Incubators of Public Spaces

Lead Research Organisation: University College London
Department Name: Bartlett Sch of Planning

Abstract

Across Europe, urban areas are growing and regenerating themselves according to a combination of individual self-interest and strategic planning. These are well-intentioned but the results are unpredictable. The multiplication of individually satisfactory developments and interventions may still be collectively sub-optimal, as seen in the case of urban sprawl, which is a potent spatial expression of modern society. In this age of complexity, participatory planning has been discussed in theory but only partly realised in practice, as it can lack the practical tools to harness the full potential of distributed decision-making.

People are seen as being actively engaged in systems as participants, and as a consequence can contribute their considerable knowledge and expertise to systems of placemaking.

Incubators address ways to harness the new technological possibilities and integrate them within multi-level planning systems to assist distributed decision-making in the self-organisation of places. The Project advances these challenges by linking a unique urban co-creative software, to e-participatory engagement applications and crowdfunding tools, involving co-creation in the making of public places by and for people. In this way, public spaces are transformed from empty spaces into a real context for social interaction, and would then become defined not only by the architecture that contains them, but also by the actions of the people that inhabit them.

The Incubators of Public Places provide the means to reconnect people with places and placemaking. What makes a place is the integration of spatial forms, built and open, that favours the interactions of people as they inhabit those spaces. In an Incubator, you can go online or join a public meeting, to shape easily your own scenario for the place, with clear and simple 3D models of spaces - as you would expect to be: flying through and walking around, exploring and making changes. Then, crowdfund the scenario, to provide your support, revamping the city as enjoyably as buying a book online.

The project will bring together innovative design software, communication software and software for facilitating 'crowdsourcing' and 'crowdfunding'- allowing citizens to be involved in the design of their public spaces interactively. The project is an exercise in applied research and allows 'live' experimentation and testing, with outcomes that can influence the design of public spaces in the cities involved. The project will also include a critical interpretation of the on-site applications, with implications for advancing social science and urban theory as well as application for future design and planning.

Planned Impact

The Project engages academics, policy makers, business, civic society stakeholders and citizens in multi-level planning systems to assist distributed decision-making in the self-organisation of places mediated by technology. The Project will link placemaking co-creative software to e-participatory engagement applications and crowdfunding tools. It directs community participation toward the improvement in the wellbeing of local residents and the public spaces in which they live and use. The project is expected to have impact (i) during its execution (software tool creation and testing) and (ii) during the platform's future use. In (i) stakeholder participants will gain knowledge and experience which has reputational, policy, academic and business value. We expect the following four types of stakeholders (users) to be involved in stage (i): (1)People (i.e. citizens who want to solve their real-life problems in Brussels, London and Turin as well as participants of the virtual case studies), (2)Utilizers (enterprises that want to develop their business in the area), (3)Enablers (public-sector actors, developers, e.g. LB of Wandsworth, GLA), (4)Providers (domain experts, e.g. universities, consultants, technicians like BRAL, LAQ-TIP Lab, ISN GmbH). Insofar as stage (ii) is concerned the platform involves in the co-creative process: (a) decision-makers and local administration, who develop strategies, policies, plans, codes, ordinances etc (b) local communities, organisations and citizens (c) real estate developers and construction companies, (d) planners, architects, technicians, and other practitioners, who provide the decision makers' work with expertise, and translate the general outlines of the strategies in sharable physical scenarios and operating procedures. (e) small economic activities owners and large firms or companies managers, who bring their own plans and perspectives on an area. The platform will support the self-organisation of places, enhancing the factors that motivate and enable actors to reach common understandings and to coordinate actions by reasoned argument, consensus and cooperation rather than by top-down actions only. The identification of the benefits that can be achieved collectively, e.g. functional and attractive public spaces, sustainable mobility, can facilitate plans and actions to achieve those benefits, and contribute to a sense of ownership for places and neighbourhoods by their population. Therefore all groups will benefit from insights into how placemaking projects can be delivered more effectively and efficiently, into the challenges such projects pose and into how policy can assist in achieving better planned and more equitable places. This exposure will strengthen (a) and (d) evaluation capacity, will deepen the understanding of placemaking project delivery for those actors and will therefore improve the chances of success of future projects. Organisations in group (c) and (d) will benefit from refining their ideas and making their expertise more relevant commercially. Organisations and actors in group (b) and (e) will benefit not only from making their point of view heard but also from gaining insights into the inner workings of the governance mechanisms and processes which are called to deliver such projects. Academic and non-academic benefits will be realised in the short term (changes in perceptions, knowledge exchange) and in the medium term (future research agendas, methodologies and policy approaches). Benefits such as the increased transparency of policy making, the more effective placemaking delivery process or the commercialisation of the know-how accumulated may take several years to impact fully. The project management and research teams (PI, Co-Is, Researchers) will improve their transferable skills in team building, effective communication, time management and report writing.

