Indeed, in one flavour or another, the foundations of participatory planning and design have formed the underlying principles of citizen involvement in developing the built environment in many countries for at least the last 60 years.

Today however, this long-established principle is beginning to undergo a transformation.

Entering the age of big data ushers in a potential for a level of public involvement in city-shaping, the likes of which simply hasn’t existed up until now.

The ability to collect data, deduce information, and build actionable knowledge from the scale of individual through community, city and even up to the national and global scale is greater now than it’s ever been before and the rise of the ‘citizen scientist’ as a key stakeholder in the planning process sits at the heart of this rapidly changing landscape.

Big data could mean big opportunities when it comes to democratising the process of urban design and development, providing the ability to base design decisions on actionable, real-time, and most importantly individual metrics and opinions provided from those on the ground who stand to gain (or lose) the most after the dust settles.

In theory, this combination of data-driven analytics and direct public involvement seems like a match made in heaven for urban planners and surely in such a scenario, the ultimate conclusion should be spaces and places that equate to the average sum result of inputs from all residents?

But is this how things will really turn out in practice? Does technology-driven participation in urban design and planning hold the key to delivering the ideal outcome for all, or is the emergence of citizen design science merely the latest iteration of ‘the promise’ of tech that will fail to materialise when it comes up against the practicalities of consensus and bureaucracy?

In order to find out whether citizen design science is going to change the way we build the cities around us, or whether it’s doomed to hit the inevitable wall of real world application, it helps to understand where the concept has come from and where it’s looking to go next.

Defining Citizen Design Science

Citizen design science can be thought of as the combination of two main areas –  citizen science and design science – brought together to provide insight and influence the implementation of actions in the urban planning and design process.

The combination of these elements involves a number of both active and passive inputs, driven by individual citizens with the ultimate aim being the creation of an urban experience which is truly responsive at the city level based upon information provided from the micro level.

In theory at least, this means a process which is responsive not just at the preliminary stages of urban planning and design, but through the growth, life and evolution of spaces too.

Citizen design science is looking to leverage data, technology and public involvement to give the inhabitants of cities a stake in how their surroundings develop over time.

To understand this concept further, it’s useful to break down the two namesake constituent components of this combination to see how they fit together in creating the bigger picture.

Citizen Science

Put simply, citizen science can be thought of as the participation of members of the public in the scientific process.

Whether this participation is in carrying out on-the-ground observations (of weather, wildlife etc), providing qualitative input for analytical purposes, or assisting in the provision of quantitative data and metrics through sensors and monitors (usually with the use of connected technology such as a smartphone), the end result is a large-scale participatory system that allows what amount to a ‘crowd-sourcing’ of any number of scientific endeavors.

While technology undoubtedly plays a major role in the process, citizen science has actually been around as far back as the 19th century when amateur naturalists would collect specimens and observations in the field before sharing this data with each other for the advancement of collective knowledge.

With that being said, the advent of the internet and the abundance of data (and the means of collecting) mean that the potential for mass participation and collaboration in the scientific process is greater now than ever before and the resulting ‘network science’ provides an unparralleled opportunity for the interrogation of vast amounts of highly relevant and diverse data sources from locals and global participants alike – a seemingly natural choice for shaping the shared urban experience.

Design Science

The concept of design science arose in the 60s following its introduction by Buckminster Fuller in 1957 as a systematic form of designing.

Expanding on this, design science as a discipline unfolded as an attempt for scientists to describe the processes which take place in the human brain when designers design artifacts.

While the quest to achieve this has remained somewhat elusive, the search for a description of the process continues and design science as a framework exists alongside the related fields of creativity and innovation.


Citizen design science aims to combine local knowledge from the public with domain-level expert knowledge to deliver urban outcomes which are more equitable, sustainable and ultimately, more resilient than what would otherwise manifest in the planning and design of places.

The combination and application of both citizen and design science provides the ability for both active (coordinated and broad participation) and passive (sensor readings and data collection) public involvement in the urban discussion, providing actionable information which can be used by planners and designers.

The Foundations of Citizen Design Science

The middle of the 20th century saw modernism play the central role in directing the principles of urban design with the focus clearly defined as utilisation of technological innovation over the human.

By the 1960s however, a significant shift in urban design and planning policy towards the involvement of citizens was spearheaded by the emergence of eminent figures such as Christopher Alexander and Jane Jacobs (whose battles with Robert Moses perfectly encapsulate this move from the old way of doing things to the new).

The driving force behind this change was the quest for neighbourhoods and places that were designed first and foremost to be livable, with the needs of people given increased priority in the process.

While these changes in direction towards a participatory design landscape saw a distinctly democratic shift back towards the inhabitants of cities, giving them a voice in shaping their environment, even this liberalised approach would ultimately always conclude in individuals having to communicate with those actually ‘in charge’ of building or planning the city and who ultimately had the final say.

The Future of Urban Participation

The allure of citizen design science is undoubtedly very real and may even represent a watershed in the way the public participate in the planning and design of the places and spaces that surround them.

Will advances in technology and an abundance of data allow us to finally bridge the gap between planner and user in a truly inclusive way that benefits the greatest number of stakeholders in the city?

Are we finally on the cusp of realising urban design decisions that are driven by the wants and needs of the masses rather than just those supposed or assumed by the architect and urban planner?

Does the democratising nature of big data and pervasive tech usher in the era of the citizen design scientist, one who actively participates in shaping the future of the built environment that they will interact with on a daily basis?

The answer to all of these questions is of course, a somewhat underwhelming maybe.

As with all things, the answer probably lies somewhere in the middle and it’s likely to take several years for the true benefits and drawbacks of these new tools to become fully apparent.

With that being said, things are definitely changing.

If the ultimate goal of citizen design science is to transform the city to one which is focused upon the requirements, goals and wishes of its users, then the ability to realise this outcome has never been closer thanks to the explosion of data and the mass-adoption of technology for collecting, interpreting and transmitting it.

Put simply, people have never been in such a beneficial position when it comes to communication (either passive or active) and the opportunities for utilising this reality in pursuit of equitable urban outcomes that benefit all should be pursued by policy makers and designers at every stage of the planning process.

The rewards of successfully implementing such a strategy would include a closing of the ‘information-gap’ that exists between planner/designer and city resident, resulting in a design brief that correlates directly with what people actually want and need as opposed to alternative outcomes that would otherwise highlight a disparity between government and urban population, between architect and user.

Of course, there is significant room for error in any ill-conceived approaches involving technology and data and it’s in these areas that the success or ultimate failure of citizen design science will be judged.

One thing is certain however, as we become more connected and as people increasingly call for an active say in the decisions that influence their lives, the demand for an inclusive and equitable co-creation paradigm is only likely to grow with time.

With this in mind, continued experimentation in citizen design science today, will be crucial for determining how it fares in the participatory urban planning and design landscape of tomorrow.