About Citizen Canvas

Humanising Smart cities through citizen-centric design.

Priya Prakash, founder Design For Social Change (D4SC) believes “Citizens are active agents in co-creating better, more resilient, future-proofed smarter cities.” Prakash also founded Changify a ‘platform to crowdpower better cities’ last year. It has been shortlisted for numerous awards including Applied Innovation from Zumtobel and business model innovation at MEFFYS. Given MLove’s theme this year of Youtopia, we got together with D4SC to partner on a design-thinking tool to apply citizen-centric design to change current development process around smart cities. Citizen Canvas is that tool.


There has been a race from numerous governments, city councils and technology providers around the world in creating the best possible smart city - whether that is Songdo in S.Korea to Masdar in Saudi Arabia.

Billions has been spent in installing technological solutions to harvest data and make cities intelligent from smart sensors, grids, metering to other connected services. In the long run city authorities hope to attract more investment, talent, jobs and growth as there is such fierce competition globally for limited resources especially around human capital. Unfortunately according to a recent report in the Economist most of these projects are yet to prove to be successful in terms of benefits to citizens or the business return on investment that went into them.

So if by 2050 as per the UN report where there will be twice as many people globally living in urban cities, why is it that many of the attempts by city councils, mayors, technology providers to make cities smarter, more efficient, productive, sustainable etc hasn’t really taken off? The answer might lie in the fact that citizens are being treated as consumers and not producers of the future cities being designed for them. The smart city industry has been following a techno-deterministic process to the design of future cities. The benefits of data-sensor driven automated smart city and the needs of citizens living in these places hasn’t been mapped or aligned in a way where citizens are co-creating cities alongside service- providers as active producers and not passive consumers.

Citizens not just the residents, but also local businesses make up the fabric of the city that lends it a unique identity and character. Citizens in many cities have been for centuries circumventing a city’s aging, faulty, stretched infrastructure by creating bottom-up low tech solutions to help meet daily challenges. These citizen driven solutions are seen globally from growing economies like India, Brazil, Kenya to inner city London, Barcelona and New York.

People shape cities and as Jane Jacobs said – “Create spontaneous order from below”. Unfortunately most smart city designs don’t tap or harness citizen intelligence or crowdpower to co-create the cities they live in unless it’s through a consultation in a top-down planning process. This creates static datasets that don’t incorporate real-time feedback or insights from people who live, work, play and inhabit the city.

In software design, its standard practise to future-proof services based on realtime data, feedback and behaviour of people using it to co-create better services. Unfortunately smart city design doesn’t incorporate this getting “better through use” philosophy as its planned as a top down centralised vision based on current needs. There is a lot of investment dedicated to technology systems that can get obsolete fairly quickly but are embedded in the civic infrastructure. This leaves cities open to vulnerability as it has a single point failure in terms of centralised system distributing data and connectivity without incorporating real-lime demand and changes that people add to the city at all times. If citizens are involved right from the beginning as building blocks of the design of smart cities – just like sensors are part of its fabric, we can co-create better meshed systems that don’t rely purely on technology in times of disaster, but is also leveraging people to provide real-time feedback that can be adapted to gracefully upgrade or degrade infrastructure over time like Stewart Brand’s description of - How buildings learn. –“ Age plus adaptivity is what makes a building come to be loved.”

The Citizen canvas is a collaborative change tool to help various groups of stakeholders to work together to arrive at a common vision for what a smart city should be following a citizen centric design process. Most smart cities fail due to siloed thinking, lack of co-ordination between various city council departments and service providers and the absence of participation from citizens who are ultimately the benefactors of the smart city services. Alex Osterwalder’s business model canvas has helped countless startups and businesses in communicating their business model by taking the data and insights out of a spread-sheet or powerpoint to create shared understanding around the business model. Its framework has improved team communication by visualising, analysing, predicting and mapping together data and by having the same shared vocabulary for describing a new venture as set by Biz Model Canvas framework. This rapidly helps teams to sketch and throwaway various propositions by stress-testing it against the canvas framework, de-risking investment and opportunity cost. We’d like to apply a similar kind of collaborative approach to the design of smart cities by making the connections between different departments, citizens, communities, service providers visible across various infrastructure layers.

This way more people can see the dependencies between various actors of an ecosystem needed to create a resilient better smart city that involves people at the core of its design.

The canvas is aimed at teams involved in the vision and definition of smart cities from smart city technology architects, product portfolio managers, city brand managers and planners, mayors, city council officials to help them rethink how they approach the design of smart cities.

The SmartCitizen canvas aims to inspire new ways of thinking about what smarter cities can be and its benefits to citizens and businesses. By actively incorporating citizens, local businesses ie communities as a key agent/partner in co-creating not just a smart city but a better city where people want to live, work, play, fall in love and possibly even have a family in this nicer more human future city, the canvas is a prototyping tool for anyone with an interest in future of cities and how we choose to live in that urban future.

Most Smart city best practises involves around building a digital master plan and cities are advised that it should be one of the first services a city considers for its Smart City development. This plan is meant not to be a budget plan but a bottom-up view of the key challenges the city is facing and the services needed to address these challenges. “Many cities are also advised to have an explicit Smart City mission statement with a digital master plan around sustainable urban development and specific citizen services. This Smart City mission need to include goals about sustainable economic development, a culture of innovation, open data, cross-department collaboration, and key services to provide a higher quality of life for citizens and needs to be developed with a cross-section of stakeholders from multiple city departments and agencies as well as citizen and business groups.” – Cisco White Paper on Smarter Cities and the Internet of Everything

MLove and D4SC want the Citizen Canvas tool to communicate better this Smartcity vision for each city that decides to embark on the Smart City journey by co-creating with citizens and local businesses to future-proof the vision and improve the current smart city development process by collaborating across departments, service providers and communities.