CityScope FindingPlaces: HCI Platform for Public Participation in Refugees’ Accommodation Process
This case was submitted as part of the Call for Innovations, an annual partnership initiative between OPSI and the UAE Mohammed Bin Rashid Center for Government Innovation (MBRCGI)
In reaction to the sudden arrival of tens of thousands of refugees to the city of Hamburg (DE), MIT and Hafen City University's City Science Lab created a public participation and decision-making process for refugee accommodation in Hamburg neighbourhoods. 'CityScope FindingPlaces', an Human Computer Interaction platform, was designed and deployed to facilitate dozens of community meetings with ~500 participants, resulting with 160 locations accepted by Hamburg’s citizens to be developed for refugees housing.
Nearly 21 million people fled their home countries during 2015. A total number of 1.2 million asylum applications were filed in Europe, 442,000 in Germany alone. The persistent influx of asylum seekers posed major challenges for German federals and municipalities. As a consequence, available solutions were ad-hoc implemented and in many cases refugees were accommodated in tents, warehouses or gymnasiums.
In the City of Hamburg, Germany, accommodation facilities concentrated in certain neighborhoods while others received little to no refugees at all, sometimes stimulating civil protest against refugees. In early 2016, Hamburg's mayor Olaf Scholz assigned MIT and HCU CSL the development of a participation process that would enable citizens to engage in finding accommodations for a predicted influx of ~79,000 refugees. The goal was to incorporate the citizens’ personal experience and local knowledge into the political and administrative evaluation of potential locations. The results and proposals emerging from the participation process were to become recommendations for political decision-making. The project was named 'FindingPlaces'.
To enable a well-documented, accessible and scalable citizen participation, MIT CityScope was proposed as a decision-making and knowledge-support tool. Featuring an Human Computer Interaction (HCI) urban modeling and simulation platform, CityScope is able to present contextualized information in an easy-to-comprehend and easy-to-interact manner. A series of public participation workshops was planned to be centered around interactive CityScope stations displaying task-related data to citizen groups as they worked out decisions. The main conceptual components of FindingPlaces included 1) a workflow design for the overall workshop series, 2) a choreography ('procedure') for the individual participatory workshops, 3) the technical adaptation of CityScope interactive tables, and 4) extensive pre-processing of urban data.
CityScope is an ongoing research at the MIT Media Lab’s City Science group, featuring different iterations of an urban simulation platform with the goal of making complex urban questions accessible and tangible to various audiences. What differentiates CityScope from other highly-specialized, experts-focused planning tools is its tangible, user-oriented design, prompting a discussion not limited by expertise or prior knowledge.
In recent years, real-world CityScope deployments took place in the UAE, Shanghai, Andorra, Boston, Helsinki, Taipei and more, each of which dedicated to a local urban challenge. A common CityScope platform features a tangible urban model (city, neighborhood or street scale), a local computational analysis unit, data & analysis server integrated with a Geographic Information System and a feedback module. CityScope usually includes a set of color-tagged LEGO bricks acting as intractable spatial UI elements. The computational analysis unit has sensors or cameras and computers for real-time scanning of interaction in the scene. The feedback module contains display screens, projectors and as well as AR, MR, VR or touch feedback.
Between May and July 2016, a total of 34, two-hour workshops were held at HCU campus with nearly 400 participants. Each workshop focused on one of the city’s seven districts. In total, 161 locations were suggested by the participants and evaluated by the authorities. With these, accommodation solutions for almost 24,000 refugees were proposed, exceeding the initial targeted goal of 20,000. More than half of the parcels were designated parks, green areas in inner-city locations, landscape, or agricultural spaces in rural areas, that are mostly subject to nature or landscape conservation. Another 15% of the suggested parcels were used as sports fields or playgrounds. Others were parking lots, commercial and industrial areas, parcels designated for future housing projects or port area parcels. Almost three quarters of the suggested locations were rated as not suitable in the initial assessment, leaving 44 rated as feasible. A further 24 were excluded after a detailed examination. Ultimately, 6 received recommendations for implementation and 10 were taken into consideration for future planning.
Using CityScope platform for refugee accommodation has shown how digital technology can effectively support social challenges and physical changes. The core issue of Finding Places– the refugee crisis and global migration – will probably remain a challenge of high urgency. Global socio-political developments may yield new migrant waves soon, and the challenge of accommodating refugees in cities of the destination countries remains acute. Beyond the Hamburg case, MIT and HCU CSL are actively promoting CityScope solutions to other world cities facing similar issues.
What Makes Your Project Innovative?
CityScope FindingPlaces suggests a novel approach for public participation in complex planning processes. In contemporary planning, incorporation of the public's opinion is not standardised; Even in cases where participation is implemented, the degree of interaction and the ability to explore design alternatives is limited. CityScope novelty is in its accessibility, tangibility and simplicity while tackling multilayered urban questions. FindingPlaces workshop methodology and CityScope technology enabled a high level of involvement and direct discussions between experts and non-experts, leading to evidence-based and goal-oriented interaction. Adapting CityScope for the FindingPlaces project also excelled to platform design itself. While core CityScope concepts, setup and interactions were maintained, new components (such as: networked communication between end-devices, integration of a Geographic Information System (GIS) and persistent data management) were introduced.
What is the current status of your innovation?
