Threadless for Cities

*written for Open Source Cities  (launching next year)

Involving and valuing the input of communities into the creation of new plans, policy and building projects is well known as best practice in urban design and planning. It usually manifests as community engagements strategies such as town hall meetings, workshops, site visits, presentations, interviews, surveys and the like. The premise being that the more local people are involved, the more likely a good outcome is achieved and the community gains a sense of ownership and input. Unfortunately these processes are often criticized. Comments can often be about whom in the community is involved, and what “real” say they have in final outcomes. The urban planning process is a long one, and often complicated with political agendas, regulations and design processes that mean even the most well intended built outcome still might face community opposition. Residents become easily skeptical, reactive to change or overwhelmed by poor process. A large part all design is about creative process. As facilitators of process, designers can play a role in making positive change and supporting collaboration.

The internet has opened wide avenues for collaboration in design and building networks and communities. Models such as Threadless.com http://www.threadless.com/ and Quirky.com http://www.quirky.com/ (t-shirt design and product design) are highly collaborative communities where people can input and share ideas, and achieve built end outcomes. Through the ability to vote and comment on designs in fast and online environments, the community is self-selecting and only the best ideas advance. The community also gets money for winning ideas, and creates a chance for social networking around a common design interest. The companies and systems encourage collaboration and critique, but more importantly they also help connect the community with the production and technical sides needed to make an idea happen.

Can the collaborative design of cities be this easy as well?

Could a “Threadless for Cities” actually exist?

In comparing the types of methodologies of traditional community planning techniques and Threadless.com, there are some key lessons that urban planners could learn.

  1. Make it simple and fun. There is a real sense of humor to the Threadless designs and its community. Its interface allows different and easy ways for people to pick and choose how they participate. Relationships form quite differently offline and often require more time. However often community engagement and planning processes are too boring or poorly communicated that is hard to capture people’s interest. Events, games and interactive workshops will often be most successful in communities for this reason. Even best attempts, like Brisbane City Council’s transparency of allowing all development applications to be online, unlikely captures the interests of anyone outside immediate property owners and still requires the individual effort of writing in a letter to participate.
  2. Make it cool (Peer Recognition). If you are part of the Threadless community can see someone wearing one on the street and it quietly feels like you are part of the same cool crew. The community only advances the best designers, and those who do win designs are highly respected for their work and higher ‘ranked’ in the community. OpenIDEO also uses peer recognition (Design Quotient points) and a sense of belonging to some thing bigger as a way to encourage participation online. Often no models do this in urban planning. Those members of the public who do work tirelessly in urban improvement and community development often do it for the passion, and no network models really exist to reward these people or encourage new people to participate in the community.
  3. Create more direct results. With Threadless tshirts there is a clear line and timeframe between community input and end printed result. There is no doubt the production timelines, constraints and risks are different to a building rather than a Tshirt. However it is a principle that helps people’s sense of contribution and incentive to participate. The urban development process is frustratingly slow at times, and in the process, community visions can often get reinterpreted or felt lost in the process. The rise of citizen urbanism and community action is often a reaction to impatience with the existing system and processes.
  4. Build in financial rewards (incentives). There is a direct personal financial benefit when your Tshirt wins on Threadless. The sense of community that exists means people certainly don’t just participate in designs for that reason, however there is no similar financial incentive for community members to participate in planning processes. In the best cases, government might offer community grants or commit money for a capital project for the community. In most cases, planning process might only indirectly improve or impact an individuals property values, or help the earning potential of property developers. More often planners are asking for participation only relying on people who care about quality of their neighbourhood and this won’t capture everyone.

Architecture for Humanity  is also a model that could inspire traditional planning processes. It might be the closest format to a highly successful global and local collaborative design network around buildings and urbanism. It does however most successfully work in humanitarian causes and developing countries, and for clients and situations that can circumvent traditional bureaucracy. There remains a critical need to address city design and community building in our developed countries too.

Threadless works on a business model that can push built outcome, and that would likely be the main constraint to a “Threadless for Cities”. There can always be an online forum to share ideas, hypothetical collaborations and competitions but there needs to be much more to actually build and implement ideas. It would take city government, developers or someone else to fund the long process and build the end result. Perhaps it is the funding and design processes that need to fundamentally change to radically change cities.

It seems a lot of designers and ‘non designer’ community members can be creative and come up with great ideas on paper, however it is how to implement ideas that we all need most help on. With more ‘radical’ designs, for example like ideas around urban agriculture and skyscraper farming, even if people think it’s a good idea, it remains a financial risk to be the first to innovate.

 Kickstarter (online fundraising) is powered by a unique all-or-nothing funding method, utilizing the power of smaller contributions by many. Kickstarter projects must be fully-funded or no money changes hands. Prehaps a “Kickstarter for Cities” is a model backed by all stakeholders, needs to be in place for community networks to commit to “buy into” an urban developments. Collaboration on design could occur in a Threadless-like model and then only goes ahead if the Kickstarter target is raised. If the investing community can then gain financial rewards from the initiative or building, it could encourage further design participation. Take for example a residential unit development where most often design is based on an assumed future market. Using this Kickstarter model the developer could secure a percentage of tenants to ‘buy in’ before design. Developers then play a role like Threadless to become the “facilitator of process”, where online collaboration occur in the unit designs. These become built, and lived in by the ‘buy in’ community and any other purchasers. The developer makes money, housing design might be innovated, people get a place to live in, and the communities have a different sense of attachment and identity, than “off the rack” products.

In a job search for “community development” I had found many jobs around online companies, which is where I first found Quirky.com. It wasn’t exactly the job I was looking for but it makes sense that the online worlds are innovating in community building. Relationships and collaborations offline are far more complicated, take more effort, but are often richer and longer lasting for it. However safe to say there is value and benefit in both the offline and online worlds and there are lessons to be learnt in comparing and leveraging the two.

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