Crowdsourcing: The Future Of Our Cities?

  • The next battle for international cities might be the competition for open source-ness. Which city has the most initiatives using words like ‘crowdsourcing’, ‘city 2.0′, ‘open source’ and ‘DIY’? The ‘user generated’ city is becoming increasingly popular in the debate about the future city. But does it make sense? The discussion about open source urbanism goes two ways. The first perspective talks about active participation of groups of citizens in thinking and creation of the city. The other perspective deals with using Web 2.0 applications and technical open source functionalities to re-invent planning and perception of the city. On this blog we’ve often reported about digital innovations that support the understanding of functional city patterns, like Citysense and Drop Spots. These are initiatives that still very much are attached to the domain of arts and apps, which is nice, but for the moment not of any significant practical value. We didn’t yet reported very much about the first perspective on open source urbanism, mainly because this still seems to be the domain of a quite uninteresting paradigm of social-democratic populism – soft community initiatives, participation projects in neighbourhoods and other events in which the government tries to explain its plans to groups of angry civilians.

    Thinking about the open source practice of city making is highly relevant for modernizing practice of planning and urbanism. It can lead to a new design strategy for future cities, focusing on the design of soft structures instead of physical shapes. In that case, both perspectives in thinking about open source city-making are relevant, but things become interesting particularly when both cook together. An example is the making of a neighbourhood through a wiki (Wiki-Hood) in the Dutch village of Drachten. Although this one seems to be an effort to attract media attention in the first place.

    Open source is different from participation as it is about contribution to the predefined source, rather than complete participation in a certain process. Crowdsourcing as many define it (Springwise and John Geraci), is a way to use private ideas to improve the city. The ideas that are best implementable are those considering the combination of the urban fabric and the digital world. John Geraci, founder of DIY City and guest blogger at O’Reilly’s Radar, wrote an interesting piece about crowdsourcing. Bottom line is that public institutions spent millions to develop services that make the city better, while single private persons already have invented certain concepts in a better, nicer, smarter way. The tracking system for New York City’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) is one of the examples. For more than twenty years, MTA has been trying to invent and implement a real-time tracking system for their transport services. But they fail dramatically. The same public money tragedy can be found in the Netherlands. For years, the Dutch Railways (Nederlandse Spoorwegen, NS) have been spending money on developing a real-time train tracking system, and after years they came up with the same result: complete failure. At the same time Dennis Stevense, a single student at the Technical University of Delft, created Trein, an iPhone application with all train tracking information in real-time on your mobile device. Most peculiar is the reaction of NS. Instead of adapting this solution for their services, the company tried to forbid it by complaining at Apple, and started another lame project to invent exactly the same for themselves while spending big money. Fail.

    Recently, Springwise came up with a New York project inspired by Sfapps. New York mayor Michael Bloomberg is setting up a competition especially for app makers. NYC BigApps is…

    “…a software application competition to make New York City more transparent, accessible and accountable, and an easier place to live, work and play. On offer for developers? USD 20,000 in cash prizes, plus dinner with Bloomberg. (…)
    Developers can use public sets of raw data produced by city agencies, available from the newly-launched NYC Data Mine. Judges for the competition, which is taking submissions until 8 December 2009, include Fred Wilson, Esther Dyson and Jason Calcanis. No word yet on if and how the city will adopt and promote winning apps. Other cities around the world—what are you waiting for? Data isn’t just for internal use; time to corral it, keep it up to date, and entice developers to create useful applications for your citizens.”

    Altogether, the practice of urbanism seems to change. Let’s say half of its importance is still about reshaping physical structures (the old way), but at least the other half is about redesigning the system (the new way). Urbanism new style is about intervening in the complex network-like way our society is made up. It’s about redesigning activities, processes, networks and the program. The new digital layers that are being added to the cities, can be considered to be a prominent new design tool.