With urbanization the increasing complexity of cities has made traditional top-down city planning insufficient, calling for more democratized approaches. Finding the right balance between top-down and bottom-up will be the next big challenge.

Our cities are becoming bigger and more complex, which presents an array of new opportunities and challenges that we cannot assess nor address with traditional methods. There is a need for rethinking our approach to city planning so we also in the future will be able to uphold a great quality of life in the cities.

One way of rethinking city planning is through design. To discuss how such a perspective could take form the Global Agenda Council on Design and Innovation hosted a High-Level meeting on Design, Innovation, and Urbanization in Tokyo bringing together key experts in the field under the lead of Toshiko Mori, Robert P. Hubbard Professor in the Practice of Architecture, Harvard University Graduate School of Design. At the meeting, the traditional top-down approach to city planning was strongly challenged, but the effectiveness of an alternative and more democratized approach was also questioned. However, citizen engagement and an increased focus on utilizing the shared knowledge were common denominators in the discussions. Ultimately, an argument for finding the right balance between top-down and bottom-up surfaced as an essential element in organizing our future cities.

Cities are complex but incomplete systems

When discussing city planning a good place to start is by defining a city, and this is exactly what Saskia Sassen, Professor of Sociology at Columbia University, did while also highlighting a main problem, “One way to think about the city is to say that it is a complex but incomplete system. In that mix of complexity and incompleteness lies in fact the capacity of many a good city to outlive all kinds of other systems, including firms and kingdoms, so I do think that that is a critical feature. Now, today I think we face a major problem: So many vectors, economic, cultural, political etc., are producing an over determination in urban space, and I think that de-urbanizes. When we see very dense places today, many people think that is a city, but no, it isn’t. It mostly actually is not a city; it is simply a high density set of office buildings. That is not a city that is high density. […] Before you had a mixture of autonomous imaginations and aims, now you seem to have huge complexes that ultimately, no matter how many different activities they may contain, function as one logic one purpose. So, that is what I mean by over determination. It de-urbanizes, it makes it more simple, and more controllable.”

We cannot imagine the perfect state

So, with the problem being over determination, how can design help create less determination and more quality of life? To begin with, Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO, suggested, we need to change the way we design and the way we think about design, “The 21st century will perhaps reveal us designing in new ways than we have in previous centuries. We may be evolving to a new state. Herbert Simon defined design, in the 1960’s, as, whenever we as human beings do something intentional to try to change the world in some way that we perceive as being better, that is design. […] Design has been a very intentional process, being about our vision of the future that we are moving towards. But the only problem with that is that as the problems get more and more complex that approach to design perhaps gets less and less effective. I think of it as a top-down approach to designing. One in which we imagine a perfect state in the future and we sort of move towards it.”

With problems becoming more complex we need a new approach, and nowhere is this more clear than in cities. “Cities are perhaps the best evidence we have that we can never imagine that perfect state”, Tim Brown explained and continued, “Designing a city with a top-down approach is an unsuccessful strategy. [In addition] many of our global systems are becoming more and more volatile; they are changing faster and faster. So even if we could design something as complex as a city in this sort of intentional way, by the time we get there, the world has changed so much that it is no longer relevant. So we need some sort of new approach. We need some sort of new response to the complexity that we see in the world.”

Joichi Ito, Director at MIT Media Lab, also drew attention to our lacking ability to predict the future, ”Top-down only works when systems are predictable. […] When they become so complex that you cannot predict it anymore, then design becomes fundamentally very very different. Across everything that we do right now, I think you have to fundamentally question our ability to predict and cause a future to occur.”

The panelists at the: (from left) Toshiko Mori, Joichi Ito, Yoshiharu Tsukamoto, Saskia Sassen, Tim Brown - photo credit World Economic Forum

The panelists at the: (from left) Toshiko Mori, Joichi Ito, Yoshiharu Tsukamoto, Saskia Sassen, Tim Brown – photo credit World Economic Forum

Design as code

With the traditional conception of design and city planning being ruled out, we need to put forth a new alternative. According to Tim Brown, this could be design as code, “What we need is design, as more like an embedded behavior within our culture, rather than as an activity of some separate elite. You can think of design more like some sort of code, than it is design as some sort of artifact.” An example of this development is what Tim Brown calls a democratization of design and design processes, as seen on platforms like Kickstarter, where everyone with a creative idea can get access to capital. Also the platform Pinterest is an example of how everyone can inspire each other through visualizations.