Although FindingPlaces reports were concluded in 2017, the core issues of the refugee crisis and global migration still remain a challenge of high urgency. Looking ahead to emerging world conflicts, the EU as well as other research bodies around the world highlighted FindingPlaces as a viable path to sustainable planning for refugees. Beyond the Hamburg case, MIT and HCU CSL promote the solution to other European ‘Arrival Cities’ facing similar issues, like Thessaloniki, Patras, Messina or Amadora. Solidified through the FindingPlaces deployment, CityScope platforms is now providing a large spectrum of applications to urban challenges worldwide. CityScope capabilities span from urban planning, architecture and real-estate development to logistic, data analysis and human-dynamics. Deploying CityScope platforms in Living Labs such as Hamburg, Andorra, Helsinki, Quito or Shanghai enables a fruitful exchange between academic research and real-life challenges of the hosting cities.
Collaborations & Partnerships
MIT Media Lab City Science Group created the CityScope [CS] platform. In cooperation with MIT, CSL in HafenCity Uni. deployed CityScope for the FindingPlaces project. FindingPlaces was developed in coordination with the City of Hamburg's mayor's office, the Central Refugees Coordination Staff (ZKF), district administration representatives and the Hamburg Urban Development and Revitalization Agency (steg), a company specialized in citizen participation processes who moderated the public engagement.
Users, Stakeholders & Beneficiaries
Between May and July 2016, a total of 34, two-hour workshops were held at HCU with ~400 participants. Each workshop focused on one of the city’s seven districts. The workshops were advertised via various media channels and ~40,000 brochures distributed all over the city, having an overall reach of ~5 million citizens. Participants were asked to register online; up to 20 people per session were eventually invited, due to space limitation and CityScope platform dimensions.
Results, Outcomes & Impacts
In total, 161 locations were suggested by FindingPlaces participants and evaluated by the authorities. With these, accommodation solutions for ~24,000 refugees were proposed, exceeding the initial targeted goal of 20,000. More than half of the parcels were designated parks, green areas in inner-city locations, landscape, or agricultural spaces in rural areas, that are mostly subject to nature or landscape conservation. Another 15% of the suggested parcels were used as sports fields or playgrounds. Others were parking lots, commercial and industrial areas, parcels designated for future housing projects or port area parcels. Almost three quarters of the suggested locations were rated as not suitable in the initial assessment, leaving 44 sites rated as feasible. A further 24 were excluded after a detailed examination. Ultimately, 6 received recommendations for implementation and 10 were taken into consideration for future planning.
Challenges and Failures
A key challenge was the tight schedule in which the project needed to be implemented, since common developments of CityScope platforms requires time and testing. Further, logistical limitations reduced the overall exposure of the CityScope tool: Due to the physical size of CityScope , workshops were bound to be held at HCU; This naturally reduced the number of potential remote participants, thus contributing to a selection bias which is well-known in public participation projects. Another constraint was the lack of available urban data. Despite thorough pre-processing of urban data, non-expert participants had trouble understanding the professional planning content. As participants were not used to working with maps and satellite images, orienting the projected images and assessing them adequately was difficult. Most of these challenges are currently being addressed in the development of new CityScope platforms: Open-source, mobile and easy-to-deploy CityScope platforms are currently being designed.
Conditions for Success
Overall, successful CityScope deployments occur in the domain of three nodes: Clear research question [refugees housing, mobility modeling or urban design, for example]; a strong collaboration with local liaison [HCU for Hamburg]; and system/UI/UX design that mitigates both [i.e, multi-station CityScope platform]. Additionally, public recognition and support from professional stakeholders is crucial for successful CityScope research and innovation. Yet if a project is of high public or political interest – as the case was with FindingPlaces – the approach runs danger of becoming instrumentalized by political forces or interest groups. As well, sufficient data sources, research transparency and clarity about participants´ roles are critical to the users' acceptance and participation.
Since 2013, CityScope deployments took place in the Riyadh, Shanghai, Andorra, Boston, Helsinki and Hamburg as well as in many other cities where the open-source platform [or its components] where replicated. In some cases, such as in Andorra, Hamburg or Boston, CityScope is in active use by both stakeholders and communities.
At MIT, much of the current development of CityScope next generation revolves around creating an open-source, components-based and scalable platform. This effort has the developing world in mind, so that less privileged cities could eventually incorporate CityScope in their planning and decision making toolset. Currently, several global organizations are working with the CityScope team to allow deployments at scale for cities in their regions.
In the context of FindingPlaces project, several bodies dealing with immigration [including the European Commission] have made CityScope FindingPlaces a case study and part of their future toolset for refugees' accommodation.
Applying a CityScope platform for refugees' accommodation has shown how digital technology can effectively support social challenges and physical changes. By both stakeholders and participants, FindingPlaces was evaluated as a positive experience, and CityScope was recognized as a highly supportive instrument for public participation and real-time decision-making. FindingPlaces succeeded especially on the ‘soft’ level of human interaction: Citizens felt as partners in an ‘eye-level’ dialogue with policy makers and city administration, being able to supply planning authorities with relevant information based on their local knowledge. The project built up acceptance towards refugee accommodation in Hamburg and triggered high-quality feedback. Making administrative procedures and decisions transparent effectively contributed to the ‘political literacy’ of the general citizenship.
Nevertheless, these positive outcomes are subject to strong governmental support, not always available in other cases. Yet, if a project is of high political interest, there is a danger CityScope tools will become instrumentalized by political forces or interest groups. As well, decisions made by CityScope developers might affect and even bias some of the outcomes, making CityScope more subjective and less open-ended.
The core issue of CityScope FindingPlaces – the refugee crisis and global migration – will probably remain a challenge of high urgency and tools and approaches as such will be needed again. Deploying CityScope platforms in Living Labs such as Hamburg CSL enables a fruitful exchange between academic research and real-life challenges of the hosting cities.