Publications

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Marshall S (2019) Digital Participation - taking 'Planning' into the third dimension in Town and Country Planning

 
Description Overview
The project overall created an online design and crowdsourcing platform to allow members of the public to participate in creating, sharing and voting on design ideas for the regeneration of public spaces, that could form part of a future participatory planning system. Within this overall scope, the two main contributions of the UCL team were:
1. We produced a theoretical framework for participation in the generation of proposals for (re)design of public spaces. This initial framework was developed in the course of the project and should be able to form part of new processes for planning, crowdsourcing and crowdfunding in the creation or redesign or regeneration of public spaces.
2. We also contributed to the development and testing of an online platform for public participation in decision-making. This platform was implemented at our case study site at Pollards Hill in south London. From this we gained insights into the potential for online design and crowdsourcing platforms for future planning.

The work of the project
The idea of the Incubators project is that citizens are given the opportunity to generate, visualize and share their ideas for public spaces and crowdfund those scenarios. In order to accomplish this goal, the project developed and tested software (a 3D model created by Politecnico di Torino and University of Torino, linked to a crowdsourcing platform implemented by Neurovation) and experimented with these through three urban living labs in the cities of the partners: Brussels, London and Turin. Overall, the project implemented two crowd sourcing platforms (for the London and Brussels cases) and also a crowd funding platform.
In the case of London, this involved the residents of the Pollards Hill housing estate in the London borough of Merton being invited to redesign their courtyards by using the platform. The platform offered, after a few test challenges, one main challenge ("Redesign your courtyard!"), a set of connected ideas and management of a set of users, including the possibility for users to comment on other users' proposals. The platform then linked to a 3D interactive model allowing users to select and insert a number of interventions, and to view, rotate, and zoom in and out of the proposal, and to save it and edit it later. The 3D model included a palette of possible interventions in different categories such as landscape (e.g. trees, mounds, water features) and sports or games facilities (e.g. outdoor gym, table tennis, skateboarding). Each of these had an indicative cost so that users could compare the relative cost of their proposals. Users were also invited to write a narrative explaining the proposal.
The Incubators platform overall created 1833 views of 555 visitors. Most of these visitors were from the UK, Italy, Belgium and Austria. Countries which were not directly involved in the project team but nevertheless visited the website were: US, France, Canada, Spain, Netherlands, Norway with each over more than 30 visits. Visitors arrived at the site from facebook, the UCL Website, JPI Website and Incubators London.
The London case created 14 challenges, 74 users using the platform, 143 ideas. The most visited pages were the Home Site (667 views), followed by the Ideas (620 views) and the Challenge Page "Redesign your courtyard!" (374 views). The users included residents from the housing estate, and local schoolchildren who participated in a dedicated engagement activity. We also interviewed some actors in London - e.g. consultants and institutional representatives - to gauge the potential future use of the platform as a potential future planning tool.

