City leaders around the world are facing challenges in a global environment that is rapidly changing and becoming more interconnected than at any point in our history. This creates many challenges, but it also provides avenues for solutions to those same challenges. In a recently released report, Leading Cities has published its findings on the application of co-creation techniques to the public sector, whereby the process is utilized as a method for helping city leaders address issues while increasing involvement by citizens. This report, titled Co-creation Connectivity: Addressing the Citizen Engagement Challenge, “examines why and how citizen engagement processes have evolved from top-down autocratic approaches to ones that are increasingly participatory, democratic and, more recently, co-creative.”
Until recently, the process of co-creation had largely been conceived as a business strategy for outlining new methods of customer engagement. “Instead of seeing customers as passive consumers, companies started inviting them to provide feedback, generate new ideas and actively participate in the development of products and solutions.” Increasingly, elected officials in urban areas around the world are realizing the benefits gained by recognizing that citizens should not just be viewed as consumers of government services, but utilized as a valuable resource for new ideas and community outreach.
The timing of this report could not be better. As they point out in the report, “more than half of the world’s population now lives in cities,” and that number continues to grow. With these increases, city leaders are experiencing new and more complex challenges related to providing important services, addressing a range of needs of increasingly diverse communities, and mitigating the environmental impacts of growing populations. There is also a growing public dialogue surrounding the belief that elected officials, from local to national, are not adequately addressing their constituents’ desire for more transparent government. In short, transparency and trust are solidly linked together.
By using co-creative methods, individualized for specific cities and circumstances, city leaders can draw on the wealth of ideas from community members while breaking down a wall between government and resident which often allows questions of transparency to flourish. As stated in the report, “tapping into the creative and intellectual skills of different stakeholder groups generates more ideas quickly and allows for the assessment and validation of ideas from a variety of perspectives.” In addition, sharing the responsibility of governing with those being served, “Co-creation also has the ability to create more equitable and inclusive decision-making processes, which build a stronger sense of consensus and ownership of outcomes across the community.” It is all about making sure the public is treated like a valued part of the decision-making process. People need to feel empowered, respected, and recognize that their perspective has real influence with those they elect to serve their interests.
Of course, full public involvement is not necessary for all decisions. Realistically, too much involvement can be disruptive to the process and bring government to a halt, creating a sense that officials cannot lead. If a city light needs to be fixed or a stop sign needs to be replaced, people expect that they are electing representatives to make those decisions with confidence that they have the best interests on their constituency in mind.
Lessons can be learned through examples from around the world. For instance, in Barcelona, La casa de les idees, or The House of Ideas, aimed “to develop new housing solutions for the city and to experiment with new forms of citizen participation and high-quality dialogue. The specific goal was to generate 10 new, realistic ideas to improve the housing market.” The initiative brought together stakeholders, including citizens, business, and even non-citizens to develop proposals for improving the community. Semi-finalists were encouraged to collaborate, refine their proposals and, in the end, people had the opportunity to see their proposals transformed into actual public policy.
In Hamburg, the public was asked to “help produce a master plan for the Elbe Islands in southern Hamburg.” The project ran from September 2013 to April 2014. It was “run as a collaboration between a non-profit neighborhood-focused citizen foundation, a public research institute, a district and the city.” Workshops, neighborhood talks, and outreach to communities and businesses were among the methods used to gather public input. After all input was assigned to a set of working groups, representatives from each group addressed a council, which then presented ideas to the city and district. “The results have been examined and as far as possible integrated in the new framework plan for the territory presented by the Senate in September 2014.”
These examples, and those like them, are not without challenges and weaknesses. In Barcelona, the web-based nature of the project left much of the community out of the process. In Hamburg, “the intentionally broad scope of the process prevented it from reaching unanimous recommendations, which caused technical difficulties for the city to address some of the recommendations.” It is important to point out that shortcomings are not a reason to avoid similar projects in the future, but are a valuable part of evaluating outcomes and addressing those issues in the future.
Bringing as much of the local community into the process is the best way to ensure that government is as representative and productive as possible. The co-creative process will not fix all concerns, but no complex issue is ever solved with a single approach. Leading Cities’ mission of developing collaboration between cities on the international level is an important macro level approach to bringing the city leaders of the world together. Through this report, they show how valuable it can be to transform people from consumers of government to a necessary piece of your policy-making team, on a micro-level.
Michael Lake, President & CEO, Leading Cities
Jeffery Anderson-Burgos, Communications Fellow, Leading Cities