“Designing Social Cities of Tomorrow” workshop – presentation notes

On February 17, the international  “Social Cities of Tomorrow” conference was held in Amsterdam. Prior to this conference, a three-day “Designing Social Cities of Tomorrow” workshop was held in which international participants from various professional backgrounds collaborated with local stakeholder organisations on 4 real-world urban cases: Urban Pioneers Zeeburgereiland (Amsterdam), Haagse Havens (The Hague), Strijp-S (Eindhoven), and Amsterdam Civic Innovator Network. On February 16, the results of this workshop were presented in a sold-out hall. Fortunately, I managed to get one of the last tickets. I was particularly interested in this workshop, as I thought it might generate some concrete ideas to help us co-create the new Tilburg Spoorzone. I was not disappointed, and really very pleased with the overall quality, originality, and feasibility of the ideas.

For the first three cases, quite detailed “how to do it” plans were unfolded, the presentation of the fourth case focused on the theoretical underpinnings of a civic innovator network. A good summary by Laurent Hubeek of the presentations  of case 1 & 2 can be found here, that of case 3 & 4 here. I took detailed notes during the case presentations. They’re rather rough, but I include them here to capture the atmosphere and as an additional recording of the insights presented. Hopefully they help to inspire further thinking.


Hi-tech is increasingly influencing life in today’s cities.  “Smart Cities” are hot.  The main problem with these visions: where are the people?! Can we use the same hi-tech to make the cities more social instead of (just) smart? The key question therefore is:  How can we use digital technologies to make our cities more social, rather than just more hi-tech?
Social cities: it’s not about a blueprint, but a design approach. It’s a way of thinking about cities that are highly technological, but which is not about the technology itself,  but about the people. Now,  how do you design for social cities? How do you engage and empower publics (groups of people) to act on communally shared issues?
The digital element leads to a qualitative shift:
  • There’s a new resource: the data the city is generating
  • Name issues in new ways, discover patterns, bring up/visualize new issues in ways you couldn’t do before
  • Engage people, give them a new sense of place (e.g. storytelling, urban gaming)
  • Ways how we organize ourselves: peer-to-peer organization around issues

Taking this into account, the questions posed to the teams were:

  • How can we get citizens to feel they belong and feel that the city belongs to them as well?
  • How do we design for ‘ownership’?
Case 1: TEMPLoT (= temporary plot)
Municipalities are plagued by having many unused vacant parcels.  Zeeburgereiland Amsterdam is a typical case. However, most of Europe is dealing with same issues. Key idea: “temporary” could become the stimulus.
Nothing is happening on Zeeburgereiland, it is literally a no go zone. The city idea was to make it available as a 10 year-lease for 1 euro. Why not make it much more temporary:  what  if the urban pioneer was only given the land for 365 days instead of 10 years? The temp architecture initiative wants experts to meet some place to advise new urban pioneers to do something “tomorrow”. These expert roles are: owner, developer, designer, manager. However, what if the urban pioneers are the experts? Individuals could start playing those roles themselves. To do so, maybe these urban pioneers don’t need a place but a platform? This system consisting of a website plus apps could be TEMPLoT.
Zeeburgereiland = 3,6 ha plot minus 15% infrastructure. Possible uses: Recreation? Entertainment, Amusement, Do Nothing? As the area is sandwiched between superdense neighbourhoods: what if its main use were a garden? It could provide a temp infrastructure consisting of private parcels, plus an area for a larger community “Contribution Zone”. Flex spaces  would be adjacent to private spaces, which can help in the building of mini communities. Manage the collective usage online via TEMPLoT.
Follow the seasonal life cycle: in December, start planning the temp infrastructure, in January, do the bidding process, after that the building and planting etc., use summer for enjoying festivals, then in October/November, do the clean up process. Coordination can happen online. The flex space is the negotiation space (through bidding) between the neighbours. Contribution zone: everybody has to contribute something there (time, energy, skills & knowledge, teaching, network, etc.). These contributions are visible in your online profile, so your neighbors know your involvement. Potential individual uses: relaxation, family plot, artist studio, etc.
Stakeholder organization response:
It for sure is possible. It could become a way of “citymaking”. Should not only be gardens, however, the area could also be used in another way. A potential problem is that  people like it so much that they don’t want to leave? Also, the app used in the plotting process should be simple. What if it would also allow pioneers to change plot? Would be great if it could also help to increase the skills of participants.
Impressed by the “back to basics” approach. This is refreshing, as city design has become so (unnecessarily) complex these days. Nice it’s so hands-on.
Commitment:  the tender for Zeeburgereiland is already out, we could add this digital approach. Every city in Europe has such a map of vacant plots. Many other cities could also apply this approach: investigate how other cities can be involved?
Audience response: 
There’s a similar project in Ghent, Belgium. It’s about gardens, people could buy it with invented city currency, so that everybody could afford a plot, also those without money. You put in your effort and got the virtual currency. However, what was the duration of the lease? The temp focus is very important.

