Typology of Civic Tech for participatory planning

5 min read

This post presents an output from my PhD research: a simple, heuristic typology of digital participatory platforms (i.e. Civic Tech) for citizen participation in urban planning. The post is structured as follows:

Civic Tech for participatory planning

Online participatory technologies for community engagement, or ‘e-Participation’, come in all shapes and forms. There are almost infinite names used to describe these technologies. Therefore, it pays to spend just 5 minutes to make sense of the wide range of participatory apps, websites and portals available out there.

An excellent starting point to understand the role of Civic Tech for public participation in planning is the blog post by Citizenlab CEO Wietse Van Ransbeeck, which explains the difference between Civic Tech and Gov Tech.

Note: only ‘participatory’ Civic Tech for active forms public participation are reviewed here. ‘311’ citizen reporting apps such as FixMyStreet, citizen science technologies, crowdsourced maps such as Open Street Maps, and sensor-based environmental data collection apps, are different technologies altogether. For disambiguation purposes, this thorough academic paper by Ertiö (2015) reviews the differences between different apps used to collect from and/or with citizens (see also these freely accessible pdf presentation slides by the author and a colleague).

As you can read in this thesis, there are dozens of academic and industry-based typologies out there that help us make sense of digital participatory platforms to engage residents in town planning. The thesis thoroughly evaluates no less than fourteen such typologies.

As local governments across the world now provide their services using a ‘digital by default’ / ‘digital first’ approach, it becomes imperative to understand the role of different online technologies in (re-)shaping public services, policies and processes. In turn, digital technologies are central to reshaping the places we live and work in. The current digitisation of the planning system across the UK, as elsewhere, is a topical case in point, with several pathfinder projects leading the way.

A fourfold typology

Below is the typology that emerged from my own data analysis.

Categorisation of digital participatory platforms (Babelon, 2019, p. 268)

The typology is heuristic in that it provides a pragmatic way of classifying different technologies used across a wide range of planning projects. I illustrate each type with a specific use-case.

3D geoparticipation

A prime example of 3D geoparticipation used in real-world urban planning projects is CityPlanner (now called OpenCities Planner). The best example is arguably MinStad, developed at the city of Gothenburg to engage urban residents about placemaking issues on a continuous basis rather than for specific projects. It has also been used to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the city.

The platform allows users to navigate the city, insert 3D models, interact with each other, and share stories about their experience of the urban environment.

Snapshot of MinStad (2017) courtesy of the city of Gothenburg of then CityPlanner software consultancy

2D geoparticipation

Public Participation GIS is the main type of 2D geoparticipation used by local government for community participation in urban planning. There are many such platforms used across the world. Common examples include Maptionnaire (Finland & world), Commonplace (UK), Carticipe-Debatomap (France), PlaceBuilder (UK), PlaceChangers (UK), Social Pinpoint (Australia), coUrbanize (USA), and Emotional Maps (Czech Republic) among many others.

Below is a snapshot of Carticipe-Debatomap as used by Grenoble metropolitan agency for their metropolitan plan (Plan Local d’Urbanisme intercommunal). The map-based consultation software was used in two successive stages: 1) to collect resident’s views about strategic issues; and 2) to identify solutions and ideas to implement the identified strategic priorities. The distinctive feature of the Carticipe-Debatomap is that it is often used by engagement consultants and local planning authority staff to involve residents in a blended engagement mode. Particularly, input on the online platform was discussed at in-person engagement workshops. In turn, the outputs from the physical workshops were summarised and uploaded on the digital platform. This recursive quality of public participation has been coined ‘phygital’ participation by a senior consultant at Repérage Urbain (see the concise three page blurb that outlines their unique methodology – in French).

The Snapshot: courtesy of Repérage Urbain and Grenoble Métropole

Generalist / Multifunctional platforms

Generalist platforms are the Swiss-knife of web-based community engagement in planning. They excel at doing everything simultaneously, rather than any specific functionality. Some of my respondents reported they wished 2D geoparticipation platform providers would work with generalist platform providers to provide the best of both worlds!

Common platforms include CitizenLab, Bang the Table – Engagement HQ, Cap Collectif, Neighborland, MetroQuest, Citizens Foundation, Decidim, and many others. In fact, some platforms that are really good at 2D geoparticipation (e.g. Commonplace, coUrbanize), can also be used as excellent generalist platforms.

Below is an example of Neighborland used for the landmark consultation for Dorothea Dix Park in Raleigh (North Carolina). Among other functionalities, the platform was extensively used by residents for ‘ideation’, providing comments, and keeping informed about key events throughout the planning process.

Anonymised snapshot of a contribution to the Neighborland platform for the Dorothea Dix Park Masterplan.
Courtesy of Neighborland and the city of Raleigh.

You can follow recent updates for the planning process here.

Bespoke platforms

Bespoke platforms are an umbrella category for platforms that are rather unique. Either they are common platforms used for a very specific use only (e.g. Cap Collectif or Decidim just for participatory budgeting), or they are stand-alone, one-of-kind platforms specially commissioned or developed in-house by local authorities and other organisations. For example, a city’s procurement department may ask their usual IT service provider to provide a digital platform for community engagement in relation to their existing contract.

Below is the platform used for Dessine-Moi Toulouse, a unique multi-stakeholder collaboration and public engagement platform that was used to regenerate iconic sites across the Toulouse metropolitan region. A key specification for multi-stakeholder partnerships was the need to deliver clear, explicit community value as well as community involvement. Both the online platform and the tendering and bidding process were highly innovative, if not unprecedented. It also required extensive inter-departmental collaboration within the metropolitan agency, and among elected officials across the respective local councils.

Snapshot of some of the landmark sites for collaborative regeneration proposals on Dessine-Moi Toulouse. Courtesy of Toulouse Métropole.

Are there other simple typologies out there?

Yes, plenty! I will critically review some of the most useful typologies of digital participatory platforms in upcoming blog posts. As with most things in our busy modern lives, one is confronted with the paradox of choice. What matters here is to get ideas from the use-cases and typologies that are most relevant for a particular context. Readers will have to do their own bit of research and testing to which which work best. Given the time, interest and resources, the best typologies are those that are developed locally in collaboration with residents and other local and national communities in various sectors and industries.

In the meantime, have a proper look at the examples provided above.

You can also have a look at the City of Longmont’s engagement portal which uses a tweaked version of the well-known Spectrum of Public Participation (by the International Association for Public Participation – IAP2) for its own purposes.

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