Crowdsourcing the city

Maitiú Ward discusses new models for urbanism such as Brickstarter, CitiNiche and the digital democracy that’s mobilized the public. But is Australia ready? From Architecture Australia’s 2013 Dossier on urbanism and sustainability.

A new generation is turning upside down all those cherished shibboleths about planning, architecture and housing … We have to change the role of the administration from providers to enablers. We have to change the role of the citizens from the recipients to participants, so that they have an active part to play in what Lethaby called the great game of town building.”

So said Colin Ward in his lecture “The Do-It-Yourself New Town.” Ward was an architect, but he was also an anarchist, and hence a tireless believer in people’s capacity to self-organize. The lecture was given in 1975; the words, though, could just as easily have come from Dan Hill and Bryan Boyer’s treatise on “crowdsourcing” for cities, Brickstarter, published as a free e-book in June 2013 by Sitra, the Finnish innovation fund.

Brickstarter is just one of many examples of the burgeoning interest in crowdsourcing as a city-making tool. The technology and the terminology might have changed in the decades since Ward’s talk, but the sentiments of self-help and engaged citizenship live on with another new generation determined to address officialdom’s perceived failings.

Hill and Boyer’s book, edited by Australian Rory Hyde, documents the outcome of the Brickstarter project at Sitra’s Helsinki Design Lab. The project set out to test the principles of crowdfunding and crowdsourcing against the practical realities of building for the public, in public space. As Hill and Boyer write in their introduction to the book: “Brickstarter reverses the polarity from NIMBY to YIMBY (‘Yes In My Backyard’), from complain to create, outlining a platform for suggestions, developed and driven by participation of citizens, local business, and government.”

Despite the techie emphasis on crowdsourcing, Boyer, speaking with me on the phone from the US, described Brickstarter as a set of principles and strategies, rather than a software tool. According to him, the ambition was to develop a process whereby urban decisions are not binary (yes or no) but choices between a range of legitimate alternatives. In shades of Ward’s call for a government of “enablers,” Brickstarter envisions that a community might generate these alternatives on an equal footing with the city’s representatives, moving from a mode where the city is an authority to one where it is a facilitator. As Boyer explained, transparency of process and decision-making is a crucial element here, a counter to what the book calls the “dark matter” of bureaucracy and regulation impeding development in our cities.

Because of their capacity to connect people, present ideas, facilitate discussion and store knowledge, all virtually and with the minimum of cost and time, Boyer and Hill believe that crowdfunding platforms like Pozible and Kickstarter give some clues as to how we might manage this process. This isn’t abstract speculation – Kickstarter has already been used to gain support and funding for the development of a public swimming pool proposal that will literally sit in New York’s East River, the + Pool.

In both the US and the UK, specialist civic crowdfunding websites such as and Spacehive have also sprung up, with their own highly publicized success stories – Spacehive, for example, raised nearly eight hundred thousand pounds for a community centre in Glyncoch, Wales.

+ Pool by Dong-Ping Wong of architecture firm Family, and Archie Lee Coates IV and Jeffrey Franklin of PlayLab.

+ Pool by Dong-Ping Wong of architecture firm Family, and Archie Lee Coates IV and Jeffrey Franklin of PlayLab.

The emphasis in Brickstarter, though, is not on the crowdfunding or even necessarily the crowdsourcing of urban ideas, although these processes are part of the equation. Rather, they describe it as “a social service … a new model for how we make shared decisions about shared spaces.”1 It isn’t about building things as much as it is about getting people informed and engaged in the process itself. At its heart, then, Brickstarter is about communications, which brings us roundly to one challenge facing the model – as a tool and set of principles, its efficacy will be largely dependent on the skill, time and passion that people invest in it. Kickstarter and other tools like it are littered with worthy projects that have failed to reach their funding goals for want of a considered “pitch,” while many of those projects that have succeeded, such as the + Pool, have been accompanied by extremely sophisticated communications strategies incorporating professional video, graphic design and social media campaigns.

One of the few examples of crowdsourcing for the built environment in Australia is CitiNiche, an online property development platform launched by a team of architecture, planning and digital technology professionals. The idea behind the project is simple – use crowdsourcing to develop proposals and potential owner-occupiers for residential property. Participants subscribe to “niches” matching their property preferences and enter further ideas for their ideal dwelling. Developers and architects partnered with the program then use these ideas to create a proposal for a property, which the subscribers can invest in. As CitiNiche’s managing director Ivan Rijavec described it to me, the process is really just an extension of the pre-sales system that already applies to most residential property developments, but it allows residents to tailor the building to genuine need (rather than imagined need, conjured up by the developer). It is a compelling proposition, and the accompanying website bears many of the hallmarks of the successful crowdsourcing campaigns mentioned earlier – a slick video, clear language, and bold and skilful graphic design.

When I checked in on CitiNiche four months after its launch in early March (see ArchitectureAU’s coverage), one of the eleven proposed niches, Urban Green, had thirty-four supporters; most, though, had ten or less. Proposed “ideas” were even scarcer. The website and its accompanying social media platforms, meanwhile, showed signs of a flurry of engagement around the opening and then a long period of quiet – its Twitter page had just forty-four followers, and hadn’t been updated in over two months. Rijavec, who has his own architectural practice to run, confessed that he managed most of the website himself and that coverage in the mainstream media had generated the bulk of the activity.

The “crowd” might be thin on the ground, but it wouldn’t be fair to call CitiNiche a failure on this basis – property development is a slow process, and while most high-rise residential towers require hundreds of pre-sales to get off the ground, as Rijavec pointed out, smaller projects could proceed with as little as five like-minded owners. At the very least, CitiNiche demonstrates that there is demand for a much more diverse set of offerings than the property market currently caters for. What it also shows, though, is that sustained and productive engagement is not an easy thing to facilitate – it requires time, expertise and passion, and ideally all three.

From Boyer’s perspective, the lack of civic engagement that Brickstarter sets out to address is attributable to “a bug” in our democratic tools. “Although our social lives and our business lives have taken great advantage of technology, our civic life is still really lagging behind,” he says. “When we look at the platforms that both cities and businesses have built to try and address some of these problems, frankly they’re not very good.” The assumption is that once the tools become more intuitive and responsive to people, greater participation will follow.

Certainly, crowdsourcing platforms in the US and Europe have undoubtedly facilitated greater civic engagement and many positive urban outcomes. It is curious, though, given this relative success, that we have seen the approach gain so little traction in Australia. Delib is one company that has been trying to introduce some of these tools here, after helping governments in the UK and the US implement “digital democracy” apps and consultation software. When I spoke with Craig Thomler, the managing director of Delib Australia, he pointed out that crowdfunding is much more difficult in Australia because of tighter financial regulation. The challenge from his perspective concerning crowdsourcing, however, is cultural. “There’s some belief in Australia that you only consult citizens when you absolutely have to,” he says. “Our approach as citizens is also far more hands-off – you elect someone and then leave them to it.” In Europe and the US, on the other hand, Thomler believes years of austerity have meant people are fed up with government inaction and not nearly so complacent. “In Australia, we’re not hurting enough,” says Thomler. “Citizens are less angry.”

Before it can get to YIMBY, you might say, Australia needs a few more NIMBYs and impassioned professional enablers. Thanks to these tools, our capacity for self-organization has never been greater; it seems unlikely, though, that a bug-free platform on its own will be enough to effect substantive change in the way our cities are imagined and developed.



Published online: 2 Dec 2013
Words: Maitiú Ward
Images: Courtesy ZUS


Architecture Australia, September 2013

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