Engineers have traditionally played the role of project designer, engaging the community for feedback and endorsement only. What would happen if we put the power of design in the hands of the end user – the community? Who better to craft their local spaces than the ones who live, work and play there?

Authorities can commission a road, a rail line, a gas or water pipeline, but in the absence of community feedback, they can’t hope to properly understand the effects of that infrastructure unless they consult the people who will actually use it. To that end, they have to consult those who drive the road, take the train, use the gas or the water.

Rewind even further, and authorities may discover that these ‘local experts’ could have provided vital inputs into the challenges and intricacies of the need for, and design of, such infrastructure, including the landscape and local user issues. This way of thinking recognises that the most powerful resources in the room are not always the engineers. Truth be known, engineers have a tendency to focus on the technical outcomes at the expense of the human experiences.

The reality is that the community understands the needs and nuances of their city spaces best. They not only understand the city’s culture and build environment; they define it. Their daily experiences and observations as parents, professionals, students and artisans together tell a story of what the city needs to thrive. Who best then to engage in its formation than the citizens who make it come to life?

Although our heads are important, have we forgotten to also think with our hearts? All too often, engineers and their designs consider only the obvious: safety and buildability. But what might it be like to use that same infrastructure, particularly if you are frail or elderly; have a child in tow; use a wheelchair or don’t speak the language?

Powerful examples of forgetting the end-user abound.

The Myki system in Melbourne, which was originally an innovative move to create a paperless ticketing system, was not user-friendly, particularly for tourists. The city eventually reverted to making travel within the CBD free on the trams.

In the US, where touch screens and keypads control voter results, a recount declared George W. Bush the winner of the Florida vote and presidency in 2000 by 537 votes. However, it was estimated that four to six million ballots were never cast or recorded – a third of which were due to mechanical and technical failures with clogged punch holes on the ballots, a piece of electronic voting that is lower on the technological scale. Leaving the design of digital infrastructure, like electronic voting, to software engineers without thinking of the needs of the people who will use those systems will likely always result in failure, as was the case with the US election (and the recent Australian census).

Is there a different way? Co-designing these projects in conjunction with those who use them might well have resulted in better outcomes first time around. We simply can’t afford our cities and infrastructure to be wonders of engineering that not many people engage with or relate to.

In a recent study, between 48 and 80 per cent of city dwellers across seven countries claimed they wanted to make an active contribution to society. Zef Hemel, deputy director of the City of Amsterdam Planning Department, says they rightfully should.

“Today, it is citizens themselves who are the experts,” Hemel said. “They are well educated, use ICT every day, and know their own environment inside out.

“We therefore have everything to gain by involving them in our thinking about the city of the future and benefiting from this ‘collective brain.’”

But how? Hemel adopted the ‘WikiCity’ model for Amsterdam city – an open planning concept that incorporates the opinions and initiatives of its residents for future city improvements. Taking its cue from Wikipedia, the model asserts the advantage of multiple stakeholder contributions by offering a platform for every individual to envision and collectively shape their city.

Similarly, architect and entrepreneur Ekim Tan developed ‘Play the City’ – a city design and research game that brings investors, developers, architects and, of course, citizens together under the same banner of community design. Tan believes the critical intellectual does not always grasp the sensitivities of members of society. Play the City’s fun, hands-on games often involve 3D models in which players can dialogue throughout the constructive phase until reaching a happy and informed consensus. With home carers and professionals, students and local politicians standing around the same city model, equally invited to the table, it’s proven an effective way to generate full-bodied representation and resolve future conflict.

Beyond community design, our cities also face mounting challenges into the future, namely congestion, urbanisation and pollution. An engineer-centred approach to solving these is efficient, but sterile. A human-centred approach is critical if we want our cities to be liveable. We have everything to gain from harnessing the power of collective design.

Today’s world is increasingly horizontal, with blurred edges between former categories of professionalism and expertise. We need to recognise that local and lived expertise is just as critical as technical expertise. The idea of inviting the community to co-create its own collective space is not a pie-in-the-sky concept; it is a direct response to a fundamental shift in society. To paraphrase Zef Hemel, our society can only benefit from working with our ‘collective brain.’

By Kylie Cochrane, Aurecon