We recently celebrated the first birthday of the CityCamp movement – looking at how gov 2.0, local leaders and (most importantly) citizens can design the future of our cities. So, we thought it would be the ideal time to hear how friend of FutureGov Chris Haller, founder and CEO of Urban Interactive Studios, thinks the movement is changing urban planning and the opportunities this holds for citizen engagement.
Image: Berg’s Here and There project
Government-to-citizen relationships have changed. It’s been a trend of the past several years as the terms “Open Government” and “Gov 2.0” have grown roots and borne fruit in communities worldwide. In a nutshell, these ideas call for agencies to focus on transparency, collaboration, and engagement – involving citizens by making use of the myriad technologies and platforms that have evolved to enhance communication like never before. This has allowed agencies to tap into the power of collective intelligence and reap the benefits of an informed, participatory public.
In the same vein, planners and policy makers are taking these values and applying them to community and land use planning. Instead of simply planning on behalf of the public, there is an increasing effort to involve the public from the beginning of the planning process. This “engaging” approach to planning has been referred to as “Planning 2.0” and makes extensive use of collaborative technologies like participatory Geographic Information System (GIS) and crowd-sourcing platforms. Since modern citizens and stakeholders are increasingly communicating via mobile device, social media, and other online avenues, it makes sense for planners to reach out in ways that encompass the entire public landscape. By facilitating civic involvement through real-time, intuitive platforms that are familiar to people, planners will find it easier to disseminate information and gather feedback on a scale that was never possible with a town hall meeting or planning forum.
Communities have recently made intriguing use of various technologies to drive participatory planning. Some of these trends include:
A growing number of governments and corporations have discovered the value of reaching out via Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and other social media platforms. Planners can also benefit from the constant, two-way flow of information that these communication channels provide. A well-maintained website and blog are a good start for any planning endeavor, but the possibilities for civic interaction expand when planners incorporate Ustream.tv for streaming community meetings, Flickr for ongoing photo sharing (great for renovation or building projects), and Twitter/Facebook for staying touch with residents on a regular basis.
One of the greatest benefits to incorporating social media within the planning space is that people are already using it. There’s nothing to explain besides the plan itself. Citizens feel included and comfortable — the plan becomes part of their everyday life. Social networks can help keep people updated and also be used to collect feedback and ideas. The Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP) made extensive use of social media in their GoTo2040 initiative, a comprehensive master plan for Metropolitan Chicago. Judging from the hundreds of “likes” on GoTo2040’s Facebook page and over 1000 followers on Twitter, Chicago planners appear to be successfully connecting with the public through social media.
It’s clear that communication is growing ever more mobile. From texting to tweeting, from checking e-mail to checking the stock market, many people are using mobile devices for the majority of their online activities. For planners aiming to engage the public, this trend leaves no choice but to reach out via mobile technology. To ensure that involvement efforts include the “mobile” segment of the population, Planning 2.0 will make creative use of the public preference for communicating on-the-go.
One interesting mobile effort, launched in Chicago but expanding to New York, Memphis, and San Jose, uses crowd-sourcing to gather snippets of ideas from the population on transportation issues. It’s called Give a Minute! and operates on the idea that it takes just a minute to share your idea on how to improve the city. Most of the feedback is posted from mobile devices, and it’s monitored by public leaders who have vowed to send personal responses to their favorite ideas. Give a Minute! also allows sorting of ideas to view the most popular, and sharing to Facebook. It is an interesting new way for planners and policy makers to engage the mobile population.
The creative process of generating, developing, and communicating new ideas is crucial for any business, government, or agency that understands the power of collective intelligence. And with evolving digital technology, the age-old “suggestion box” has taken on new dimensions. Platforms like IdeaScale and AllOurIdeas provide democratic, bottom-up ways for communities to contribute ideas, discover trends, and zero in on truly valuable suggestions. People can present or comment on ideas, and the most important thoughts “bubble” to the top, often leading to innovation that never could have happened without crowd-sourcing tools like these.
For “participatory planning”, ideation is just as critical. The ability to harvest feedback from the greatest number and greatest variety of the population is key to forming plans that are people-oriented and meet the needs of the community. However, the location-based nature of most planning projects requires the combination of several technologies to effectively gather public input. One platform that offers such a blend is EngagingPlans, which provides a complete web site and social media presence for a planning campaign — a place where citizens can go to read updates or get in touch with policy makers. To ensure that planners receive targeted, place-specific comments and suggestions, the service utilizes online maps so that ideas of citizens and stakeholders can be pinpointed to exact locations. Suggestions can also “float” if they are not location-specific. Planners will benefit from this tool that allows a geographic perspective, as well as spacial collecting and analyzing of input.
One of the drawbacks to the information age is the sheer volume of data that is rendered useless for lack of proper curation. Augmented reality tools are one solution to this emerging issue, and have been used in a number of ways to help scientists, government agencies, and managers make visual sense of all the information that has opened up. These tools are providing a fresh perspective on existing data.
Planners may find this technology helpful in their field as well. One example of augmented reality being used in an urban application was a device that helped detect CO2 levels in cities. The tool measured CO2 levels while also receiving GPS and elevation data, which was all visualized into 3D and superimposed onto an augmented reality view. This enabled dynamic analysis of the data and gave new insight into the causation of CO2 levels in urban areas. Another interesting use will be to explore different planning scenarios right on the site as a 3D overlay on top of the real world.
As more planners seek ways to engage and inform citizens and stakeholders through every phase of a project, these technological trends will continue to serve and benefit the planning world as they have served the private sector. And as the market grows for creative solutions that make engaging planning easier, there should be more innovative products forthcoming. Planners will embrace the facility of mastering public involvement in the digital age, while citizens will enjoy the satisfaction of having a voice in the building of better communities.