new tunnel from roughly Battersea to roughly Bermondsey, and take over the Richmond lines in the west and North Kent lines in the east, as a sort of London equivalent of RER C:

Our suggestion for Crossrail 3. Image: Google Maps/CityMetric.

But that still leaves a whole load of lines in south and south east London with nowhere to send them beyond their current terminal stations.

In fact, there are reasons for thinking that the whole RER concept doesn’t really fit the British capital. It was designed, remember, for a city in which the Metro only served the centre (roughly equivalent of London’s zones 1 & 2).

But London Underground wasn’t like that. From very early in its history, it served outer London too: it was not just a way of getting people around the centre, but for getting them there from their suburban homes too.

This is turn is at least in part a function of the economic geography of the two cities. Rich Parisians have generally wanted to live in the centre, pushing poorer people out to the banlieues. In London, though, the suburbs were where the good life was to be found.

To that end, the original operators of some lines weren’t just railway companies, but housing developers, too. The Metropolitan Railway effectively built large chunks of north west London (“Metroland”), partly to guarantee the market for its trains, but partly too because, well, housing is profitable.

In other parts of town, existing main line railways were simply added to the new underground lines. The Central line swallowed routes originally built by the Great Western Railway and London & North Eastern Railway. The District line absorbed part of the London, Tilbury & Southend Railway.

At any rate: the Tube was playing the same role as the RER as early as the 1930s. London could still benefit from some RER-type services, so hopefully the Elizbaeth Line won’t be the last. But it doesn’t need an entire second metro network in the way 1960s Paris did.

There is another idea we could more profitably steal from Paris. Those suburban railways which aren’t connected to the RER are still run by the national rail operator, SNCF. But it uses the Transilien brand name, to mark them out as a part of the Parisian transport network, and – as with the RER – each route has its own letter and its own colour.

The Transilien & RER networks in Paris. Image: Maximilian Dörrbecker/Wikimedia Commons.

This would not have the transformative effect on London that building another half a dozen Crossrails would. But it would make the network much easier to navigate, and would be almost infinitely cheaper. Perhaps we should be starting there.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites

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