Citizens first!

“During planning we focus on the needs of the local population. This saves resources and costs and increases likelihood that concepts and projects will actually be filled with life by local people.”

Q&A with Marcus Jeutner, Head of the IGSI network

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The IGSI network provides for a completely new planning tool for integrated urban planning in India but also in countries such as the USA. Why?

Cities across the world are very diverse and developing in very different ways, however, there are a number of shared challenges and operational principles that generally apply to liveable cities of the future. Indian and US-American cities, for example, are facing completely different challenges, have different starting positions and cultural characteristics. Nevertheless, they may still benefit from the same solution approach.

Similar patterns can be observed in both countries when it comes to approaches to urban planning: Further development of cities tends to be performed centrally by high-level administrative government units and the city administration and with a particular focus on technical infrastructure. If citizens are at all involved, it is usually when planning is already at an advanced stage. As a result there is often resistance against implementation and in extreme cases planning may even be faulty and not in line with user requirements. This means that cities and urban planners could save significant amounts of money while achieving better results, by investing some time and courage at an early planning stage to find out about the actual needs of local citizens from particular areas or districts and to integrate these into planning.

In traditional product development, this has long been a standard procedure. Whether it be cars, mobile phones or lifestyle products, this kind of user-oriented market research is part of developing virtually any consumer product. Why is this not the case when it comes to planning our cities that are used and shaped by the people who live in them? The idea of transferring classic Design Thinking to urban planning tasks – Urban Design Thinking – is very convincing and simple, on principle. However, especially in the area of town planning, there is a lack of experience and organisational structures that would allow for this type of process-based and partly open-ended approach.

We address this very point for various projects and we repeatedly strive to refine and adjust our approaches with regard to planning reality and its many constraints and to adapt them to a wide range of planning tasks and contexts. Focusing on the framework conditions of a local context and an early and comprehensive cooperation between citizens and representatives of science, administration and business enables us to face even complex challenges – no matter which city, country or continent you call home.

How does your planning tool work and what are the advantages?

The infrastructure is not our starting point, if an urban area is to be redeveloped or developed further. Instead we start with the people who live in it or are expected to live in it in the future. During planning we focus on the needs of the local population. In dialogue events, known as “UrbanLabs”, we analyse the requirements people have with regard to the city district in which they reside, live, work or spend time in on a regular basis.

This also applies to traffic systems, citizen services or new neighbourhood facilities. What is the district expected to achieve in the future, in terms of electricity and water supply, waste water, food, traffic, communication, safety and security? What impact do existing and newly created urban spaces have on people’s lives and in which way does this life reflect back on the spaces occupied? We select the most suitable technology and adjust it to the specific needs and local conditions, only after we have found out exactly which requirements need to be fulfilled. This saves resources and cost in the medium and long term while also increasing the likelihood that concepts and projects will actually be filled with life by local people. We thus combine a number of different issues, and create multi-faceted synergies as a result and prevent – which is often the case – that individual measures get in the way of each other resulting in the situation becoming even more severe.

Which advantages would a cooperation with the IGSI network have for international partners?

Our network of research facilities and planning offices provides for a wide range of competences. All partners have distinguished themselves in the past through ongoing excellence in research and planning services for the different areas of urban development.

These days the IGSI network is able to cover all relevant competences of urban and infrastructural development and to provide for the necessary scope of services in various different constellations. Such services range from classification and assessment research, the collection of data and requirements, the conception of practical approaches through to implementation planning and realising actual projects. In the network, engineers of various disciplines – urban planning, urban construction, architecture, mobility, water and waste water, and waste management – are working hand in hand with scientists. As an innovative research network we strive to further develop and refine our tools in practice in different application contexts – socially, culturally, climatically, economically etc.

What would a win-win-situation look like for international partners?

We would like to develop working and research approaches and provide scientific support for international partners who wish to benefit from our tool during urban planning tasks. Our partners will benefit not only from our principle of “Human Centred Innovation” for urban development but also from many years’ worth of experience and planning expertise.