Key findings and lessons

The project generated many useful insights and lessons to take into account for participative design/crowdsourcing platforms. These include the following:
1. Firstly, an overarching comment may be made about the nature of the transnational approach (Austria, Belgium, Italy, and United Kingdom). This drew attention to the differences between contexts and the need to take account of local requirements, and specific contexts in terms of both local policies (e.g. plans, codes, ordinances, infrastructures, projects) and actors (e.g. decision-makers and administrations, communities, organisations, and citizens, real estate developers and managers, planners, architects, technicians, small economic activities and companies). In other words, whereas design software (e.g. CAD) may be rather generically applicable in any country, the use of a crowdsourcing platform which needs to fit within a local political and planning context makes things more complicated. The design of the platform software itself can silently enforce ex-ante a specific power configuration on the actual participation process. In order to avoid this, it is essential to a) achieve a shared acknowledgement of this risk among the stakeholders and experts participating to the software design and b) tackle this issue by making the process as transparent and open as possible.
2. Secondly, there is considerable variation in terms of the design scenario involved - such as a regeneration of a housing estate with existing residents of different kinds (as in the London case), or the planning of a greenfield site with no existing residents; also, the difference between a case where there is a fixed typology of potential interventions (as in the London case) where the task of the users is to place these selectively to form a desired arrangement, or a case where any kind of design idea could be proposed, and/or whether variations in location or layout (e.g. altering existing buildings or road layouts) are possible. The size of the site would be a factor; due to time constraints relative to regeneration progress on the ground, we modelled a single courtyard and all residents were invited to suggest ideas relative to this one (as an example of several very similar courtyards), whereas for a larger site or one with more heterogeneity, the amount of work in setting up the modelling would be proportionately greater. The spatial scope of a crowdsourcing and crowdfunding intervention is bounded by property rights. Even platforms which exclusively deal with public space interventions need to acknowledge and deal with a) the externalities that public space interventions generate and b) the way these externalities impact neighbouring spaces that are not public.
3. A key finding was the importance of the specifics of access to the platform, in terms of who is able to sign up, and what users are able to see and do. This is not merely a technical or administrative matter of 'IT' issues such as usernames and password protocols, but actually goes to the heart of the matter of citizenship and political rights - who gets to vote? For example, should there be one vote per resident, or per household? Do tenants and/or owners get a vote on an equal basis? Do children get a vote (especially important where youngsters are potentially a significant proportion of users of the outdoor public space)? These matters may be complicated and contested, and take time to solve within the platform design process - but after all, this is a kind of micro-democracy, and democracy was not invented in a day. A lesson here is that issues such as login protocol are too important to be left to software designers within a 'black box' design process divorced from political context. Planning towards who accesses the platform and their voting rights becomes something that is important to build in from the start, and negotiate with relevant stakeholders. Crowdsourcing and crowdfunding platforms offer a significant opportunity to make grassroots initiatives more accessible to a wider audience. However, significant barriers to participation remain, mainly in the form of demographic and IT literacy constraints.

