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.

Like this sort of thing, do you? Why not like us on Facebook, too. 

 
 
 
 

How autonomous vehicles might actually make cities more dependent on cars

An autonomous car in action. Image: Getty.

Cities across Europe are taking steps to become increasingly car free. London mayor Sadiq Khan is aiming for 80 per cent of all trips to be made on foot, by cycle or using public transport by 2041, while Copenhagen authorities are aiming for three quarters of all trips to be made in these ways by 2025. Policymakers in Paris want to halve the number of private cars in the city centre, and Madrid will ban all non-resident vehicles except zero-emission delivery vehicles, taxis and public transport from its city centre in November 2018. In Helsinki, the aim is to phase out the use of private cars by 2050, by providing on-demand, affordable public transport.

Alongside reducing congestion and improving urban mobility, city leaders are expected to promote sustainable economic growth, improve air quality and respond to concerns from residents – all within tight budgets. In a world where talent and investment are increasingly mobile, city leaders know they must compete in terms of economic dynamism and quality of life – and transport planning is one way to do that.

Boon or burden?

But car makers and tech giants are looking to a very different type of future, where private car ownership, human control and petrol and diesel engines are replaced by shared, electric and autonomous – or self-driving – vehicles. Many of these changes could be positive for society, compared to current transport systems. It is likely that autonomous vehicles will eventually be better drivers than humans, which would reduce the number of road accidents and fatalities. They may also provide much needed accessibility to elderly and disabled people, which would be beneficial not only to them, but the economy at large.

Without the need to drive, people will be able to be more productive while travelling. If people are able to call up a car at the touch of a smart phone, car ownership will drop, which will free up the substantial tracts of urban land that are currently used to park vehicles. And, with the right incentives, travellers could be encouraged to use the most efficient vehicle for each journey taken, with substantial reductions in emissions and pollution. There would also be benefits for freight deliveries, which may be able to be undertaken at night, when there is more available road capacity.

Paris: quieter by night. Image: Luc Mercelis/Flickr/creative commons.

But some changes may be negative. Self-driving cars are likely to increase – rather than decrease – car travel, as people succumb to the allure of convenience and switch from public transport, or make more journeys. Autonomous vehicles may be able to park themselves away from urban centres, but they still need to be parked – and make return journeys to collect passengers, adding empty cars to the roads and contributing to congestion and air pollution.

And there are lots of unanswered questions about how urban systems will work with the introduction of self-driving vehicles. For example, it’s not clear how self-driving vehicles will co-exist with pedestrians and cyclists. If they are programmed to stop whenever a pedestrian or cyclist gets in their way, there will be pressure to further separate vehicles, pedestrians and cyclists. The vision of future cities in the 2050s may then start to look more and more like the vision of the 1950s, with futuristic new models dominating the foreground, while human activities such as walking and cycling are relegated to concrete overpasses and gloomy subways.


Back to the future

History shows that decisions made by policy makers have long-lasting effects. For example, when automobiles first arrived in cities, policymakers in different countries took different approaches to the issue of mixing of vehicles and pedestrians. In the United States, policymakers invented the concept of “jaywalking” and introduced stringent laws to separate vehicles and pedestrians, in order to “protect pedestrian safety”. The UK, on the other hand, took a more relaxed approach, introducing no such laws.

At the other extreme, policymakers in The Netherlands have taken the view that shared spaces - where streets are designed specifically to allow interaction between vehicles, pedestrians and cyclists - improve safety for all, as well as the liveability of cities more generally. These decisions have had long-lasting impacts on how cities in these countries look and feel today.

The ConversationThe way we think think about the future for autonomous vehicles seems divorced from the wider issues of city transport strategy and economic and social sustainability. It is time to put this right. Mayors, supported by their officials and planners, should start leading a debate now about how self-driving vehicles can best serve the needs of residents and visitors, and help deliver wider goals for their cities. They must develop the policies needed to deliver these benefits, well before self-driving vehicles arrive on the streets.

Mark Kleinman, Professor of Public Policy, King's College London and Charlene Rohr, Senior Research Fellow, King's College London.

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