Design for Participation: New tools in public engagement

Even as the design professions become increasingly specialized, there is a growing sense that anyone can be a designer of sorts. Public participation and consultation seek to involve community members in the design process, while new technology gives non-professionals access to sophisticated design tools. Debates on participatory design and planning increasingly concern decision-making authority and how to share power in light of these new tools. What changes are we seeing in the roles played by professionally trained designers in shaping everyday landscapes? Keynote speaker Belinda Tato is a leader in participatory design. Her firm ecosistema urbano, co-founded by Jose Luis Vallejo specializes in “urban social design,” which aims to improve civic engagement with urban spaces, communities, and the environment. Their recent project in Cuenca, Ecuador demonstrates new tools in public participation made possible by new media. As part of their mandate to enliven public spaces in Cuenca’s historic core, the firm created a web platform, Cuenca Red, where residents could share their ideas for spaces on a georeferenced map. They also held on-site activities with different groups of residents, including children and university students, to imagine improved public spaces. These exercises informed a long-term strategy that identified six high-priority spaces for Cuenca’s center. Children’s proposals for public space in Cuenca (Source) Tato and her colleagues have years of experience and Cuenca Red was backed by major development funds, but developments in media and technology make new tools in public participation accessible to emerging designers and non-designers alike. A group of young Montreal urbanists launched the platform Lande with limited resources while many of them were still students. Lande empowers citizens to realize temporary and permanent uses of vacant land across the city of Montreal. Residents are invited to identify unused land on the user-friendly web platform, and when ten residents have expressed interest in a particular site, Lande will organize a meeting to kick off the transformation process. Lande takes care of the “dirty work,” like identifying the landowner and researching land-use bylaws, so that residents can focus on the real dirty work, like setting up a community garden. “This Land is Yours” sign at site identified by Lande users (Source) Lande was inspired by 596 Acres, an initiative launched in New York City in 2011 and named after the amount of vacant land in Brooklyn at the time. New media enabled 596 Acres to get the word out about all this idle land and they have developed a sophisticated online map with information about vacant lots across the city. 596 Acres started with mapping vacant lots, but has since created other participatory tools including Urban Reviewer, which maps more than 150 urban renewal plans in the city and analyzes their impact, and NYCommons, which identifies the owners of public spaces. The initiative has expanded to other American cities, with platforms like Grounded in Philly, which enables the transformation of vacant land into community-controlled green spaces and gardens. Map identifying ownership of public space in New York City (Source) Urban social design initiatives aim to democratize the design process and deputize community members as designers of sorts. But what does this mean for the professional designer? Does coproduction require that experts retool their skill sets? Designers with a vision for participatory design are encouraged to submit a proposal for the topic “New tools in public participation at the Congress for the World Design Summit. Designers with a vision for participatory design are encouraged to submit a proposal for the topic “New tools in public participation at the Congress for the World Design Summit.