4. We also learned about the practical, real-time challenges of trying to integrate or co-ordinate an experimental process with a parallel conventional participation process (involving public display boards, voting by pens on paper, etc.), and with multiple parallel timescales (e.g. parts of a housing estate being refurbished while other parts are at the design or voting stage). In the case of our project, development of the software had to take place concurrently with refurbishment of the housing estate (involving at least seven courtyards), which led to challenges of co-ordination of decision-making processes.
5. The running of the project also raised issues about professional division of labour - to what extent can the crowdsourced designs be considered as actual design prescriptions, or simply indicative suggestions, to be worked up later by design professionals (e.g. architects, landscape architects). The more that the users' designs - and any voting protocol - are detached from the actual commissioning and specification of the new interventions, the less likely users are going to treat the exercise as a serious exercise; conversely, the more the software platform replicates what exactly is expected to happen, the more complex and perhaps contested become the design of every stage of the model and platform (where the protocol for voting rights and the specification palette of allowable interventions become more acute issues).
6. We learned about the challenges of engagement with local communities. While use of software might well overcome some of the traditional reticence to participate by some residents, especially among the young and those more technologically savvy, there is a converse risk that those less adept at computer manipulation may feel excluded. There was a need to keep crowdsourcing processes as simple as possible; while we experimented with sophisticated and multi-dimensional systems of 'design challenges', design input formats and voting processes, in the end we settled on a rather simple system comparable with the complexity of a pen and paper system; as such, this raises questions about the relative merits of using a computerised consultation process relative to a traditional pen and paper one.
7. There may also be barriers to participation if residents have a limited or strained relationship with local authority or estate managers, or if the residents do not believe that the virtual crowdsourcing process is sufficiently linked to the actual real-world regeneration. We sensed instances of the former (e.g. residents ignoring invitations if coming from their management company) and received direct feedback on the latter (i.e. to the effect that residents simply did not believe that their ideas would be enacted. In addition, unrestricted access to a crowdsourcing and crowdfunding platform is not always desirable by local stakeholders. However, limiting the access to such a platform imposes significant administrative challenges and transactions costs. This, of course, parallels traditional barriers to participation. It would have been possible in principle to integrate the software platform more inextricably with the actual planning process, but this would have required a longer and more complex consultative process (i.e. across any and all kinds of governance, access and equity issues), which could not be attempted within the project timescale. In future, however, this would be a definite possibility.
8. On the positive side, we gained a number of insights into the effectiveness of the use of the software. Most specifically, the positive implications of the use of iPads for the communication of 3D models leading to key design decisions via pubic participation. Ontologies based on place and space, combined with free text provide a way to integrate planning rules/law while also allowing freedom of expression. Where people took the trouble to attempt engagement with the platform, it worked well to air and share ideas and issues.
9. More broadly, we gained insights into the potential of combining crowd sourced ideas, discussion and 3D models within a browser based interface assists the understanding of place, place and the role of the decision makers in the redevelopment process. The use of Augmented Reality has notable potential to transform the understanding and design of space within both the urban planning process and public consultation.
10. In terms of software development, we concluded that stand alone propriety systems are detrimental to long term sustainability and ultimately lead to a reduced level of commitment from the players in the process. Conversely, there is a clear need for open source tools in this field to progress development.
Exploitation Route 1. Further development of software;
2. Further use in a public planning context involving participative processes, crowdsourcing and crowdfunding in the planning system;
3. Commercial use of the software, for example by consultants and developers, and others involved in management of housing estates and other neighbourhoods;
4. There is also potential use of the software platform as an educational tool for teaching schoolchildren about processes of planning and design in the built environment; and also in university teaching about planning and urban design;
5. Most specifically, we would like to consider possibilities for extending the relationship with the Pollards Hill site for future academic-practice collaboration.
Sectors Creative Economy,Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software),Education,Environment,Government, Democracy and Justice,Transport,Other

URL https://incubatorsofpublicspacescomblog.wordpress.com/
 
Description 1. Participatory workshops in Brussels and Torino. This relates to workshops taking place in association with community participation in the regeneration of urban sites. 2. Our findings have informed the participatory planning/decision-making process in our case study site, Pollards Hill, in south London.This is ongoing.
Sector Education,Environment,Other
Impact Types Societal,Policy & public services

 
Description Influence on the participatory decision-making process for Pollards Hill
Geographic Reach Local/Municipal/Regional 
Policy Influence Type Influenced training of practitioners or researchers
 
Description Participatory framework
Geographic Reach Europe 
Policy Influence Type Influenced training of practitioners or researchers
Impact The framework contributes to new practice, by researchers and activists involved in participatory urban design / planning.
 
