21st century cities: C is for Co-creation

Here’s my January series: the ABC’s of 21st Century Cities. In previous entries, I explored Artificial Intelligence  and Backward Futures. Today is Co-creation.

“People don’t want to consume passively; they’d rather participate in the development and creation of products meaningful to them.” Toffler

What is Co-creation?

Co-creation is so new to city applications that we have to cobble together multiple terms to frame it.

  •     According to Bernd Nurnberger  (@cocreatr), co-creating is “a capability and willingness of a team member to shift roles as driver or passenger, so that the team does reach shared targets.” Future co-creation emerges from open communities where interaction and improvements occur spontaneously.
  •     Collective intelligence   is defined as “the capacity of human communities to evolve towards higher order complexity and harmony, through… variation-feedback-selection, differentiation-integration-transformation, and competition-cooperation-coopetition.” Design charrettes and Gov2.0 such as Open Cities and CityCamps are formal community development efforts and employcrowdsourcing.
  •     Collective wisdom considers “multiple opinions and forms of intelligence. Wisdom in groups is demonstrated by insight, good sense, clarity, objectivity, and discernment rooted in deep caring and compassion.” We connect on political, social, and economic strategies and understand psychological, spiritual and cultural roots.

Co-creating and collective intelligence/wisdom are forming a hybrid movement, a calling to reclaim our participation in groups as positive, useful, healing, life affirming. We alter the way that we see the world in order to solve problems together.

Have you ever considered your city as a place that feeds your soul? And the souls of everyone? That is the mission of co-creation.

What is co-creation for cities?

Design professionals and planners have explored public participation methods for decades, without moving into co-creation.  Co-creation in cities is grounded in two fundamental theories, systems and anticipatory learning.

  •     From Draper Kaufman’s rules for complex adaptive systems: “Everything is connected to everything else. Real life is lived in complex world system where all subsystems overlap and affect each other. You can never do just one thing.”
  •     Anticipatory action learning begins with questioning and is open, inclusive, environmentally sensitive, dynamic, reflective, and occurs in real time. It aims at deep authentic understanding of issues and points of view and frequently leads to transformative change.
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How will it work?

Christopher Alexander calls emergent forms of design and construction the timeless way of building. “It is the process which brings order out of nothing but ourselves; it cannot be attained, but it will happen of its own accord, if we will only let it.” Designing a city can be like creating a story; then make a city that fits, not the other way around.

  •     Co-creation depends on new models based on networks, flows of ideas and resources, connections, places, and people. Furthermore, the process is emergent, generative, analytical, dynamic, and reflective.
  •     Co-creation blends human dimensions with technological innovation.
  •     Initially, you will play with virtual representations of cities in data-rich, learning, self-improving game-like virtual environments.
  •     Future co-making and co-constructing, as done in the past and in informal developments now, will be based on adaptive quality of life solutions and responsiveness to people’s needs and aspirations.

How can it happen?

According to Chris Anderson, when rival dance teams challenge each other via Youtube, “crowd accelerated innovation” creates “an upward spiral of invention.” The dancers form a global laboratory of continuous innovation and self-improvements.

Although city development is a long way from dance teams, can you see how the pattern works?  From a collective imagination, designs are grounded in place, drawn from and by the community and experts. As you design, you publish, and others build on it, constantly improving locally and virtually.

Several urban trends fuel this paradigm.

  •     New urbanism and transect patterns reshape urban patterns reduces gaps between buildings. The city assumes a more organic feel.
  •     Prefab and self-constructed cities take the movement one step further. Cory Doctorow illustrated this scenario in Makers.
  •     Automation, social technologies, resource limitations, prefabricated and self-constructing parts, and the huge collective global imagination will make formal processes obsolete.
  •     Cities need to attract people. We will comparison shop different cities and know the differences.
  •     We are more aware of the consequences of lifestyle choices in part due to sustainability debates and will insist in more responsive development.
  •     Some cities will continue to build in formal patterns and structures.

When co-creation creates better cities, makes designing cities better, developers, bankers, experts, and government officials will agree. Eventually traditional processes will be seen as too cumbersome and slow. We will clamor for a simpler way. Successful cities will employ all their resources to become exceedingly beautiful, responsive and charismatic including the killer app: co-creating.

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Lessons from slums

Informal developments or slums grow like herds of wildebeests racing across the landscape of Rio, New Delhi, and Lagos. A sanctioned construction site creates discontinuity. Then one informal dwelling begins, then another and another. Soon a mass of dwellings swarm across the terrain. And once there, they stay.

Dharavi slums in Mumbai have tightly woven patterns with frequent open social spaces.

  •     The community is vibrant, dynamic, interactive, and constantly tinkering with built environment.
  •     Like Venice centuries before, the density of the place creates its own emergent form that only its residents know.
  •     While the Mumbai slums are terribly dangerous examples of life safety and few formal rights, the architecture is feeds the community.

In contrast, public housing in LA does nothing to spark social life; you might say the same thing about traffic congestion, strip malls, and bland subdivisions. When we supply unhealthy boxes for people to live in, they lose their sense of worth and connectedness.

  •     The key to co-creation is weaving together resources of users and experts. We all constantly adapt and improve. No building is ever done.

“To use a building is to make it, by physical transformation or by inhabiting it in ways not previously imagined or by conceiving it anew.” Jonathon Hill

City stories and other radical acts of reclaiming place

Like the informal development in emerging markets, DIY/co-created cities reveal people’s concerns and their solutions. Daniel Pink calls this phenomenon “high concept, high touch.” In the modern, information era, people used their left brain, rational thinking. In the 21st century conceptual age, we tune into our right brain, creative ideas.

We need to put storytelling back into our cities.

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  • Underbelly Project, New York City artists took an abandoned subway and secretly created artwork on the surfaces. The installation was open for one night to a select few.
  • German Guerrilla Bench appears to be a transformer and opens into a bench.
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  •     Sydney Opera House Media Façade portrays the future of media installations. With a projector, you can add messages and images across the face of a building.
  •     Guerrilla Gardening in median strips and other unclaimed spaces beautifies forlorn streets.
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  •    Container City stacks shipping containers into a stunning mixed use village.
Would you want to co-create a neighborhood or district?

Is a co-created future one that you would welcome? On the one hand we just want our cities to work well for us, to live  in an area that is beautiful, healthy, and suits our lifestyle. Yet seeing a group of people around the world improve cities again and again. Having the city, designers, and developers working as partners would be thrilling. A constantly better place to live. When we see the city as a whole, we begin to understand deeply grounded interconnections. We stop wasteful development patterns and use limited resources including ourselves towards the greater good. Far from a Pollyanna approach, it’s survival. In our healthiest, most sustainable, life affirming forms, cities and people will be constellations of connections, linked through unanticipated discoveries.

Next article, D is for Disasters.

Images: VM Mountain Dwellings by BIG on ArchDaily; Give a Minute Chicago Civic Engagement Project on Sustainable Cities Collective. More reading: participation,co-creating.

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