Case 2: Haagse Havens
This concerns a rough, industrial area in The Hague. The last master plan was in 2005. Due to the crisis there is no money: they now want to give more “power to the people”. Questions include:  how can we map the cultural and economic values of the area? How can we build on local values to improve the public space?
The locals love the area. It’s not so much a problem of mapping, but of how to make the qualities shine through. Why are the qualities not shining?
A main problem is the lack of trust: locals don’t trust the municipality, the municipality does not see the qualities. There’s a pressing need for a better system of communication. The locals have good communication based on face-to-face, offline. Build on this. How to improve the system of two-way communication between locals and municipality?
  • Stage 1: “First meeting/first engagement”. Get commitment from municipality and locals. Start with two people from the city, three business owners community, plus a facilitator. Make a video trailer of locals interviewing locals “Love/Hate the Neighborhood”. Then present the trailer to community.
  • Stage 2: “Choose your neighbor/Meet your neighbor”. Continue and expand the collaboration, both online + offline. Lots of locals are not involved with online media, and they have no incentives to become digitized. Build on those local face-to-face, strong social network values.
    • The first step is to create a community website for fostering co-creation. Before, plans always came from one stakeholder (municipality, couple of business owners), but were never co-created by all stakeholders together. The online platform  would be centered around an evolving online map co-created by all stakeholders. There could be many different kind of inputs (e.g. ideas for the area, e.g. businesses that could come into a vacant spot; communication about events, etc.). There should be an online record of present and past ideas, in order to create continuity.
    • Also create a loop back to “analog people”. Create a lunch-bus!  This would serve as a mobile restaurant  to bring stakeholders together (including a municipality representative) and to foster storytelling. People eat and discuss. A “table cloth map” would show the online map to the people around the table through a  facilitator. The recorded discussions would be fed back into online website. It’s a very practical way to foster co-creation.
Such an approach would lead to improved communication, trust, co-creation and would help in boosting identity.
Stakeholder organization response:
The analysis picks up on all the issues. The loop between online and offline through the lunch bus is very interesting. It’s a very simple tool that may work, also since there are not many lunch facilities around there. Connecting the conversation in the bus with digital tools also is very interesting, the approach could indeed help to build trust.
We are currently in a very open process. The ideas might be used in the Architecture Biennale Rotterdam project presentation. They should also be introduced in planmaking in coming years.
Audience response:
No questions from the audience.
Case 3: Zone-S

