Many thanks to Wired's Jeff Howe who's 2006 article "The Rise of Crowdsourcing" put an effective label at what the internet was doing to business. Building from Web 2.0 applications focused on social media like Facebook and on-line communities, it's become a popular and controversial term in tech circles. For those not as familiar with the idea, let's consult the most often used example of crowdsourcing – Wikipedia. "Crowdsourcing is a distributed problem-solving and production model. Problems are broadcast to an unknown group of solvers in the form of an open call for solutions. Users-also known as the crowd-typically form into online communities, and the crowd submits solutions. The crowd also sorts through the solutions, finding the best ones." To boil this down in the case of Wikipedia the content is fully created by the crowds.
I'm certainly not the first to link this idea with planning. Fellow blogger Chris Steins posted an excellent summary of Web 2.0 applications, including crowdsourcing, with direct relevance to city planning in 2009. The fundamental idea is that the crowd (or broader public) is an active collaborator in developing the plan. This is more than writing notes on a flip chart or map at a public meeting (still important by the way), but a process where the public has a larger hand than traditionally given to shape a plan's specific content and implementation priorities.
There have been a growing number of experiments with different tools that specifically explore versions of the crowdsourcing idea whether it's in planning for bicycles, designing bus stops, or ratting on public officials' parking habits. Pittsburgh used a wiki to gain insight and comments on major planning initiatives and President Obama's Urban Policy has been up for voting for some time. Crowdsourcing is even being used in the Broadmoor neighborhood in New Orleans as a means to guide actual bricks and mortar development (all credit for this example comes through the CoolTown Beta Communities who have made crowdsourcing their raison d'etre).
A skeptic might browse these examples and feel that this is really just "public outreach on-line" or, if he/she was feeling generous, a more robust version thereof. Further, what about those not on-line? Is this only for the digitally adventurous?
No, but new technologies certainly make the concept a lot easier to explore. We've been developing on-line collaborative maps tied to our planning work to encourage residents to generate ideas. However, given the environments we are typically working in with relatively low numbers of people on-line, we have also created accompanying large-scale, hard copy versions of that same map installed in highly visible community spaces. The point is that crowdsourcing, or the use of any specific on-line tool like Facebook or Twitter, cannot replace traditional face to face interaction but augment it. They are simply another tool to get the word out and foster communication, which is what I believe planning is grounded in.
Other skeptics have even suggested that there are not really any "crowds" in crowdsourcing. How can you be sure you're tapping a good cross-section of a community through on-line outreach activities? There's certainly some truth here. A large amount of on-line activity whether it's in writing Wikipedia entries or contributing ideas to a local plan is often generated by a group of really motivated individuals. But this will sound familiar to anyone that has been a community organizer. It's often the few really dedicated people that devote their time and energy to a cause and motivate others to support them.
There are other challenges to consider. Tapping the wisdom of crowds means managing them. Large-scale efforts to crowdsource will require time to facilitate content – this will be difficult at large scales where potentially thousands of people choose to get involved. Of course, there's also the potential opposite challenge - a lack of interest in the plan or cultural and/or language barriers could result in too few participants which limits the potential of crowdsourcing.
But with some of the challenges noted, the benefits are pretty obvious. By activating residents to truly participate and contribute we [those that are in charge of managing the plan from City officials to consultants] foster transparency and a real connection to the public who will ultimately be impacted by the plan. Equally important, we benefit from the value of ideas and insights we could not know, or easily learn, ourselves. The result can be a more grounded and meaningful plan.
It might sound that if you opened a planning process up to crowdsourcing, that we would essentially erase the planner's authorship. I don't believe so. The final plan, it's technical information and understanding of implementation activities still need to be managed by someone trained in those skills. Our ability to creatively edit the information and ideas from the crowdsourcing process will be an important skill to further develop.
And of course, there are limitations. A large number of people in a community can identify one vacant property as the key priority for development but if that property is privately owned, in some kind of legal limbo, or simply lacking access to capital to make the project work - no amount of voting or collective concern can change the facts. Crowdsourcing is not a process of writing down whatever community members say and calling it a day but rather openly managing, and editing, active community input such that the end plan is also realistic.
Ultimately, the major factor impacting whether crowdsourcing is a workable idea in any given location is if the sponsor of the plan be it a neighborhood group, city or MPO truly takes it seriously. You can't have true participation and a collaborative planning process if the end result is already in mind.