How can we create a conscious city? Theories from business offer a potential tool. Since the middle of the last century, businesses have cozied up to a concept called co-creation. This process involves, loosely, co-opting the consumer to improve some part of the production process. Early examples of co-creation include McDonaldisation, a neologism generally noting that McDonald’s restaurants have put people to work. At any McDonald’s franchise, customers claim their food, clear their tables, and many more small acts that would otherwise require staff effort.¹ This front-end cooperation is mirrored by similar cooperation on the back-end: the LEGO Factory allowed users to submit designs for potential LEGO products.
This blurred boundary between producer and consumer creates a prosumer, or prosumption, the process by which companies capture knowledge from their consumers. The logic is simple: if customers care about the product, we should outsource some parts of the design process to them.
There is an important factor at play here. In The Third Way, Alvin Toffler predicted that standardisation (like Ford’s Model T coming in any colour you like, as long as it’s black) would eventually give way to specialisation (like Toyota’s Prius, where you must “build your own” with hundreds of customisations). A similar reality has occurred in the urban context: as cities have shifted from places of production to ones of consumption, standardisation has indeed given way to specialisation. Look no further for standardisation giving way to specialisation then the Highline, which boasts benches, drinking fountains, planters and even programming that the Parks Department could only dream of putting in the city’s green spaces. Its elevation even distinguishes it from typical parks.
This specialisation of spaces, where no two are the same, will put greater pressures on the design process. As it has in business, co-creation mitigates this by delegating portions of the design process to those that will use the product. An important distinction exists between cities and companies, though: cities simply provide services to their constituents, while companies sell their services. Thus while co-creation is often viewed in an adversarial light, as a sort of margin-maximising venture, in the age of bespoke urbanism, it is a blueprint for better city-building.
If a conscious city is one that is responsive to needs of its inhabitants, then the onus is on practitioners of conscious urbanism to discover those needs. Community consultations might best be thought of as catharsis: participants take to the town hall to complain about any and every policy—not necessarily germane ones at that. As a driver of discovery, community meetings tend to be severely limited. Against this backdrop of vexed civil servants and even more vexed civilians, co-creation—a combination of anticipatory and participatory design—has emerged as a means to a better end.
Planners and designers can employ co-creative tactics to find a tighter fit between form and function. Architects of days past suffered from what economist Tim Harford might call a ‘God Complex’: the methods of the modernists period betrayed assumed omniscience about the needs of the user.² Those of days present have updated with the prevailing research. Architects of days future ought to hedge. Advances in behavioural and brain sciences might inform design, but facets will remain shrouded for the foreseeable future. As Nassim Taleb seems to single out in his many writings, the only certainty is uncertainty. In light of this uncertainty, a participatory process serves to create truly inclusive design.
At the very least, there is one obvious benefit to opening the design process. The ‘I Designed It Effect’, a predecessor to the more popular ‘Ikea Effect’, predicts that people who design for public consumption will be markedly more impressed with the fruits of their labour than an identical product designed by a third party. As with the Ikea Effect, labour begets love. It is perhaps because of this quirk of personality that people involved in co-creating space report higher opinions of the product.
1 McDonald’s could be considered a co-created experience, rather than a product, as the food is not subject to critique by the consumer.
2 This stretches across cultures, with the neighbourhood unit in Britain, the Superquadro in Brazil, the Microrayon in the Soviet Bloc, and even the famed Unite d’Habitation in France.
Pilot Projects’ contribution to the burgeoning field of co-creative urbanism is the Sandbox, which uses modelled spaces and community interaction with them to optimise designs, create a feeling of ownership and, consequently, custodianship.