Strijp-S in Eindhoven is a cross-over between virtual media and physical space. How can new media contribute to the urban atmosphere of Strijp-S? In answering this question, the approach should:
  • Connect to the DNA of the area
  • Increase the experience
  • Inspire people
  • Be interactive
It’s not the new media, but the people who are going to change the atmosphere. Starting from here, the team decided to “go to extremes”: make a social city with the help of new media.
There’s a lot of vacant space around the buildings.  Housing corporation Trudo’s ambition: to create a new creative cultural heart of Eindhoven:
  • High density
  • Mixed activites
  • Vibrancy 24/7
  • Attractive facilities
How are you going to build a community? There are no people living there now. There’s a huge gap between now and future. Right now, Strijp-S is very popular for huge festivals. There are some peaks in attendance, but in between the public space is abandoned. How do you expand the amount of time that people spend there? How do you have peope stay longer and contribute to the area? People working there see it as a “living lab”. Because there are no people there you have the freedom for “extreme experimentation”: see Strijp-S as a temporary social experimental zone.
What if we were to consider Strijp-S as a game zone (metaphor, not actually)? We want to get social engagement, using the game metaphor can help in achieving this.  In such a community you’re not just a visitor, but a player. You can choose the amount of involvement you’re up to. However, you need to get support from the community. You start as a novice but can end as a “professional community member”. You can enter project proposals on the online community site. Propose a project, then if you have enough support by deadline, you can go to next level of realization. The game offers you a territory, you can predesign the project on the online interface, if you get the support you can build/realize the project. People vote for you, but also say whether they will attend/assist. This awards you points, which you can use to reach the next level.  One example could be a “Trash2Fuel” project, an extreme project area where you’re going to burn/compost waste.
For this to succeed, many details still need to be worked out: who are the community players, what are the rules, who would be the “game master”, what resources are needed? However, it would be a way to generate the sustained and expanding kind of social engagement needed to make the area work.
Stakeholder organization response:
The approach appeals, but it might apply mostly to the current young population and many events. Later “normal inhabitants” will come. How to involve them in such a game metaphor? One way could be to have many different levels of the game, different zones, different interfaces (e.g. a cafe).
Trudo is really interested and will explore this idea more deeply with the team. As developers “we should no longer think in buildings”!
Audience response:
Great idea, use “lunch bus-like” ideas to make novices get used to the idea. Also create (physical) playgrounds to introduce people to the whole concept. Use a real space to play the initial stage of the game, then go online.
Case 4: Amsterdam Civic Innovators Network
How can we increase citizens’ participation in civic innovation? Currently, there is often a website, some questions, a contest/prize, resulting in lots of feedback. Once the contest over, however, there is no sustainability. The city really wants its citizens to be involved. However, collectives like Hack de Overheid think the government needs to do even more to open up and really share power. There’s a lot of tension between the two parties.
To get a true “Civic Innovators Network”, we should not think in terms of tools, apps, websites. A much more holistic approach is needed. Such a network is all around us. Its goals would include stimulating economic growth, social value, environmental sustainability, making city operations more efficient. The people must be able to associate themselves with such goals.  To do so, use a digital infrastructure/environment that connects all that – an intelligent infrastructure that  improves feedback loops. The city should not want to it to be top-down, but a flat infrastructure in which city is only one of the participants.

Infrastructure prerequisites:

  • Open data
  • Free to access and use
  • Intelligent and connected
  • Scalable
The role of city:
  • Smart regulations:  how to deregulate?
  • Generate trust
  • Power shift
  • Distributed ownership
How is it going to work?
  • Focus on mutual benefits: money should be minimum motivation
  • New business model is key
  • Open the data, but do something with it, e.g. improve public services
  • If it saves a certain type of costs, some of the money could go to funds to stimulate more innovation. A percentage could give to person/community who came up with the idea.
  • Connect existing communities & platforms.
  • Open and flatten internal organization.
  • Let civic innovators network grow.
Stakeholder organization response:
No stakeholder representative was present.
Audience response:
Theoretically it sounds okay, but how do you actually make it work?
If you work with many stakeholders, sometimes you need a more directive role. Who should play that role if municipality is just one of many actors?  Should be the city after all.
Get out of the money discussion, talk ideas!

5 thoughts on ““Designing Social Cities of Tomorrow” workshop – presentation notes”

  1. Thanks Aldo – First it is really interesting how your “rough” notes convey so much that is interesting and completely coherent! Thanks for that. Second, I envy you the fluidity of thinking in Europe, where there is no overriding and unavoidable racial layer of entrenched ideas that gets in the way of constructive argument (I am writing from South Africa. Third, your blog coincides with a weekly blog from the leader of our opposition that echoes very strongly the barriers to the fluidity we would seek in implementation of new urban environments (http://www.da.org.za/newsroom.htm?action=view-news-item&id=10326). Have a good week!

    1. Hi Andy, thanks for your thoughtful reply. It makes me wonder whether the concrete ideas mentioned in the cases (temporary plots, lunch bus, “community game”) aren’t even much more applicable in “extreme societies” like SA?

      For instance, the idea of the community game where everybody starts as “novices”. If you define the right rules of the game, zones, and levels, community building might progress step-by-step. There could be initial “boundary meeting points”, safe zones where people from say townships and wealthier suburbs meet and build some initial common ground, and score their first “community points”, if only by selling and buying some crafts, doing some teaching, etc. As these “simple levels” get accomplished, more complex/deeper collaboration levels could be entered, with additional roles, rules, types of credits etc, becoming available. Could this be a means to playfully build some common ground and trust the only way it’s possible: one step at a time, over a very long time?

      What if the Social Cities ideas and approaches could help make these transitions take place more smoothly by intelligently combining low- and high-tech, the Community Informatics way? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Community_informatics What do you think, could this fly?

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