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The City in the Palm of Your Hand: Mobile Technology and Crowdsourcing as Tools for Urban Design

"Imagine starting from scratch without any of the strictures imposed by geography, history, or economy. What do we like, what do we want, and what can we have?"

There is a common exercise that is used to introduce elementary schoolchildren to issues of urban design. Given nothing more than a blank template, they are challenged to design a city. The results of these attempts to grapple with the important questions about how we live together in cities can be somewhat predictable: for their first drafts, my children have usually drawn gigantic amusement parks and beaches nestled among miniscule factories and school buildings, and everyone lives together in the same part of town, each family in a giant house with a swimming pool. But it’s a great kind of blue-sky exercise to help stimulate thinking about what cities need, and further iterations of their personal cities reflect very rapidly developing understanding of what it takes to design a successful city.

Imagine starting from scratch without any of the strictures imposed by geography, history, or economy. What do we like, what do we want, and what can we have? Games such as these are, of course, not just for children. Game designer Will Wright showed this with his highly successful series of PC games, the first of which was the best-selling SimCity. SimCity and other such simulation games are great tools for stimulating playful thought about how the complex systems that compose a city interact with one another to generate outcomes that are incredibly difficult to predict from first principles.

But what if such games could be parlayed into genuine tools for decision making? To do this properly, we would need to find a way for many participants to share a common canvas, and to see what dreams, fears, and inspirations emerged from massive input from a larger crowd of stakeholders. One such project was the Urbanology game which was in play for the duration of the BMW Guggenheim Lab’s run in New York City (and can still be played online). Urbanology was a giant board game in which participants generated a crowdsourced vision of an ideal city by means of question and answer sequences that were scored using a clever algorithm to convert opinions about concrete urban issues into an expression of what we desire and value in our cities.

Another initiative, Betaville, a collaborative project developed by the Brooklyn Experimental Media Center at NYU and the Media 2 Culture program at Hochschule Bremen, is an entirely digital tool that was designed along similar lines of thought.

Betaville is a tool whereby a designer can place an imagined or existing structure, neighborhood, or city online and make it publicly available to anyone with a browser. Participants can contribute to the melting pot of ideas either by adding pieces directly to the design or by offering commentary. This novel toolset, enabled by widespread access to the Internet and to mapping and design programs such as Google Earth and Google SketchUp, makes sophisticated digital-design charettes available to a wide audience and at a pace that is not possible with printed brochures and meetings in church basements or council chambers. These digital methods also allow us to use very realistic graphic skeletons on which to overlay our ideas about what might or might not work for us in a city space.

Where digital tools like Betaville fall short, though, is that they encourage would-be designers to adopt a godlike overhead view of a piece of urban design, swooping through space at will, peering at the city from impossible angles, and seeing the design as a stark and empty piece of geometry, devoid of the urban hubbub of people, sounds, and smells.

To take digital tools for crowdsourcing urban design to the next level, we need to be in the middle of the mess and not floating above the city. This past summer, as a part of the BMW Guggenheim Lab, we tried to accomplish exactly this by leading visitors into surprising city locations and soliciting their comments about what they experienced, but also using the tools of experimental psychology and mobile computing to measure how their minds and their bodies were influenced by their surroundings.

For a relatively small-scale experiment, our findings had great potency. They showed how the design of a building façade can influence mood, how a very small piece of natural imagery can entirely change the “feel” of an area, and how the responses of newcomers and seasoned residents to a place in the city can differ. We had not, for example, expected our test site at the north end of the Allen Street median, a somewhat undeveloped location but one brimming with potential, to elicit such strong positive energy and arousal, and even affection.

Participants in the New York Lab used handheld devices to record their responses to various places in the neighborhood.

But given the ubiquity of mobile technology in an age when most of us carry tiny, powerful computers in our pockets or bags, there is much more promise to the methods we pioneered in New York City for gathering valuable crowdsourced data about how the appearance and organization of our surroundings affect our mood, our thoughts, and our levels of arousal. As well, the popularity of phone applications like foursquare and Yelp, among others, suggests that people are very keen to contribute data to such initiatives.

Experimental psychology, like so many other fields of endeavour, is waking slowly to the potential of combining mobile and sensor technology, GPS, and the efforts of massive crowds of interested and vested participants to understand complex systems using powerful bottom-up methods.

What we did in New York was a great first step. But if participants were able to use an application on their own smartphones that would let them check in from time to time with geo-tagged reports of mood, arousal, and even some physiological values like heart rate, then the experiment we began this past fall could be expanded massively to provide a rich psychological portrait of larger areas of a city. Such a fine-grained psychological map of urban space would not only provide invaluable information for planners and designers, but it could also form the foundation of a fascinating databank that could be used to test theory and principle in urban design. Building on our experiences with the BMW Guggenheim Lab, we at the RELIVE laboratory, along with our collaborators, have begun making plans for such a smartphone application and databank.

Applying the methods described here to both nuts-and-bolts problems and broader theoretical issues appears to be an incredibly powerful and promising approach to what will certainly be one of the most important issues of the 21st century: building dense cities that are commodious, pleasant, and psychologically sustainable.

Lab Notes I is a series on trends from the BMW Guggenheim Lab New York. Curators Maria Nicanor and David van der Leer, blogger Christine McLaren, and a prominent group of guest contributors will explore the forces and transformations shaping the future of cities. The eight-week series will focus on four successive trends; the first is the Rise of Open-Source Urbanism.

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Photo at top used by permission under Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0) from kate.gardiner

  • Neil Clavin

    Do you know the Mappiness application created by the London School of Economics It aims to how people’s happiness is affected by their local environment — air pollution, noise, green spaces, and so on.   Also check out the Vector project which proposes sensors on bicycles to create a feedback loop to improve infrastructure, provide personal metrics and deepen citizens emotional relationship with the city

  • Neil Clavin

    Another interesting project where crowdsourced participatory urbanism shapes the city is the New York 311 service ….

  • Neil Clavin

    Yet another product with potential to capture  ’emotional cityness’ – allows users to record moods at specific locations –

  • Christine McLaren

    Neil, that’s a fantastic article from Wired. A while ago I dug into the history of 311 while I was researching a short article on new online citizen engagement technologies and interviewing some of these same people. ( These info graphics are great, though. The city, told through its problems – facsinating.

    I knew about Mappiness (I even have a should out to it in my next post coming up – stay tuned) but not Emotizer. It sounds a bit creepy, though. Have you used it?