Crowdsourcing platforms already are a great solution for environment planning, but they could revolutionise it altogether. Web platforms for local cocreation are an essential component of the ongoing democratic renewal supported by civic techs. Recent technical improvements, if they can be integrated and attuned to the citizens, offer the prospect of genuine environmental simulations. Conjugated with online participation, this could usher in an exciting reality: spatial cocreation for all.
Demand and expectations
Involving the community more and better in planning decisions is in strong demand. More participation in this area also comes with great expectations for the legitimacy and effectiveness of planning efforts. Think about your own experience: while security, social protection or sports may not be direct concerns for all citizens, how your place will look like is surely something each and every resident wants a say in. Because it touches everyone, everyone nurtures opinions on the topic and pays attention to new information around. In the end, this is a matter where citizens really can display expertise and where they should be guaranteed a voice.
This view is validated by our current institutional framework, since the law generally provides an obligation to open planning processes up to citizens. However, this often remains delusional. Citizens can, against all odds, object to the plans but without any guarantee this will even be considered by the ruling authority. And when the regulation provides such guarantee, it generally comes too late: the plans are already designed and bundled together, so the community can only earn minor tweaks. What if we look at it from the reverse perspective? Current practices to submit planning projects from their inception to public inquiry are heavy on the administration. They require setting up citizen assemblies or workshops, with strong methodologies to emerge constructive remarks and creative solutions. And let’s admit it, they condemn administration workers to struggle their way to gathering enough participants. All in all, genuine consultations can’t always match the time and budget constraints of planning institutions, and often go beyond what citizens are ready to offer.
A fitting solution
This is exactly the type of situations civic tech has started improving. In a rather narrow approach, one can find issue-spotting tools, e.g. in several Walloon towns, Brandenburg, in Chilli’s capital region or in Brasil. Participatory budgeting is a more eloquent example of its potential, as can be witnessed in Reykjavik, Paris or Barcelona. Defining your surroundings also takes place in a less bounded way. This is online cocreation platforms. Platforms provide open spaces on which anyone with a computer can register in seconds and start drafting an investment proposal, react to someone else’s idea or comment on broader city plans. No more paper submissions shelved away to oblivion, but a transparent display of the process participants feed into –all the way to witnessable results. For local authorities, the task is made easier. If they can present a convincing engagement opportunity, attracting contributors relies merely on well-adjusted communication efforts. At the time of processing results, they can now count on integrated sorting and analysis functionalities. Online platforms can thus be the venue for a seamless two-way interaction between citizens, experts, investors and planning officials.
Visualisation and creativity
While participation platforms represent a workable solution to cocreate local planning, they can go much further in eliciting ideas from citizens and helping them translate thoughts into concrete proposals. A 2016 research from the universities of Calgary and Santiago sets out the software components needed to achieve that. And the good news is: they’re all currently in use, with some already integrated in online participation experiments. Mapping tools and Geographic Information Systems (GIS) provide a basic layer of locations and geographic data. They could be coupled with dynamic 3D explorers, a technology that can now be deployed in a few clicks and used by the uninitiated. One such explorer draws inspiration from video games, with this user-fed Copenhagen in Minecraft by GeoBoxers. Google Earth is becoming more powerful, glimpsing at hyper realistic 3D visualisation. An application to citizen engagement can be found with the Betaville project by New York University. Augmented reality is another feature. It can very well serve the purpose of mobile participation apps: triggering the users’ thinking while on the ground and capturing ideas in a nutshell before they fade away. Then comes sketching, creating the possibility to create and modify development plans and to do mark-ups and annotations. Two paradigms there: either a SimCity-style drag and drop of items, like in this pilote tool by UFO, or enhanced free form drawing.
Challenges remain. First and foremost is the necessity to integrate all those tools in a coherent interface while making them so radically simple they can be grasped by any citizen. Beyond civic tech, education is needed for communities to understand better the logics of planning consultations, their terminology and the important stakes –for example sustainability. However, with these new softwares reaching maturity and participation platforms spreading virally, there is no doubt spatial cocreation isn’t so distant yet.