Another way of abandoning the exclusive top-down approach was presented by Saskia Sassen as open sourcing the city, “Every neighborhood has its own kind of knowledge about the city. The homeless in New York they have knowledge about the city, and it is the kind of knowledge that no urban expert of the city has.” If we can shape and utilize this sort of knowledge, which we have in abundance in the city, we could possibly come up with ingenious solutions to many of our problems, but we need to figure out a way of gathering and organizing this knowledge in an open source system, that is not exclusively for experts.

Can democratic design really work in cities?

Dismissing the top-down approach completely is, however, not necessarily the right solution. To illustrate this Paola Antonelli, Senior Curator, Architecture and Design at MoMA, picked up on an earlier point made on the possible knowledge to be gained from biological systems ability to handle complexity, ”In biology there is no absolute democracy, it is natural selection of the species. There is always somebody who wins, someone who is the designer in chief, or a group of designers in chief. And we have seen that the so-called democratization of design in the past few years, like the maker movement for instance, led to a sort of infantilization of design. 3D-printing has existed for 20 years and more, but lately it has become about making little cups and making little squirrels with 3D-printers that you can buy for 2,000 dollars. So I want to ask: Can democratic design really work in cities? I completely agree on the fact that design should become an embedded behavior in society. Just like we can have inventive behavior or a literacy of science and politics, not everyone can become scientists or politicians. So how do we deal with the representation of citizens in the design of the city without making it become a total mess?”

Encouraging active citizenship

Still, Daniel Wiener, Managing Director at Ecos, argued that we should not shy away from engaging citizens simply because the system is too complex, “I think that the face to face part of sitting together, standing together, and trying to get people to become active citizens is going to be a very important thing, and we should not discourage that by saying: ‘It is so complex, it is so unpredictable, you can’t plan anything, therefore it doesn’t make sense so stay at home and watch TV’. That would be a very wrong message. We need to engage people more. We need to find ways, not only electronic, but also personal ways, face to face ways of encouraging this discussion, and I think this would also be a very noble cause for designers to design this sort of interaction by people and for people.”

Designing environments and processes where people can meet is not only a noble cause for designers. According to Daniel Wiener this sort of active engagement with the local community is essential for our survival as mankind, because it can pool the shared knowledge and produce effective and productive solutions to our problems, “When people come together from different talks and walks of life, people come together with different interests, business people, green protesters on the street, children, people who don’t have the right to vote like migrants and expats, when these people come together and try to find ways of designing the future of their environment, of their city, of their livelihood, something happens. They will try to behave beyond yes and no, beyond black and white. They will come together, because if you see somebody, if you talk to somebody, look into somebody’s eyes, you will understand that he or she is a human being who has legitimate thoughts and ideas and will try to find solutions that will go way beyond the electronic exchange. It makes you feel like you are part of something, and you want to do something together.”

Finding the right balance

The Tokyo event made one thing clear: Whether we like it or not, cities have become more complex and harder to control and predict. We must acknowledge that we cannot predict the future, and we need to stop acting like we can, but at the same time that must not lead to passivity and disengagement. Even though the traditional top-down approach to city planning seems outdated it would be too drastic to abandon planning all together. Instead, the general sentiment amongst the attendants favored a balanced approached, where a democratized and inclusive citizen engagement combined with a more centralized planning effort were seen as the ideal solution moving forward. Finding the right balance will be a major challenge, but with the discussions at the High-Level meeting in Tokyo as a point of departure, we are off to a good start.

About The Author

Kasper Worm-Petersen
Managing Director

Kasper is Managing Director and co-founder of Grasp. He is passionate about education and the intersection between the humanities and business. He is currently finishing his MSc in Philosophy and Business Administration from Copenhagen Business School and is a Global Shaper at the World Economic Forum.

One Response

  1. Pelle

    Good reading. Actually the thoughts presented here are very much along the lines of the development strategies that is guiding the development at Christians Havn these years.


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