30 April 2024

Democracy Technologies: Let’s begin with some introductions. Could you share your respective roles within the project?​​

Arjama Mukherjee: I work for TU Dresden’s team as part of a team called OPUS (Operations and Unit and Services Unit of U_CODE). My role is to carry out U_CODE workshops in international contexts. I have a background in architecture and urban planning. My job is to understand the role that digital technologies can play in urban planning processes, specifically the role of open-source technology to democratise urban planning processes. U_CODE is a tool that really has a lot of potential to do that.

Titus Kaloki: I am a program coordinator at the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES) in the Kenya office, where I’ve worked for eight years now. Part of what I lead falls under the umbrella of ‘just cities and politics’, because of the long history of FES pushing fast political education toward social democracy and social justice. But now there is also an interest in addressing social justice within urbanisation, hence the ‘Just Cities’ project.

My role in implementing U_CODE in Kenya was to help conceptualise how it could be applied within our local context, but also to coordinate the various partners: Nakuru City, our ‘Just City’ working group, and the community that we targeted within Nakuru. My responsibilities include overseeing the process and making sure that we thoroughly document and are able to showcase this as a catalytic project – a small project that can be scaled up, that can inform policy, and that can inform how to make urban planning inclusive.

DT: Could you tell us more about Nakuru, the city of this pilot project?

Kaloki: Nakuru City is still in its foundational stages. It transitioned into a city from municipality when its population surpassed half a million. Despite this, it still lacked some of the infrastructural characteristics that are required for a city, like an international airport, an international stadium, and a fully public transport system.

This meant it was on its way to fulfil some of the conditions set out by our Urban Areas and Cities Act. It became a city in 2021 and had its first city board. Among this board, we found a champion, a progressive who was interested in our ‘Just City’ idea and so allowed us to use Nakuru as a testing ground. And it’s still growing. It’s one of the youngest cities in Africa.

DT: So the project hinged on the support of a key partner at the city board?

Kaloki: The goodwill of the board member definitely cleared the way for the buy-in of his colleagues and the city at large. The project came about because of our particular methodology, which we call Transformative Change Making (TCM), and it has three stages. The first stage is coming up with an alternative vision. We chose Nakuru because of its comparatively simpler administrative structure, unlike the complex and layered structures of larger cities like Nairobi, Mombasa and Kisumu.

This person was known to our Just City working group, which helped us with the second stage, building a narrative and supporting it with evidence. We were able to engage with Nakuru City and find that the board was receptive to our evidence. The question remained: Is it doable? Which takes us to the third stage: a small catalytic project to demonstrate the practicality of our theories. The city board therefore granted us the opportunity to conduct this experiment by using the U_CODE. 

DT: Tell us about the U_CODE software. What are its general functions? What does it do?

Mukherjee: U_CODE started as an EU-funded research project. It aims to facilitate citizen engagement by providing a platform where citizens and urban planners can speak the same language.

U_CODE is an open-source 3D tool that generates a 3D environment based on OpenStreetMap data. This means it can run anywhere in the world. It comes with built-in functionalities that allow citizens to interact with the model in an easy and intuitive way. For example, if you define the part of the city that you want to work on, citizens can write comments like “this is a very dangerous part of the neighbourhood, because it’s dark under the bridge, you need a street light;” or “this area should be much greener”. There are also small models – such as trees, building blocks, and zebra crossings – that are built into the tool. Citizens can place them in a city to share their ideas. So it’s almost like playing a game. 

It allows you to involve larger numbers of citizens at the same time. This is important, because conventional citizen participation workshops usually involve maybe ten people, 20, 50 at best. The end goal is to collect all of this information from citizens. In Nakuru’s case, the collected data was transformed into a map that effectively visualised the outcome of the workshop. The map was then presented to the city government which adopted it for integration into its city plans, providing them with a clear depiction of the participants’ proposals.

DT: Can you explain a little bit more about the use of U_CODE in Nakuru? 

Kaloki: There are a lot of people who are excluded from traditional participation formats like town halls. We thought of using U_CODE because it promised inclusiveness. People can interact with it at their own pace, at a time of their choice, and in a language that they understand. 

