Interview Co-Urbanize : online tool for facilitating public participation

Interviewee: CoUrbanize CEO, Karin Brandt
Interviewer: CSP, Liqun Chen
Time:  23 July, 2014
Place: Cambridge
CoUrbanize is an online platform that engages community and developers to a  our goal is to make project information accessible and help residents more easily participate in the development process so that everyone’s voice can be heard.
About CoUrbanize 
  • Start the team in 2013.02
  • 2013.05 finish the web-page development, with tech people
  • 2013.05-08 four projects, start from small ones.
  • More then 3000 people registered and 300 are active
  • Now focus mainly in Boston area, but intend to expend the market in New England :
    • set up a long-tern collaboration with a developer and provide the platform for the developer’s projects in other cities
    • have plan to take NYC’s project soon with the same developer who is doing project in Boston right now.
  • Introduced a section for education: community guidelines, case study, blog, free eBooks
  • Team of three +  contractors
  • Founder: Karin (MCP) and David (Phd-building tech.)
Idea generation
  • In attending public meetings, they found two main problems
    • Local power dynamics: most people at present are seniors; there are distrust to planners and officers; people mainly come for rejecting the project; some local groups might be unevenly powerful and corrupted, not representing the idea of residents;
    • The fact that the projects are hard to understand: on the one hand, the plans are done by professions, very long. On the other hand, people tend to perceive the problems emotionally
  • The idea of CoUrbanize:
    • make the information easy to read
    • improve transparency and accessibility
    • encourage young people
    • enable communication and dialogues
How does it work 
  • Invite the community members register using their real name. (which is parallet with the physical public meeting: everyone who want to say something will say their name first and it will be recorded and published.)
  • Take on the responsibility to educate the community how to do public participation.
  • They promote “face-based” conversation, but no emotional-based
  • If there are some dirty words or too emotional, they will remove it
  • You can see people’s all comments on different project so that you know this is a real person or a fake person.
  • Developers will come to the platform to answer residents questions: build up the trust.
  • The platform is also acting as a project collection for citizens so that they don’t need to go to all sorts of websites.
Involved roles 
  • CoUrbanize: platform to communicate and build trust between the developers, the residents and other groups of interest
    • Co-urbanize can help developers to reach out to more people, more than those who show up in the community meeting (who is tend to reject the project).  i.e. demarcating the communities’ core people’s power.
    • Co-urbanize helps the developer to publicize the plan or the idea long time before the community meeting, even from design process, to give local residents a better sense of what will going on. This may help reduce rejections.
  • The developer: the customer, who cares the smooth progress of the development, given the project needs to get through the public hearing process by law
  • the City: responsible for cooperating the public hearing process in private development; could also be a customer when a project is public lead
Profit making model
  • This is for profit: from the developer, who will endure a huge lost if the project is delayed or cancelled.
  • Pricing: 15,000USD to start, 500USD per month, a typical project will go up to 150,000USD
  • Cost: mainly salary
  • Get Seed funding, fund-raising to half million USD
Discussion on the participation process   
  • Problems in the conventional public meeting process
    • the developer, the residents and government only communicate at the public meeting
    • the residents only get limited information about the project on the public meeting; static cycle of participation
    • difficult to make the dialogue based on facts
    • it’s legal requirement that the community participate in the process. The community needs to be educated but the people who attended are not
  • As a planner, how to stay neutral and not stand only for the developer
    • Structured information system of Co-Urbanize
    • project based : a few different template for real estate , residential, retail etc..
  • Other take-aways
    • enact the three parties and let them participate
    • as the planner, we think community participation is always great, but it might not be the case
    • the planners job is to maker sure that the communication is representiave
Next steps
  • Find a mode to localise the process, so that the platform could work everywhere
  • Improve specifically its use on retail development, planning education to the community, peacemaking of the community
  • Thinking about having an app in the future
  • Thinking about introducing feedback mechanism: participant’s credit, developer’s credit. (similar as Airbnb or Taobao.)