The potential and challenge of citizen engagement, open innovation, and crowdsourcing for urban planning purposes

A new paper in the Journal of Planning Literature by Dillon Mahmoudi and Ethan Seltzer, scholars in Urban Studies at Portland State University, reviews the current literature of open innovation – especially as it relates to online participation and crowdsourcing – and compares it with existing participatory practices for urban planning purposes. Planning in many ways relates to similar processes of policy making and as such the paper provides great insights also applicable to the broader field of opening governance.

The paper “Citizen Participation, Open Innovation, and Crowdsourcing. Challenges and Opportunities for Planning” examines in particular how online participation can serve the four primary purposes for citizen participation as it relates to planning:

  • “identification and collection of data known best or only to community members,
  • establishment of legitimacy for the planning effort due to its development in consultation with key stakeholders and community members,
  • addressing the ethical and moral commitment of planners to ensuring that those most directly affected by a plan have a hand in making it, and
  • the development of robustness by bringing the broadest possible set of views to the table in the process of plan making.”

Following a detailed analysis of the open innovation literature, the authors point out that there are several things to keep in mind (some applicable to governance in general):

1. “Firms and planning agencies are not the same thing. What makes the open innovation model relevant to planning, however, is the notion that both processes look beyond the confines of the sponsoring entity. Framed another way, Alexander (1993) suggests that planning can be viewed as a coordination  problem among numerous institutional and other interests, both for making plans and subsequent plan implementation. Planning is portrayed as a network-based activity, much as open innovation pursued through crowdsourcing is portrayed as a means for engaging a diverse and heretofore diffuse crowd and the knowledge and creativity of crowd ‘members.'”

2. “Citizen Participation and crowdsourcing share some but not all of the same aims. Both seek greater robustness. Both seek information and insights that only members of the crowd possess. However, crowdsourcing does not rely on the attitudes of any but the sponsors for conferring legitimacy on solutions. Further, whereas citizen participation is expected to give voice to those most affected by plans and planning decisions, and to provide a means for those likely to be excluded, intentionally or not, from making plans, crowdsourcing has no such brief.”

3. “By depending on a well-developed problem statement, crowdsourcing as a technique can arise in direct conflict with the expectation that citizen participation is, in fact, the process through which problems are identified, visions crafted, and goals and objectives specified. This is not so much a disqualification of crowdsourcing as a vehicle for citizen participation, but a caution that it is good for addressing some but not all requirements for citizen participation in planning. When there is a well-defined problem in need of solving, and the expertise of planners and institutions could benefit from engaging a creative and motivated crowd, then crowdsourcing makes sense. When, however, the purposes and aims for planning remain vague, crowd- sourcing may be more manipulative than constructive.”

The paper ends by reflecting on some of the emerging questions associated with the use of big data (without calling it that) and new information flows.

“Simply the rapidly advancing practice of utilizing urban information flows to inform both decision makers and citizens represents an explosion of new work and opportunity. The roles that citizens can and do play as ‘‘sensors’’ in the urban environment carry with them both promising and unsettling visions. There are great opportunities for research and practice in these fields in the future and that future is only beginning to unfold in the literature and in practice.”

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