How co-creation is shaping the future of cities

As the famous urban activist Jane Jacobs once wrote, “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody”. It’s a truth that lies at the heart of a number of urban co-creation projects, which tap into the collective knowledge of citizens to create smarter, safer and more resilient cities.

Instead of a top-down approach to urban planning, co-creation projects give citizens, city officials, academics and the private sector an equal say in the design process. A collaborative approach through the crowd economy creates a greater sense of ownership of the outcomes, uncovering issues that traditional top-down approaches might overlook. It also helps to target valuable resources more efficiently — a win-win for citizens and local government.

Private sector companies have adopted a similar approach for product design, harnessing the wisdom of the crowd to personalize their products and unlock hidden talent. Organisations like CitizenLab apply these techniques to cities, offering citizens a user-friendly platform for sharing ideas and ‘upvoting’ their favourite ones. Gamification techniques encourage people to engage, rewarding those who contribute the most to improving their city with badges and real-life benefits.

I believe co-creation and crowdsourcing will play a key role in the development of smart cities, with citizens contributing to everything from the future of transport and public service improvements — a subject I explored in a previous article. Meanwhile, socially responsible brands are already forging deeper connections with citizens and community groups through civic crowdfunding platforms like neighbourly.com, which allow people to attract funding and other resources from organisations who want to help.

Successful co-creation projects all have one thing in common though: commitment. It’s important that city governments and private sector companies make good on their promises to involve people in the decision making process, otherwise they risk undermining the co-creation process and losing the public’s trust. Experimentation and a healthy approach to mistakes are also an essential part of the process — something all participants need to bear in mind.

Although urban co-creation is an emerging discipline, I’ve already come across some great examples of its impact on cities.

  • The Connectors Society, a creative lab based in Sweden, worked with the City of Malmö and a local housing agency to revitalize the neighborhood of Persborg, which suffers from high unemployment and crime levels. The Connectors Society spent months trying to understand different people’s needs, organising workshops and other local events. More than a quarter of the people living in Persborg engaged with the project, successfully prototyping solutions for improving their local area.
  • The Otakaro Orchard, the first edible park and urban food hub in Christchurch, New Zealand, forms part of the city’s earthquake recovery plan. Initially the site was set aside as a community garden, but when local groups began to collaborate a desire for a new public space and urban orchard emerged. Over 200 people from 30 local groups worked on the Otakaro Orchard design, who are now trying to crowdfund NZ$2 million to support further development of the space.
  • The Colombian city Medellín (above) has its own crowdsourcing platform, MiMedellín, which allows citizens to share their solutions for urban problems; more than 2,300 ideas have already been posted.
  • Iceland’s Better Reykjavik citizen-sourcing website performs a similar function, and is used by over 60% of citizens. The city council has already invested €1.9 million to develop over 200 projects based on ideas suggested by the community.
  • Urban co-creation has also played a part in high profile regeneration projects like New York’s High Line, and the community-led Peckham Coal Line project in London. Paris is working with citizens through a participatory budgeting process called ‘Madame Mayor, I have an idea’, which has already led to a €2 million investment in 41 vertical garden projects.

As these co-creation schemes show, we’re on the cusp of a new era for urban planning, one that makes full use of a city’s most valuable resource: the collective knowledge of the people who live there.

Join me at Crowdsourcing Week Europe 2016, November 21–25 in Brussels, to find out more about co-creation and the future of cities.