Smart Sustainable Cities White Paper – Contributions [09]

Professor Beniamino Murgante

University of Basilicata, Italy – School of Engineering



In recent decades, the typical hierarchical relationships adopted in planning process has been modified moving toward a convergence of planning models, combining top-down policies, promoting functional principles of a plan and bottom-up initiatives, increasing the value of local specificities. Envisioning methods have been adopted in numerous cases to develop bottom-up contributions, considered as essential in planning. This technique emphasizes communication aspects of a plan, highlighting the importance of social imagination as a contribution to the definition of a scenario in the desirable actions of planning process (Gibelli, 1996). Unfortunately, in several cases this approach has been applied in contexts where decision makers did not wish to share decisions with the community. The weak application of such a planning model generates a sort of suspicion towards planning activities, due to a poor attention to citizen needs coupled with an inadequate opposition to main transformation demands of the most influential stakeholders. In most cases a decision concerns only the actors who are directly involved in the process, excluding all people affected by the consequences of that decision (Simon, 1947) and whose needs should be considered. Consequently, in a decision-making process it is important to identify all the subjects to involve. Three types of subjects can be identified, related to the different decision making levels: public sphere, interest groups and ordinary citizens. Public sphere is responsible for stimulating and coordinating the planning process with the aim to ensure the general interests. This category includes politicians, managers, municipal employees, planners, sectoral consultants and it represents the level at which the decision is taken. An individual or group of individuals is an actor of a decision if it influences the decision, directly or indirectly. A group of individuals can be identified as a single actor, if they have the same value systems, information systems and relational networks (Roy and Bouyssou, 1993). Interest groups often are privileged interlocutors of the decision-making level. This category includes both organized (e.g. organizations, associations) and spontaneous forms (e.g. protest groups). The aim of these groups is to influence choices for their economic interests, for general interests of the community or for interests of specific sectors (environment, trade, etc.). Citizens belong to the level that is directly affected by decisions. In a system based on a representative democracy, the lowest level of participation is realized voting at municipal or district elections. It is a theoretically perfect model that could lead to a democracy without citizens because of the low level of participation. A citizen can have a more active role in decision-making by participating in associations or organizations. Friedmann (1993) uses the term Transactive Planning assuming a continuous and real-time interaction between planners, experts and citizens. In traditional planning processes, there is a negotiation among all actors involved. On one side, the plan defines what are unnegotiable uses, defining constraints that should intercept safeguarding instances; on the other side, interest groups propose possible transformations. Land use demand may be allowed only in areas defined by plans as suitable for transformations. The Plan has to pursue the need of preservation and transformation, safeguarding collective interests and avoiding, at the same time, the possibility to lose any private investment (Pazienti 2002). It is important that a plan receives and transmits impulses to its community. Generally, participation process in planning is strongly related to interest groups. In order to involve more people in planning process, it is fundamental to distinguish between not organized citizens and organizations, associations. Interest groups are influential subjects for an initiative, while in the great part of cases citizens’ opinions, ideas; claims remain unheard (Murgante 2012). This distinction is important because, in traditional planning forms, only organized groups of citizens can send impulses to planners in terms of needs, claims, demands, imagination, ideas, projects, which can be accepted or not. The plan has to identify rules defining constraints, in the case of unnegotiable transformations or in terms of negotiation if transformation is possible. A plan, which does not accept impulses, is a self-referenced plan. If a plan does not produce effective and efficient rules, it is a plan that does not pursue public interest.


Figure 1. Relationships between citizens, organizations and plan.

Consequently, only organized actions can have a good level of influence. Generally, instances produced by citizens have been “filtered” by organizations (i.e. parties, trade unions, associations of industrialists and entrepreneurs, associations of craftsmen and trades, environmentalist groups, etc.) and delivered to decision makers. The filtering phase was based on wide discussions and great debates inside single associations. More than forty years ago, Arnstein (1969) defined eight different levels of citizens’ involvement in a planning process, using the metaphor of the ladder. Unfortunately, very often-traditional participatory approaches based on public meetings do not represent a significant sample for multiple aspects:

  1. economically active population does not have enough time to attend meetings, consequently only children and elderly people’s opinions are collected;
  2. people consider physical participation as a waste of time, because the final decision will be taken by technicians and politicians;
  3. often the participatory phase begins when decisions have already been taken, just to build consensus about the choice;
  4. people may be inhibited in speaking in public;
  5. in a public meeting citizens not always have an immediate idea or a ready answer;
  6. often the person who screams is right;
  7. screams are often instrumental to boycott new ideas.

