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Crowdsourcing utopia: 21st century urbanism

New forms of cooperative urbanism are harnessing the internet to achive grand civic goals

Throughout the 19th century non-conformist communities would pool their resources to build small chapels, modest architectural symbols of unity and a shared civic ambition. Today the congregations of those chapels are dwindling but the idea of crowdsourcing urban renewal is commanding a new lease of life, harnessing dispersed networks of individuals connected through the internet.

A generation of intrepid software developers is creating powerful tools for ordinary people to work together to achieve civic goals. SeeClickFix.com and FixMyStreet.com are US and UK websites where users can report problems in their area directly to the relevant local authority. Collapsed walls, broken signage and faulty streetlighting can be logged by anyone in the community. Reports are mapped online while statistics about how swiftly issues are dealt with are automatically published, encouraging authorities to act quickly. Rather than individual complainants acting in isolation, the sites allow strangers to cooperate in holding their elected officials to account while improving their public spaces.

Critics argue the sites foster apathy − encouraging the public to rely on local authorities for relatively minor maintenance jobs rather than taking responsibility as a neighbourhood, but nevertheless, the idea of using decentralised web-based input as a generator for development is gathering momentum.

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RCA graduate Sam Aitkenhead’s proposal for a crowdsourced self-build neighbourhood

Bristol, Connecticut has implemented a radical scheme of crowdsourcing ideas for major urban interventions in a bid to regenerate the deteriorating city centre. The Bristolrising project allows residents to pitch any urban idea publicly, subjecting it to critique through social media. If an idea gets above a certain threshold of positive votes the municipal government conducts a feasibility study and takes the idea forward to planning. Ideas generated this way now under construction include a performing arts centre, live-work units, a river walk and rooftop gardens. It is an appealing concept that directly hands agency to enthusiastic local actors, but the system is only effective because the incumbent officials already support it.

Kickstarter, a crowdsourced funding website, has shown that, presented with a compelling case, the internet community will generously donate to see creative projects realised. Since it was founded in 2009 Kickstarter (which is just one of many crowdsourced funding models) has raised over $700m, posing the question of whether something similar could be harnessed architecturally. Attempting to answer that is Brickstarter, a more complex concept that is both a fundraising platform and community advocacy tool to persuade decision makers to back popular projects. Brickstarter is still on the drawing board but if realised it would wield the potential to dramatically change the balance of power in traditional urban development.

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The list goes on: Betaville is an online 3D environment mirroring certain US cities. It allows anyone to log-in and embellish an area using free software like SketchUp then share the designs for others to develop. CoContest enables users to launch mini international architectural competitions online for small projects.

Crowdsourcing.org is a collaborative archive keeping track of the growing number of similar initiatives springing up around the world. A shift is taking place from regional proximity being the critical factor in cultivating coherent neighbourhood identity to participation in networks of stakeholders connected digitally. As this takes place internet-based architectural tools will catalyse a new paradigm of cooperative but geographically dispersed communities working together on grand civic ambitions.

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