Technologies for Urban Networking and Self-Governance

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See: Digital Platform for Self-Organisation in Urban Planning


By Herman Mitish:

"There has been great technological revolution along with the development of participation practices in urban planning. Emergence of personal electronic devices, World Wide Web, development of information and communication systems - all of these innovations have played invaluable role in the modern history of humanity and also shaped the ideas of participatory planning. With a rise of ICT participative urban design was expected to boost, considering new level of freedom of communication and self-expression, but first emerged e-planning platforms only allowed more organized and substantive way of carrying out dominant model of consultative staged participation, without providing to the public flexibility to spotlight important for them issues (SaadSulonen, 2012). Modern platforms such as Maptionnaire, SoftGIS methodology and various smartcity implementations substantially evolved comparing to the early e-planning developments and already incorporate that feature, getting to the category of collaborative participation platforms. Though digitalization of established practices generally is far to be a cure-all solution, because many successful in the past planning systems, that are being used as models for e-planning technologies, already discredited themselves in the face of challenges of 21st century. These were the challenges of fundamental nature: to recognize broad public as an equal actor in the process of decisionmaking; to take into consideration informal manifestations of urban life; to revise notion of value in a changing economic and political reality; to process.

The first fascinating case of a system trying to overcome the above mentioned challenges will be a smart city platform from Finland named Happycity, launched in beta on 2017 (Chaos Architects, 2017). I was lucky to convey an interview with the founder of Happycity, Natalia Rincon, in the early spring 2018 and few month later to test their newly launched Happycity mobile application. Application starts with a questionnaire on the general demographic information and continues with a newsfeed, where users can see the nearest or most popular ideas on city improvement with a photo, a field for short description of an issue, likes and comments. There is also a button to add a new proposal, specify location and upload a photo for it with a short description. From the website we read that proposed system is designed to give to the people “the power to transform their cities” by organizing citizen engagement and providing e-governance tools. “By combining open and licensed data that different systems are creating with the data that people produce in their living environment (ideas, behavior, sentiments) we produce forecasts that help us take better decisions in the future.” (Chaos Architects, 2018). These principles sound promising as they recognize civil society as a crucial actor for shaping expert opinion on strategic urban planning. However, it is not clearly stated, how much it is related to actual decision-making and who is responsible for interpretation of user-generated data in proposed scheme. Later in description this interpretative third party is mentioned as “AI cloud platform with a user interface that allows you to share your ideas about your city and co-create together with your community “. This model tends to embody technocratic mindset, as the role and objectivity of Artificial Intelligence is not elaborated, but seems to be taken as neutral and objective. This approach could have been problematic if we consider AI as a subjective actor. If AI neural network gain its intelligence through the process of “learning” from datasets, given by the developer, then depending on the developer and provided dataset, we can get potentially different results of pattern recognition. Web site also introduces a fair system of licensing for Happycity products (which consist of analyzed data and APIs), that allows third parties to buy user data with their consent and with a financial or equivalent compensation through the bonus rewarding system. Although this system can have its biases, it shows well elaborated high-end solution for public involvement and can be good for political or entrepreneurial activity, when gets substantial number of users.

Another good example of innovative participation method was openly exhibited initiative of Tampere City Municipality on public engagement through gamification. In the spring of 2018, I had a great opportunity to meet with Rodrigo Coloma, Urban Planner and City Information Model Coordinator (Suunnittelija, Tietomallikoordinaattori), who provided more information about the initiative. He introduced me to numerous ongoing projects aimed for better interaction with a public, regarding the issues of urban planning and city development. One of the exhibited video games allowed player to move along a programmed path in the city, seeing it from the fly view, and to pinpoint issues or ideas related to specific places along the way. The other one was an invitation to have a VR bicycle tour around Tampere of a near future. Players had to earn points by riding a bike through array of gates, that were leading them along all the currently planned and work-in-progress projects, to let them feel the scale and experience spatially all the public spaces along the way. The other VR project was also quite impressive as it was immersing players in real-scale VR Tampere City, to let them literary change it real-time. They were given special 3d brush to select and install new elements of street furniture, add or remove greenery, sort out and apply different types of cladding and pavements, place new building masses and much more. We were also introduced into the projects of children engagement, where groups of children had to design the Tampere City of their dream, in the Minecraft-like world. It has been mentioned that these exercises were very popular and successful amongst the children, who were willing to learn new tools, co-create and have fun together. In fact, all these projects attracted a lot of attention and interest from the public, and served well to declared purpose. Although these means of art and technology weren’t making people any closer to real decision-making process, they were great examples of a project on urban education and gamification of urban planning.

