Workshop report “How to engage citizens with the help of digital media”, Urbanism Week 2012 TU Delft


A while back I was invited to give a talk and host a small workshop during the 2012 edition of Urbanism Week. This is a yearly event organized by Polis Platform for Urbanism, the study association for Master’s students in Urbanism in the Faculty of Architecture at Delft University of Technology. This year’s theme was “Second Hand Cities: rethinking practice in times of standstill”. The organizers put together a pretty impressive program filled with interesting speakers. The workshop I gave was called “How to engage citizens with the help of digital media”. Here’s an impression.

12:30 ? 12:45 Introduction Michiel de Lange
12:45 ? 12:50 Form teams around issues
12:50 ? 13:00 In teams, identify main issue to tackle (analysis phase)
13:00 ? 13:10 Analyze stakeholders are involved and take a perspective (analysis phase)
13:10 ? 13:30 Generate ideas (brainstorming phase)
13:30 ? 14:00 Select one idea and start developing a rough prototype (prototyping phase)
14:00 ? 14:30 Plenary presentations

In a handout (pdf) to the workshop participants I described the aim of the workshop in the following way:

The overarching aim is to use digital media technologies and principles in whatever form in the proposed design. The challenge is not only to use technologies but also to find out how to port collaborative principles from online culture to urban situations!
This can be in the process of gathering (new types of) information, in the creation of new networks of collaborators, enabling citizens to become active creators, in finding new financing, as part of the creative design process, as part of the proposed product or outcome, in the communication strategy, as a way to deal with maintenance, repair and repurposing, or in any other possible way you can think of.

I started the workshop by giving a short introduction about engaging citizens with digital media:


After the introduction it was time to start working on a number of complex urban issues with the help of digital media. Five teams of about 5 to 6 people were formed. They had to start by choosing one of six possible cases I had prepared in advance:

– Vacant buildings
– Wastelands
– Shrinking Cities
– Sustainable Food and Energy Production
– Mobility
– New Business Models

See the end of this post or the pdf handout for full case descriptions.

Interestingly, the five teams all chose a different case to work on, which was good. For example, one of the teams looked at mobility not just as a problem but also as a source of pleasure. They proposed an app called “the mobile footprint” that not only visualizes one’s carbon dioxide impact but also allow people to share travels and turn it into something social. This would playfully engage people with the issue of mobility instead of in a patronizing way. The team that took up wastelands proposed to create a social network of parks, tied together with attractive routes. This hybrid online/offline network was meant to connect poor and rich neighborhoods, and enable people to program their own events there during the weekends and share these with others.
TMCW_4_s.jpg TMCW_9_s.jpg
(photo credits:
Manuel Félix Cárdenas)

The team that worked on shrinking cities figured that in the Netherlands this occurs mostly in the catholic south. The church remains an important community center. The challenge then seems to reuse churches in order to connect people and to recount local narratives, which after all still remain a source of pride and identity for people living in those areas. The team proposed to use the church windows as public urban screens where community announcements can be uploaded and published. The team that worked on new business models came up with a proposal called This was quite an intricate proposal that paired the present incentive to redefine what architects and urbanists do, and initiate new types of collaborations with other professionals, with the issue that many office spaces are empty and need repurposing. If I remember correctly (I’m writing this from memory and a few pictures made of the presentations) they proposed a network of pop-up offices for young starters with cheap rent that should act as incubators and matching sites. In their view new business models rely on networked ways of working. This proposal, like the others, combined online and offline elements in tackling the issue at hand.

Considering the very short time they had, I was pleasantly surprised by the originality and quality of their proposed interventions. It seems a whole new generation of city makers is on the rise who naturally think of media technologies as potential parts of the design process and solution. None of the teams presented their urban intervention with digital media as a mere technological fix. Instead media technologies were enmeshed in more complex socio-spatial interventions.
However I believe that progress still can be made when it comes to equipping city makers not only with an understanding of media tools but also with the appropriate vocabulary to think about the media city. For example, in the closing discussion of the day the moderator asked about the new balance between concentration and dispersal. I remarked that urban designers might want to explore new concepts to think about the city. How useful is it to cling to well-known spatial concepts like density or scale, when these terms may have lost some of their conceptual power in the present network age? If we start thinking for example in terms of networks with (dis)connections, hubs and nodes, hops, routing, redundancy, and so on, we may see newly emerging urban patterns with more clarity and be ready to design the media city.

Full case descriptions:

Vacant buildings
In many cities we find abandoned former schools, offices, factories and so on. While many cities attempt to create new locales for the creative crowds this does not always succeed.

Assignment: Can you think of possible strategies to rejuvenate these large empty buildings with the aid of digital media? Decide on an actual or imaginary case and develop a concept. Consider elements like stakeholders, type/character of the building, traffic, safety, embedding in neighborhood, relationship to similar projects, temporariness or long-term sustainability of concept.

Almost every city has barren wastelands without a clear destination. The top-down Dutch planning tradition of forming consortia between governments, investors and developers has entered a stalemate, so nothing is going to happen with most these plots anytime soon.

Assignment: Can you come up with alternative approaches for developing these lands? Consider elements like stakeholders, legislation, financing, how to attract new groups/individuals, mix between private and public uses.

Shrinking Cities
According to statistics the worldwide urban population continues to grow. Yet many regions in western and eastern Europe, and north America, face projected or actual decline op urban populations. In the Netherlands it is projected that by 2025 over half of the municipalities will have a shrinking population.

Assignment: Can you think of ways to use digital media to address this issue? Consider elements like stakeholders, availability of urban services, economic livelihood, social contact, repurposing built environment.

Sustainable Food and Energy Production
Adequate water, food, and energy supplies are crucial resources for people in cities to thrive. Yet many cities have problems providing these services reliably. Attempts are made at experimenting with alternative, more active modes of production like urban farming, cooperative energy production.

Assignment: Pick a particular city in developing country and one specific resource, and come up with a proposal for organizing an alternative resource production and distribution. Consider elements like stakeholders, existing or new infrastructures and logistics, pricing schemes, engaging people with ‘low interest goods’.

Cities are about movement and flows as much as about more sedentary places like homes, offices, squares, and leisure settings. Almost all cities have to cope with pervasive traffic jams and concomitant loss of economic value, air quality, playing grounds and so on; but also uncertainty involved in investing in expensive public transport infrastructures.

Assignment: develop a strategy for a particular situation to help tackle mobility issues. Consider elements like stakeholders, individuality and personal spaces, visualizing environmental impacts, behavioral change.

New Business Models
The present financial situation is rather dire for most architects, planners and urbanists. Old ways no longer generate income so new modes of developing projects have to be found. Some offices are experimenting with alternatives, often unsolicited, not commissioned. For example they look for alternatives to organize the design process, involve new parties, forge consortia with other professionals, tap into new financing e.g. crowdfunding, and so on.

Assignment: If you were to start your office tomorrow, what business approach would you like to explore in order to adapt to changing circumstances? What new way of working is most fit for what specific type of case? Consider conditions like shifts in acknowledging expert knowledge, changing roles of stakeholders like municipalities, investors, developers, banks, entrepreneurs, citizens/’prosumers’, and so on.

See the whole Urbanism Week photo set by Manuel Félix Cárdenas on Flickr here >>

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