Co-Producing Tools for Participation and Action in Urban Environments

Co-Producing Tools for Participation and Action in Urban Environments

Corelia E. Baibarac (University of Sheffield, UK)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-0827-4.ch007
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The chapter addresses the potential of co-production in relation to enhancing the participation of a city's inhabitants in its design, management and use. It does this by discussing a co-design process, which explored how participation might be extended to the design of digital platforms that could allow city inhabitants to be involved in the identification of needs, goals and actions for their everyday environments. The chapter outlines three spatial-technological experiments involved in the co-design process and the resulting web 2.0 platform prototype, which illustrates how collaborative technologies might stimulate collective actions. Acknowledging the importance of creating opportunities and spaces for reflection within technology-enabled participatory processes, the notion of co-production is extended to the iterative and collaborative production of knowledge and actions for the city. In this conceptualization, inhabitants' role shifts from that of ‘users' or ‘consumers' to active (and reflective) ‘co-producers' of a more resilient city together with the decision-makers.
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Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.

Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, 1961

‘Co-production’ and related terms such as ‘co-design’ have become increasingly prevalent in the vocabulary of policymakers and urban innovators in recent years. Widespread economic difficulties faced by governments and municipalities, together with wider challenges such as environmental degradation, an ageing society and an unreliable global financial system, are prompting the search for alternative ways of providing public services. Current services are seen to be badly-equipped to cope with these challenges, particularly as governments cannot continue to rely on continuing economic growth to finance their provision. In this context, ‘co-production’ has been put forward as having the potential to transform public services and make them more effective and cost-efficient by involving users in their design and delivery (Boyle & Harris, 2009).

In parallel, Information and Communication Technology (ICT), collaborative technologies in particular, have become core tools in the development of ways of improving the efficiency of public services, as illustrated for example by the concept of ‘smart cities’ (Caragliu, et al., 2009; Hollands, 2008). However, besides citizen-sensing applications, developments in ICT also offer interesting opportunities for improving knowledge regarding everyday life practices and experiences of local residents, thus potentially informing and enhancing local planning processes. The rapid expansion of social media and web 2.0 applications, in particular, has opened up opportunities for new forms of public participation outside formal face-to-face meetings and consultations, in everyday life situations (Horelli, 2013) and using seemingly mundane technologies. Indeed, it could be argued that these developments in ICT have introduced a paradigmatic shift in relation to civic participation and also the ways in which geographic data are (co)produced. As illustrated by the collaborative OpenStreetMaps project, in which Global Positioning Systems (GPS) technology has been used to trace city maps with the help of inhabitants, it is now difficult to differentiate data ‘producers’ and ‘users’ in an environment where many participants function in both capacities.

These developments in the socio-technological landscape indicate a pressing need to expand the discussion around co-production beyond its potential to find improved solutions to current public service inefficiency – it has become indeed imperative to also address the social, cultural, political and technological dimensions of co-production (Petcou & Petrescu, 2015). Rather than only meeting public demands and needs, how could co-production processes extend to the ways in which a city is developed, managed and used? What kinds of tools might allow city inhabitants to be involved in identifying needs, establishing goals and taking collective action for improving everyday environments? And what kinds of processes might be needed in order to stimulate and sustain such actions?

This chapter aims to address some of these questions. It does this by discussing an experimental study, which explored possibilities for co-designing a collaborative platform that could be used in urban planning1. The study consisted of three spatial-technological experiments (i.e. combining physical presence in urban space with the use of digital technology) and was carried out in Dublin, Ireland. Its outcome was a prototype collaborative digital platform, which offers opportunities for sharing everyday life experiences of, and in, urban space, and creates an arena where ordinary inhabitants and city decision-makers can come together to discuss and envision possibilities for the future development of these spaces. After situating the research in its wider theoretical context, the chapter will focus on two main aspects of this experimental study: first, it will discuss how the participants contributed to the design of the digital platform – the co-design process; and second, how the platform, which emerged through carrying out the co-design process, might stimulate collective actions in everyday urban environments.

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