Gamified participative urban planning is in fact an established concept within the urban planning practice, but it is often used in indirect ways and for educational purposes only - whether it is open call to build a dream city in simulation games (Hämeenlinna, 2018; Kangasala, 2018) or public invitation to play board games, to establish better communication (Vaasa, 2018). The hints on where to find real solutions for overwhelming challenges of participatory planning could be eventually found in digital games industry and game research. Massive multiplayer online games, such as World of Warcraft count on hundreds of millions accounts registered around the world (Samit, 2014). Digital games have become ubiquitous and persistent in the modern world, successfully engaging almost all age and interest groups into play. Emergent AR multiplayer games, such as Ingess or Pockemon Go have shown its’ power to unite for genuine collaboration people on the streets, that have never known each other before. Perception of game as informal and entertaining activity gives a great opportunity to include informal manifestations of participatory movements within it. The complexity of modern city can be interpreted by game, and big data can play crucial role in it, shaping it’s in-game meta-landscape. Augmented reality (AR) multiplayer online game model could fit to all the criteria of proper planning medium within given problematics, but, in my opinion, to find comprehensive solution for fundamental issues of public participation we need first to dig deeper, and look into more general mechanism behind cooperative online games. This is a mechanism of a human communication, with a game being an ICT medium of it.

Effective solution for given challenges cannot be founded neither by technical means of digitalization, nor by cognitive means of gamification, but on the fundamental level of understanding the human nature and its self-organizing communicative capacities, magnified by technological innovation. Technological innovations and ICT in particular have played invaluable role during modern history, accompanying great cultural, social and economic shifts. Social media networks, instant messaging, blogging, geo-referenced media and augmented reality - all these technologies are largely shaping our reality. But how do they fit our needs and what kind of technology should we design for our decentralized self-governing societies of the future? On March 2018, we have heard a lot about one of the largest social networks of the world, Facebook, and their issue related to illegal acquisition of their users’ personal data by a third party for illegitimate political manipulations (The Week, 2018). Despite Facebook’s obvious failure to control and preserve flows of personal data, there are much more substantial ethical issues related to the currently working models of social media. One of the most problematic issues relates to their business model, which is based on exploitation of unaware user as of a source of demographic data, that is sold for target marketing purposes to increase level of users’ consumption for the benefit of commerce. According to Rigi (2015) and Fraysse (2015) “what they are selling in Facebook is derived from our sharing, i.e. data about our likes and interests, and it goes essentially to advertisers. They are operating not in the production of value, but in the sphere of realization or circulation of value, i.e. helping sell what capitalism produces” (Bauwens & Niaros, 2017, p. 9). Thus entrepreneurship in collusion with everyone’s beloved social networks easily turn into insatiable evil, while their initial purposes stay positive - to provide services, goods and communication means for people on demand. The abovementioned ethical problem however exists for much longer time than the social media networks by themselves - this is a heritage of the 20th century industrial and consumerist socioeconomic paradigm, recently exposed through the lens of modern technology. It reveals expertdriven culture where supply defines demand, and where everything is done on behalf of people and seemingly for people, but never with consideration of real people's needs and opinions. It also reveals apparent objectification of a personality within this paradigm: as a target of marketing, tool of politics and asset of economy.