Beginning with a discourse analysis, we targeted the Kenya Meat Commission area, an informal settlement with approximately 150 households. We used it to pilot U_CODE due to resource constraints and as a small scale starting point. Our key question was: What is your top priority? Is it lights, sanitation, benches, or something else? This way, we could ensure that these things were built into U_CODE. We asked them how they would want to visually identify the items in the tool. The idea was for them to use icons that they are familiar with, and that they and everyone in that settlement, regardless of literacy levels, would be able to recognise. We then translated them into the 3D environment so it would be easier for them to do the drag and drop. 

We also had technical questions for the Nakuru city planners on the planning guidelines that they must follow. For example, what is the distance that is required between streetlights? And this knowledge was built in this 3D environment, so that when a citizen comes to do a drag and drop of a streetlight in the tool, they can get green spots that show them the possible areas to place the item. The map therefore captures the citizens’ wishes within the planning guidelines of the city, and therefore the wishes make immediate sense to the city planners.

The discourse analysis also gave us insights on the top three issues that participants faced, which sometimes gets lost in technical urban planning.

DT: You already mentioned the translation of icons to suit local understanding. One challenge with any form of citizen participation is reaching people, especially when it requires digital skills. How did you approach this issue?

Kaloki:  We first identified representatives of the four main actors: FES, Nakuru City, The Kenya Meat Commission informal settlement itself, and members of our Just City working group. And we had a small training for these representatives to familiarise them with the U_CODE. Once that was demystified, the second step was a baseline survey where we identified who was willing to participate. We also wanted to make sure that we didn’t have just adults participating, but to include young people and children where possible. 

Introductory workshops were held for the entire community to contribute suggestions and feedback on icons. This, combined with baseline data, informed the creation of a tailored virtual environment. Ten young people from the community were trained to facilitate the co-design process over two weeks at a designated venue, enabling communication for all community members, including semi-literate individuals.

Mukherjee: Building on what Kaloki mentioned, the role of facilitators was crucial in ensuring effective engagement. In the case of India, for instance, U_CODE was utilised in combination with physical workshops to accommodate different skill levels. This helped include older people, who can be intimidated when they see a big touch table set in their neighbourhood. In Nakuru, it was local facilitators with knowledge of the context that played a vital role in bridging the gap between technology and community needs.

DT: You mentioned a driving force within the city council. Did their commitment extend to implementing the outcomes?

Kaloki: Yes. The reason why we decided to do it was because of the possibilities for the city board to use it again on their own. But also, we were looking at influencing their policy on public participation, which currently only consists of quarterly town halls. Therefore, it was quite important to have their commitment. 

If we had gone through with the exercise but then the participants didn’t see any downstream public investment, and their plans were not adopted into the city planning, it would not only hinder our credibility, it would also be unfair to the community. We sought out assurance from the city board that what we are doing is not just for the show, that it would be integrated into city plans and receive downstream investments in the next budget cycle.

DT: Were there any unexpected learnings from this process?

Kaloki: U_CODE is both a tool and a process. Sometimes we get so carried away by the tool because it’s fancy and new, and we forget that it is just a part of the process. The process must stay focused on the intention to have more inclusive, citizen-driven urban planning, and U_CODE is just a tool to complement that.

It’s also crucial to have allies and partners with expertise in tech to facilitate community involvement on a larger scale. Equally, Stakeholders have to let go of top-down approaches, and the “god complex” of urban planning experts. Instead, they should embrace bottom-up initiatives, and recognise that citizens are not helpless, and are capable of participating in urban planning with the right guidance. I would also emphasise the importance of doing thorough groundwork to identify all the actors and their interests, to predict and avoid situations where obstacles may hijack or make it harder to scale up in future.

Mukherjee: A key lesson learned concerned simplicity and accessibility in participation tools. Our experience in Nakuru highlighted the need for U_CODE to be available on smartphones, not just laptops, to reach a wider audience. We’re currently working on a new version that’s faster, easier to navigate, and less complex. By reducing the effort required for citizens to engage, we can reach more people and increase participation rates.

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