Crowdsourced City Design

We often have ideas (maybe even good ideas!) about how to change our cities for the better. It could be an idea you’ve had for a long time, or maybe it came out of nowhere while you were in the shower this morning. Now that you have an idea that could change how we live and make our cities healthier, safer, more beautiful and more efficient…. now what do you do?

Most people who have a transformative idea stop there. They’ll continue to complain about the system and say “why don’t we/they just do XYZ!?” The framework we have to enact city-wide changes is not a fast system. It can be mind-numbingly difficult to know which department to talk to and not get lost in the bureaucracy.

Not all change has to take a long time. For entrepreneurs and tech businesses to succeed they must be responsive to their environment. One way they do this is to generate many ideas quickly and then test them in the real world for validity and success, then take the feedback they receive and adapt. Cities can learn from entrepreneurs and tech companies how to be flexible and responsive to new ideas.

Companies set up mechanisms to brainstorm new ideas (research and development departments) and to get feedback (product testing and early versions). In cities new ideas either come from within: from city employees who are invested in the current system and can only envision change within the existing framework; or from without: from citizens across the city, witnessing problems and brainstorming solutions in every neighborhood. Cities should take advantage of their population’s creativity and harness their grassroots energy to shed light on problems in the city and provide ideas of how to answer those problems.

City departments do try to engage with the public through community meetings and feedback forms, but these practices are slow and not in line with the level of communication today’s population expects. A 6-month turnaround may be quick for a city department preparing a full report, but it’s abysmally slow for consumers who are experiencing problems on a day-to-day basis.

In Seattle there is a system for trying new ways of building and developing called Pilot Programs. Pilot Programs exist in many different city departments and can be effective ways for Seattle to try new programs. What’s lacking is a way to generate and implement new ideas at a smaller scale than pilot programs. If an idea is a smaller scale than a Pilot Program, then either it doesn’t happen, or it must become the time intensive pet-project of an individual or group, or it  gets done illegally through guerilla urbanism.

Seattle should take the lead from flexible and responsive companies and encourage city planning activism at a small scale. This would bolster community engagement and would be a source of ideas that could grow into full pilot programs.

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