Our goal must be to rethink social networking in the frames of modern reality, to make it a tool in our hands to mobilize ourselves for making the world a better place. Maybe we even don’t need much for it – we can use existing media networking architectures, but replace their top-down “usercentered” structure with a model of collaborative horizontal partnership intrinsic to emerging sharing economies. There are more and more of applications and services that do utilize this emerging socio-economic model. I will give a short overview of those that seem the most appropriate and could be used as a prototype or source of inspiration, or as ready-made solutions to integrate or use together with subject of this research.

Useful examples that I use as a prototypes along this work, are a dating applications, and in instance Tinder. Tinder is a location-based social search mobile app that allows users to like or dislike other users, and allows users to chat if both parties accordingly liked each other. The official web site puts it like this: “Meet new and interesting people nearby. Swipe right to like someone or swipe left to pass. If they swipe right too then it’s a match. Only people you have matched with can message you” (Wolfe et al., 2012). The concept seems pretty universal - to find a convergence of intentions (in this case of dating) amongst unknown people sharing the same physical space, limit convergent groups by appropriate number (in this case two) and then to initiate communication between members of group for realization of their shared intentions. Here it is suitable to cite Healey, 1997, to show analogy with ideas on urbanism “What may unify people from diverse backgrounds is that they share a physical place in which they live and work and they often share a concern for the development of this place, despite having different moral orders”. What exactly people can share within common physical space and despite their different moral orders is an open question: is it an intention to find a romance or concern for their common environment, or anything else - we just need to ask that question people by themselves. That is why this project started as an idea to create “urban planning Tinder” where the people would group around common intentions that they are free to identify themselves. Though if we start analyzing Tinder and other dating apps of similar mechanics we get to realize that the design of a system in its details largely shapes the way the app is used and consequently the way relationships are organized. Tinder is in fact quite notorious example of dating application, as it is said that it fosters hookup culture (Grigoriadis, 2017). For us it seems obvious consequence for its operating system, where social search is organized around selection of best looking photos and almost absolute elimination of any semantic information. Also, as Tinder does not incorporate any social capital or trust economy, it does not as well stimulate for a long term relationship. But, for example, in the case of dating app Appetence, the outcomes of interaction could be in fact opposite to ones of Tinder, as its rules guide users towards more semantically rich relations. They cannot see the picture of people they chat with unless they have spent a decently long time with them in the process of communication. There is also a dating app called Bumble, where the privilege to start messaging is given only to female users and it has a very different effects as well. We believe that the analytical models of the Theory of Games would be the best to investigate the flaws or features of relational systems of such kind, as well as for our own artifact. Setting up initial rules of the game we often determine its further dynamics and outcomes on a statistical level. Thus it is our responsibility to set proper rules for our purposeful game. I would like to introduce two more brilliant programs related to our case under the names Loomio and Co-budget. They were developed by entrepreneurial coalition called Enspiral Network, that has started with an aim to help people to do socially meaningful work collectively (Enspiral, 2010). Loomio is a decision-making software designed to assist groups with the collaborative decision-making process (Enspiral, 2014). It is a free software web application, where users can initiate discussions, polls and different customized voting and planning systems. As the discussions progress to initiating a proposal, the group is being informed through various updatable graphs and charts, depending on type of proposal. I have tested it during different cases of teamwork and was pleased to realize how easy it is to use and how helpful it can be. It has emerged during the Occupy movements, was crowdfunded and collectively supported by numerous communities and individuals, and also used during Occupy movement in New Zealand. Basically it allows users to create, modify and process ideas, rank the issues, organize the time, etc. in cooperative and transparent fashion. The whole system seems very well designed and thought through and can work well together with any social group/network, and I believe with the subject of this research. I will analyze it in detail later in the design phase to either embed it in target application or to bridge two ecosystems. The same goes for Co-Budget (Enspiral, 2017), which is similar solution for collaborative financial decision-making.

