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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What does the fate of Detroit tell us about the future of Silicon Valley?

Detroit, 2008. Image: Getty.

There was a time when California’s Santa Clara Valley, bucolic home to orchards and vineyards, was known as “the valley of heart’s delight”. The same area was later dubbed “Silicon Valley,” shorthand for the high-tech combination of creativity, capital and California cool. However, a backlash is now well underway – even from the loyal gadget-reviewing press. Silicon Valley increasingly conjures something very different: exploitation, excess, and elitist detachment.

Today there are 23 active Superfund toxic waste cleanup sites in Santa Clara County, California. Its culture is equally unhealthy: Think of the Gamergate misogynist harassment campaigns, the entitled “tech bros” and rampant sexism and racism in Silicon Valley firms. These same companies demean the online public with privacy breaches and unauthorised sharing of users’ data. Thanks to the companies’ influences, it’s extremely expensive to live in the area. And transportation is so clogged that there are special buses bringing tech-sector workers to and from their jobs. Some critics even perceive threats to democracy itself.

In a word, Silicon Valley has become toxic.

Silicon Valley’s rise is well documented, but the backlash against its distinctive culture and unscrupulous corporations hints at an imminent twist in its fate. As historians of technology and industry, we find it helpful to step back from the breathless champions and critics of Silicon Valley and think about the long term. The rise and fall of another American economic powerhouse – Detroit – can help explain how regional reputations change over time.

The rise and fall of Detroit

The city of Detroit became a famous node of industrial capitalism thanks to the pioneers of the automotive age. Men such as Henry Ford, Horace and John Dodge, and William Durant cultivated Detroit’s image as a centre of technical novelty in the early 20th century.

The very name “Detroit” soon became a metonym for the industrial might of the American automotive industry and the source of American military power. General Motors president Charles E. Wilson’s remark that, “For years I thought what was good for our country was good for General Motors, and vice versa,” was an arrogant but accurate account of Detroit’s place at the heart of American prosperity and global leadership.

The public’s view changed after the 1950s. The auto industry’s leading firms slid into bloated bureaucratic rigidity and lost ground to foreign competitors. By the 1980s, Detroit was the image of blown-out, depopulated post-industrialism.

In retrospect – and perhaps as a cautionary tale for Silicon Valley – the moral decline of Detroit’s elite was evident long before its economic decline. Henry Ford became famous in the pre-war era for the cars and trucks that carried his name, but he was also an anti-Semite, proto-fascist and notorious enemy of organised labor. Detroit also was the source of defective and deadly products that Ralph Nader criticized in 1965 as “unsafe at any speed”. Residents of the region now bear the costs of its amoral industrial past, beset with high unemployment and poisonous drinking water.


A new chapter for Silicon Valley

If the story of Detroit can be simplified as industrial prowess and national prestige, followed by moral and economic decay, what does that say about Silicon Valley? The term “Silicon Valley” first appeared in print in the early 1970s and gained widespread use throughout the decade. It combined both place and activity. The Santa Clara Valley, a relatively small area south of the San Francisco Bay, home to San Jose and a few other small cities, was the base for a computing revolution based on silicon chips. Companies and workers flocked to the Bay Area, seeking a pleasant climate, beautiful surroundings and affordable land.

By the 1980s, venture capitalists and companies in the Valley had mastered the silicon arts and were getting filthy, stinking rich. This was when “Silicon Valley” became shorthand for an industrial cluster where universities, entrepreneurs and capital markets fuelled technology-based economic development. Journalists fawned over successful companies like Intel, Cisco and Google, and analysts filled shelves with books and reports about how other regions could become the “next Silicon Valley”.

Many concluded that its culture set it apart. Boosters and publications like Wired magazine celebrated the combination of the Bay Area hippie legacy with the libertarian individualism embodied by the late Grateful Dead lyricist John Perry Barlow. The libertarian myth masked some crucial elements of Silicon Valley’s success – especially public funds dispersed through the U.S. Defense Department and Stanford University.

The ConversationIn retrospect, perhaps that ever-expanding gap between Californian dreams and American realities led to the undoing of Silicon Valley. Its detachment from the lives and concerns of ordinary Americans can be seen today in the unhinged Twitter rants of automaker Elon Musk, the extreme politics of PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, and the fatuous dreams of immortality of Google’s vitamin-popping director of engineering, Ray Kurzweil. Silicon Valley’s moral decline has never been clearer, and it now struggles to survive the toxic mess it has created.

Andrew L. Russell, Dean, College of Arts & Sciences; Professor of History, SUNY Polytechnic Institute and Lee Vinsel, Assistant Professor of Science and Technology Studies, Virginia Tech.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.