An interview with Dr Nicole Schubbe and Fritz Boysen, smarticipate partners from the Agency for Geoinformation and Surveying of the Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg

On a brisk Autumn Saturday, a group of over 35 citizens, planners, and stakeholders in Hamburg’s urban planning scene came together at the Smartathon. The event was hosted by the Agency of Geoinformation and Surveying, whose large facility lies a few kilometres south of the city centre. On the way to the meeting room, one first has to walk around an impressive 3D model of Hamburg’s riverfront (pictured above).

Hamburg had spent many weeks preparing for their first Smartathon – a workshop designed to familiarise local stakeholders with the scope and ambition of the smarticipate project and to introduce them to the smarticipate platform. By bringing the citizens into the early phases of the project, the hope was to both better understand the needs of the intended end-users as well as to take their concerns and ideas into account.

Bringing citizens into the process – the Hamburg Smartathon

Citizen participation is not a new topic in Hamburg, and public workshops with citizens have previously taken place in a variety of contexts. But for Dr Schubbe and her colleagues working in the Agency for Geoinformation and Surveying, it was a relatively new challenge, as leading citizens engagement processes is not usually part of their work. Drawing on the experience from the previous Smartathon in London, the event in Hamburg followed a similar interactive approach, with participants leading the discussion at their tables.

But deciding the format of the event was only the first hurdle – Schubbe stressed that it is no small task to gather a truly representative set of participants. “In the end a high number of participants were professionals involved in ICT and urban planning. This is on one hand great because of their specific feedback, but also on the other hand not representative of normal citizens.”

In the future, an aspect for improvement could be communicating with target groups prior to the event. Some groups who were invited decided simply not to come, while the invitation reached others too late for them to participate.

Nonetheless, the group that gathered was enthusiastic throughout the event. “We got the impression that people have a lot of ideas and are engaged, and that they would like to work together with the city.”

Once the participants were sitting at the tables, the next task was to explain the project to them in understandable terms. “It was not clear for all citizens what the Smartathon would be. Some of the professionals expected more concrete planning to take place, or even live-programming,” said Schubbe.

But as the tables were presented with the “Urban Stories” – the narrative explanations of how the smarticipate platform could be used – the project became more tangible. As the day went on, more citizens got on board with the idea of the project and began to contribute. “The participants were even coming up with their own urban stories,” said Schubbe. “One person even asked me if there is any possibility for him to contribute to the software development during the project, which we had not even considered before.”

Differing opinions on roles and responsibilities in the city

Despite the agreement that increased citizen participation is a good thing, and that ICT platforms can play an important role, there were different approaches to how to realise a fruitful cooperation between citizens and their city administrations. “There was diversity in the types of groups that emerged. Some wanted to entirely redesign the platform, others were focussing on making smaller changes to the existing design, and some just wanted to generally voice their concerns about city planning,” said Fritz Boysen, who himself participated at a table.

One participant commented that there is still a lot of work to be done to adequately integrate citizens into the planning process. “We appreciate what [smarticipate] is doing, but ultimately it is not citizen participation in itself. It is a tool that must be correctly used for true citizen participation to take place.”

A broader question that came up in several contexts was the responsibility of the citizens as compared to the city authorities. Who has the responsibility to generate or approve ideas for city development? Who is responsible for paying for proposed projects? In many cases both citizens and the city government play a role, but it is difficult to determine an equitable division of responsibility.

Moving forward

The next step for the city is to gather and analyse the results from the Smartathon in combination with those from Rome and the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. The smarticipate developers will then get to work on a prototype of the platform which will be brought back to citizens in a follow-up Smartathon in 2017.

“I think there are many people who joined the first Smartathon who want to see how it develops, and that they will come back to the next ones” said Boysen. “One participant told me that next time she would come back with all her friends and colleagues.”

At the Agency for Geoinformation and Surveying, the immediate focus will return to providing developers with the relevant city data, and continuing to work with interested stakeholders in the city. “Much of the data is already publically available online, so the developers don’t even have to ask us,” laughed Schubbe, which nicely demonstrates the growing access to ICT platforms in city governments.