One more thing to mention is an emerging research field called ‘social computing’ which is concerned with the interrelation of social behaviors and computational information and communication systems. It is based on creation or simulation of social contexts through the use of software and technology, and further analysis, design and prediction of such socio-technological systems. One of the prominent works in this field, much related to this research, is focused on design and evaluation of tools for technology assisted crowd-scale deliberation and decision-making. Professor of MIT Center for Collective Intelligence, Mark Klein, is describing and developing digital tools for pareto-centric decision-making, complex negotiations and constructive deliberation of a large group scale, with a help of the Deliberatorium digital platform. In the intro to this platform he features a lot of constructive critique towards currently existing social-media networks, as they “... fail badly when we try to engage large crowds in deliberating about how to solve complex problems, typically generating huge volumes of highly redundant disorganized content of very mixed quality, making it prohibitively expensive to find the ‘good stuff’, as well as difficult to measure and improve how well the crowd meets the customer's needs. This problem plagues a broad swath of institutions, including news media, business, government, and NGOs” (Klein, 2018).

Big part of Klein’s research work is in fact dedicated to critics of existing ICT, especially their incapability to cope with any constructive deliberation/negotiation within any medium/large scale groups of people. “While the Internet now provides the cheap, capable and ubiquitous communication infrastructure needed to enable crowd-scale deliberation, current technologies (i.e. social media tools such as email, forums, blogs, and so on) generally result in very poor deliberation outcomes, characterized by large volumes of disorganized and low-quality content, haphazard evaluation, toxic interactions, and such debilitating emergent dysfunctions as clique formation, groupthink, polarization, and deadlock” (Klein, 2018). He states several reasons for these problems, e.g. current tools do not provide technological support for crowd members to work together to collaboratively develop new ideas, but use a contest frame which actually “disincentivizes” collaboration. There is also an issue with unsystematic exploration, as current tools do not provide ways to systematically explore the design space of potential solutions; “small voices” issue, when lots of redundancy crowd out good ideas from smaller groups. There are issues with “extremization”, when participants tend to push their own or group-favored ideas, rather than seek win-win ideas; balkanization, the phenomena when participants self-organize into sub-groups, wherein ideas rarely cross-fertilize across groups. This can be caused by the structure of existing social media tools (“filter bubbles”) or by people's tendency to find groups they can relate to (“homophily”) (Klein, 2018). “Current social media technologies do not provide any inherent support for systematic, wellreasoned evaluations of solution alternatives. On the contrary, fallacious arguments are presented as fact and not challenged, undercutting participants' ability to accurately evaluate which solutions are better than others. “

To develop a solution for these challenges Klein combines ideas from argumentation theory and social computing and developing web-based deliberation platform ‘Deliberatorium’. The definition of deliberation is “the activity where groups of people identify possible solutions for a problem, evaluate these alternatives, and select the solution(s) that best meet their needs” (Klein, 2017). He states that deliberation processes have not changed substantially for a very long time in the history.

In most of the cases it is about those who hold power, deciding on policies behind the cabinets doors, and then competing for the most beneficial for them options by engagement of wider support. In this situation most of the people, affected by decision-making, have no possibility to input their own propositions and opinions. In the modern world it is increasingly inadequate approach, as the scale of complexity of the problems we face is overwhelming, and many important ideas and perspectives, that would allow far superior solutions are simply not incorporated. Including a wide public in the scale of crowds (hundreds, thousands or more) into deliberation process we unveiling a great potential to do much better. According to Klein, 2017 “it is because crowd-scale interactions have been shown to produce, in appropriate circumstances, such powerful emergent phenomena as ‘the long tail’ - availability of much greater idea diversity, ‘Idea synergy’ - the ability for users to share and form novel combinations and extensions of ideas, ‘Many eyes’ - production of high-quality results due to the multiple independent verifications, ‘Wisdom of the crowds’ - better judgments made by large groups of contributors, than those produced by the individuals that make them up. These often exceed the performance of experts, because collective judgment cancels out the biases and gaps of the individual members” (Klein, 2017)." (


* Article: Do it ourselves: Digital platform for self-organisation in urban planning - research through design. By Herman Mitish.