Electronic participation goes beyond space and time dimension, allowing all citizens, who are working during the meeting time, who live in a distant place, who are embarrassed of public speaking, to express their opinions and produce a significant contribution in improving ideas. In the last two decades, many experiences have been tested on the use of technologies to increase citizens’ involvement in planning process (Laurini 2001, Jones 2000). Technologies are mainly based on the Internet and geographical information system. The first experiences were mainly based on putting images on a web site, containing plan schemes or projects simulations. It was just a communicative approach in order to attract consensus. Subsequently, citizens’ feedbacks have been collected using e-mails and newsgroups; in several experiences, electronic vote has been adopted asking citizens to choose which was the best project. This phase represented the transition from a one-way approach where citizens are simply informed on what are the contents of a plan, to a two-way approach where citizens’ opinions have been collected and perhaps used by the administration. Peng (2001) provided a classification of levels and procedures of electronic participation, developing a taxonomy of a web-based public participation system. He realized a matrix that correlates tool functions, interface, and gives general information concerning the plan. In this matrix for the first time, Internet tools and GIS functionality have been analysed at the same time, in order to have scenario development tools. In this period, many systems based on web-mapping have been developed, in order to visualize possible scenarios and collect citizens’ opinions. Several years ago, Kingston (2002) adapted Arnstein ladder to the electronic era, defining an E-participation Ladder, adopting several levels from a simple web site to online decision-making. The lesson learned by experiences of this period is that adopted electronic tools are expensive and not very effective, because they are not easy to use and possible users are not familiar with them. The typical conclusion of papers describing experiences of this period is “citizen participation was very poor”. After a few years, the situation is completely different. In 2005 Google Earth has been launched and later on Microsoft realized Virtual Earth, renamed as Bing Maps; furthermore, wi-fi connections are available everywhere, each mobile phone has an internet connection and a GPS. In recent years, the ability of computer users has much improved; Google has transformed geographical information from a specialist interest to a mass phenomenon. There has also been the transition from single systems based on web mapping to more effective and user-friendly tools, free or cheaper, available as cloud services (i.e. YouTube, Vimeo, FlickR, Panoramio, SlideShare, Scribd, etc.). In 2004, Zuckerberg launched Facebook social network, a platform where people can discuss, share documents, create events, etc., establishing closer relationships. Facebook has achieved a great popularity and 50% of population of developed countries has a Facebook account. Following Facebook, other social networks with different features and in several cases concentrated in particular domains received a good success (i.e. Twitter, LinkedIn, Myspace,, Research Gate, Foursquare, etc.). Today, also the cheapest mobile phones have freely downloadable applications to allow people to be always connected to social networks. This period, characterized by a large amount of information produced by human activities and automated systems, has been defined as ‘Information-Explosion Era’ (Kitsuregawa et al. 2007). Haklay (2013), considering citizens cooperation, distinguishes four levels of citizens science where crowdsourcing is the lowest level and the highest level is a sort of collaborative science, where citizens can have the responsibility in defining problems and in finding possible solutions. Today we are living in wikification era, with many successful initiatives based on mass collaboration (Tapscott and Williams 2006; Qualman 2009). People directly provide in realizing services that public administration is not interested to carry out and private sector does not consider convenient to realize. This approach leads to “Crowdsourcing” (Hudson-Smith et al., 2009) where organizations or companies externalize production using a mass collaboration. In the field of data production and update, “Volunteered Geographic Information” has been coined (Goodchild, 2007), where distributed masses create, manage and disseminate spatial data (Sui, 2008). Giles (2005) compared the quality of Wikipedia to Encyclopaedia Britannica, testing more or less the same level of accuracy. In the same way, experiences such as OpenStreetMap reached a good level of quality and are commonly adopted also for analysis (Neis et al., 2012; Mooney and Corcoran, 2012; Haklay, 2010). Other important