Title Participatory framework 
Description The participatory framework is at present summarised in the form of a flowchart relating actors, instruments, actions and processes in the urban development/regeneration/place-making/planning process. 
Type Of Material Improvements to research infrastructure 
Year Produced 2015 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact The participatory framework is being rolled out for use by other members of the project in workshops and participatory processes in Brussels and Torino. 
 
Description Engagement with schoolchildren at Harris Merton Academy 
Organisation Harris Merton Academy
PI Contribution We demonstrated the use of the Incubators platform to two classes at this school. This contributed to lessons for the school children involved, as well as providing feedback on the use and usability of our Incubators platform.
Collaborator Contribution Our partners involved in developing the modelling software and platform (Politecnico di Torino, University of Torino, ISN and neurovation.net contributed to this activity by creation of the platform including adaptation to the specific needs of the London case study..
Impact This collaboration resulted in educational added value for the students. The collaboration is multi-disciplinary in the sense of involving an architect, a planner and engineer (the backgrounds of the researchers involved) engaging in a specialist educational sector activity.
Start Year 2017
 
Description Engagement with schoolchildren at Harris Merton Academy 
Organisation Harris Merton Academy
PI Contribution We demonstrated the use of the Incubators platform to two classes at this school. This contributed to lessons for the school children involved, as well as providing feedback on the use and usability of our Incubators platform.
Collaborator Contribution Our partners involved in developing the modelling software and platform (Politecnico di Torino, University of Torino, ISN and neurovation.net contributed to this activity by creation of the platform including adaptation to the specific needs of the London case study..
Impact This collaboration resulted in educational added value for the students. The collaboration is multi-disciplinary in the sense of involving an architect, a planner and engineer (the backgrounds of the researchers involved) engaging in a specialist educational sector activity.
Start Year 2017
 
Description Vincenzo Lombardo 
Organisation University of Turin
Country Italy 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Knowledge exchange as part of the project.
Collaborator Contribution Knowledge exchange as part of the project.
Impact This is multi-disciplinary - the disciplines are broadly speaking, computer science, architecture and planning
Start Year 2016
 
Title Incubators online platform 
Description The Incubators online platform has been devised as part of WP4 and WP5 of the project. We at UCL have contributed to the specification and testing of this platform, in particular with respect to the creation of a dedicated version of the platform for our London case study (Pollards Hill estate). This testing has included getting doctoral students to act as proxy members of the public using and feeding back on the prototype version of the web platform. 
Type Of Technology Webtool/Application 
Year Produced 2017 
Impact The platform has not yet been operationalised for the public use at our case study site, but a prototype version (that is accessible to the public) exists (see link below). 
URL https://incubators-of-public-spaces.com/incubator-tool/
 
Description Brussels: engagement with local stakeholders 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact We had a round table engagement with local stakeholders in Brussels. The round table had research partners from Austria, Belgium and Italy as well as UK, while the stakeholders were locals from Brussels.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
 
Description Health and Wellbeing Event, Pollards Hill 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact The event stimulated local people's discussion about the possible provision of green space and sports facilities, outdoor gyms, etc. The demonstration of the Incubators tool also provided an interesting focal point for the local community to learn more about its potential use in public participation for the regeneration of the housing estate.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
URL https://incubatorsofpublicspacescomblog.wordpress.com/2017/09/01/health-well-being-at-pollards-hill/
 
Description Organisation towards Incubators Conference (April 2017) 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Study participants or study members
Results and Impact At the present stage, our involvement has been on the scientific committee for this conference due to take place in Brussels in April 2017. This work has involved contributing to decisions on the format of the event, framing the subject matter for the conference, planning possible destinations for published outputs, and refereeing as part of the selection process for the conference.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
URL https://incubators-of-public-spaces.com/2016/11/01/incubators-conference-urban-living-labs-for-publi...
 
Description Research Exchange 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact Research exchange - exchange of research knowledge, via a face to face engagement format.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016