Screen shot of Collaborative Maps

+ Cities can benefit from the digital innovation of tools such as Collaborative Maps to engage more people in design.

I think good design is democratic. With today’s technology, social media and the rise of digital platforms, there’s an opportunity to involve more people in design, decision-making and the operation of cities. 

These tools can empower citizens to give their opinion on large-scale design projects and to drive forward their own ideas. If you’re designing new solutions or components of cities or spaces, I believe you want to make sure they meet the needs and expectations of as many different stakeholders as possible. 

Why wouldn’t you, for example, want to engage effectively with the people who actually live in the part of a city affected by a project? Nobody knows more about a city than its citizens. 

This is why Arup created Collaborative Maps, which broadens the reach of community engagement by enabling people to review and comment on proposed developments via an online map. The tool makes it easier and cheaper to consult with people who are hard to reach through traditional means such as holding meetings.

Technology can help people understand what major projects mean for them. Arup’s sophisticated visualisation and auralisation for HS2 gave people the chance to experience what the railway will sound and look like. 

But as well as asking citizens to help shape the future of their cities, I think we should also be asking them to help improve day-to-day operations. For example, could we soon see the increasing power of smartphones used to monitor air quality across a city?

There are already tools helping people to submit information about the state of their city. FixMyStreet, for example, allows you to report, view or discuss problems like graffiti, fly-tipping, and broken paving slabs or street lighting. 

You’ve always been able to report these things in other ways, of course. But digital technology makes it easier and so, I think, makes it likely that more people will engage with the process. 

In the past, citizens of the Spanish city of Santander wishing to complain about potholes had to phone or write to the city government. Now they can report it via the Pulse of the City smartphone app, which also connects them to all the city’s data streams such as transit information.

All this makes being a citizen a much more personal, interactive and democratic experience. It’s part of a wider trend of democratic design powered by digital innovation in everything from 3D printing to advanced design software. 

Opening up design to a wider cohort of people is something that I believe we as professionals must embrace if we truly want to shape better cities and a better world.