At the same time it would be a gain and an inspiration for us to learn from our international partners, since urban development is a global challenge that we can only master by working together. This is why we unceasingly seek to verify, to refine and if necessary to re-adjust our views, methods and tools based on existing and changing framework conditions.

In the USA – still the undisputed leader in the area of technology for Smart Cities – we are particularly excited about the opportunity to discuss issues that appear to be somewhat more established than they are in Germany. Among these is the role of private sector companies in urban and infrastructural development or the significant role of local initiatives as well as distinct civic engagement that strongly shapes the neighbourhoods of American cities. This is an interesting and very fertile foundation for our approach.

What would an international cooperation look like?

We would like to invite interested parties to find out more about our methods and to try them out in the form of small practical exercises. We hold presentations during various international trade fairs and we are currently developing an online class for students.

Our highlights are the “Urban Labs”. These are practical workshops that we hold abroad and that interested partners can register for. Ten German planning experts and 40 to 50 local urban planners, such as representatives of city politics and administration, local planners, scientists and students, will develop tangible solutions for actual challenges of local urban development. We are happy to assist you if you are interested – please contact us via email or visit our exhibition booth. We are looking forward to introducing interested scientists, civic agents, representatives of politics and technology manufacturers to our methods and approaches, to provide an insight into our work and to discuss it or simply to take the time for a personal chat.

What makes the Indo-German Smart Initiative (IGSI) so promising?

The Indo-German Smart Initiative has strong potential for synergies and innovation. We develop innovative and integrated solutions that focus on human beings. This allows us to create development strategies that are rooted in tradition and future-oriented at the same time - which is what makes them ideal for India. India is a multi-faceted country in various ways that many people find fascinating and strange at the same time. The tension between loyalty to old traditions and an unrestrained pursuit of the future is so strong in many places it seems almost tangible. India is among the countries with the highest urbanisation rate in the world. Great challenges of urban planning are rather obvious in particular with regard to the current initial situation of existing urban structures. This can be seen most clearly in the areas of housing and infrastructure provision.

Infrastructural facilities in city centres often date back to the British colonial period and are even now insufficient for their heavy utilisation impact. The basis for managing future development dynamics is further complicated by the planning system that also stems from Britain and by the current distribution of planning competences according to which municipalities are not responsible for urban planning. The Indian government is currently promoting a strengthening of urban infrastructural systems with the infrastructure programme of “Smart City Mission”, focusing in particular on advanced technology. It is not surprising that this is complicated by the initial background situation outlined above. However, this is the exact starting point our Indo-German Smart Initiative would like to address.

What are the challenges of urban development in India?

As in Germany, Indian municipalities are officially in charge of their own development planning. In reality, however, decisions about local urban planning are made on a different, higher level. The federal states and their various ministries and subordinate authorities are of particular importance in this context. While there are, of course, questioning, well-trained urban researchers in India, they are not involved in the urban development discourse at a political level, the way it is increasingly the case in Germany, for example. In application-oriented research projects, science in Germany is not limited to the role of a classifying observer of social and technological developments. At times science is also involved in the form of advice and project development and active participation in actual planning and development tasks. In India, science has not yet been granted this role.

The true protagonists - people living in cities - do not usually have a say in urban development. And this is true, not only for India. Those in charge of planning are often not sufficiently aware of the citizen’s real needs and as a result these are not considered during overall or sectional planning. It is also due to a lack of structured and fact-based dialogue among important stakeholders on different levels that planning frequently does not provide for the requirements of the local population.
This is why our approach of integrated planning, which is achieved through an exchange among citizens, scientists, politicians and business representatives, constitutes a vital contribution to sustainable urban development for India. Our principle of “Human Centred Innovation” in particular is a user-oriented counter-pole to infrastructure planning that is often of a purely technocratic nature.

About Marcus Jeutner:

Marcus Jeutner is a German researcher at the TU Berlin, Institute of Urban and Regional Planning, Chair of Urban Renewal and Sustainable Development and head of the Indo-German Smart Initiative (IGSI). In addition to this, he has been involved in various planning and consultancy projects as a freelance planner with the company insar consult in Berlin. He graduated in Urban and Regional Planning as well as in Urban Design.

Contact: igsi@isr.tu-berlin.de