A human intervention: Let citizens co-design future cities
29. August 2019
Urban tech solutions must engage the citizens if we want our cities to be "smart" in a way that makes sense for its inhabitants.
Noralí Emilio

Being the right kind of "smart"

Today’s discourse around designing future cities is increasingly focused on efficiency and the various ways we can leverage technology, from drones to artificial intelligence to blockchain and so on. Our cities need to be “smart” and this intelligence, we must understand, comes from the tech world. 

It is no wonder that we are searching for quick solutions to meet the urgent demands of increasingly denser cities, both in terms of infrastructure and sustainability. By 2050, two thirds of the world’s population will be living in cities, and we continue to overconsume the planet’s resources at an alarming rate.

These are challenges that no government or private company can solve without radical new solutions. But in our current approach there is a risk that we simply grasp at the next big technology as a cure-all for whatever challenges our cities are facing. The truth is that technology alone will not save us, especially if it comes at the expense of a human-centered approach.

What kind of urban life do we want to design for?

It is time for a new equation, if we truly want to build a living city. Let’s ask ourselves not only which plans fit the overall design of the city or benefit economic growth, but what life we wish to design it for. How will a kid get from school to her after-school activity? How will a busy parent get from point A to B to C? Which facilities do senior citizens look for when they go about their daily routines?

The reality of city life is so much more complex than any quick tech-fix. In a time where we increasingly rely on expertise and “smart” technology to create our future cities, we urgently need a human intervention. 

The Buurbouw Project in Amsterdam is a shining example on how to engage with the local citizens.
The Buurbouw Project
The Buurbouw Project in Amsterdam is a shining example on how to engage with the local citizens.

The Buurbouw project: An excellent example

An excellent example of direct citizen inclusion is the Buurbouw project in Amsterdam. When the city government decided to run a busy throughway directly through a low-income neighborhood, the Zuidoost district, designers saw an opportunity to develop the area and opened a dialogue with local residents to implement their ideas – from a pop-up trunk restaurant for construction workers to a community art project.

This is the essence of a design approach: Putting people and their communities first and including a range of diverse voices in the process. As Dutch industrial designer and design thinker Kees Dorst puts it, “Design is about interventions that gradually change entire systems for the better.”

It's not easy, but we're getting there

Other cities, like Barcelona and Seoul, have created innovation labs specifically designed for citizen inclusion, and the City of Montreal has even created a “listening platform”.

This is not an easy process, and it requires that decision-makers in both the public and private sector, as well as entrepreneurs, make the conscious decision to listen, include and iterate. Citizen-driven urban innovation will ensure that we include human values like empathy and creativity in shaping the future of urban life.