experiences of collaborative or crowdsourced approaches have been developed in the field of disaster management (Pollino et al., 2012; Goodchild and Glennon; 2010), and P.P.GIS in urban planning (Brown, 2012; Bugs et al., 2010; Roche et al., 2012; Hanzl et al., 2012, Murgante et al. 2011). The increase in connection capabilities and collaborative approaches has been coupled with the decrease in credibility by several organizations, completely self-referenced and disconnected from citizens’ problems and needs. Subsequently, decision makers are totally at the mercy of interest groups and decreasing transparency level. Consequently, a balance is lacking in planning process, because decision makers have a strong connection only with few power people with strong interests in the process, losing a great source of ideas produced by common citizens. It may seem a paradox, but great part of planning choices, which effectively have evident implications on citizens quality of life do not directly involve community; they are only the result of technical and political activities. The connection between decision makers and citizens has been found again by means of social networks. On these platforms, it is possible to discuss, comparing opinions and suggesting ideas. The decision maker, in this case, can participate to a debate having clearer indications on which are problems and proposals of a community. If “planning through debate” (Healey 1992) represents a collaborative approach that brings an enrichment of points of view, in analysing problems, it is also important to consider the “rational ignorance” (Krek 2005). Citizens often trivialize the concepts or manifest inertia in understanding technical issues. In planning 2.0 approaches, citizens, probably unconsciously, face many of the typical steps adopted in planning process, reaching the highest level of levels of Arnstein, Kingston and Haklay Ladders. Generally, a group of citizens denounces the most critical aspects occurring in an area (analysis of problems), another group defines a set of objectives, another group prepares a list of alternatives and after many discussions a huge part of a community proposes an idea, a project with the great support of public opinion. Social platforms become the main place where producing and developing ideas. In addition, newspapers, which generally are more influenced by economic lobbies than by individual ideas, can support a project, if an important opinion movement supports this. In terms of planning theory, 2.0 planning can be seen as a renewed approach to Advocacy Planning (Davidoff, 1965), where the collector of instances is a virtual environment. Advocacy Planning was a movement mainly concentrated on the solution of social and human problems. Advocacy Planning has played a central role in “making people aware” of local communities or single action groups for balancing the power of big public and private agencies. The advocacy planner represents all people generally unheard in decision process and the needs of marginalized neighbourhoods, generally absent at decision-making tables. 2.0 planning is rooted on advocacy planning. These actions are mainly developed on virtual environment and cloud services. While in advocacy organizations, a sort of hierarchy remains between the mass of people and their representatives, in 2.0 planning all people have the same position on a scale of responsibility. The development of 2.0 planning is strictly related to social media growth. Facebook, twitter and the other social networks were born with the aim to look for old classmates, military service friends and university colleagues; today these are powerful media and places where it is possible to exchange ideas and opinions (Rocha et al., 2015; Murgante, 2012; Rocha et al., 2016). The use of Social networks has enabled a significant expansion of participatory basis, beyond the constraints of space and time (Salvini, 2005). Social scanning (Soojung-Kim Pang, 2010) is a fundamental instrument in collecting ideas, opinions, etc. from citizens. Social platforms can lead from a closed model of decision-making based on professionals’ government and representative democracy, where participation is mainly relegated to election (Noveck, 2009), to an integration of representative democracy and collaborative approaches, where a decision maker has the possibility to directly consult citizens in order to take a particular decision. If, on one side, it is important to avoid pitfalls highlighted by Michael Bloomberg in an interview to the New York Times (Grynbaum, 2012), where Twitter has been defined as a source of everyday referendum leading activities only to short term actions because great part of people is not interested in future programming activities; on the other side social platforms can produce social mobilisation, claims and real changes in people quality of life (Healey, 2001).



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