7 Billion Urbanists: A profound paradigm shift to transform territories with civil societies..

7 Billion Urbanists: A profound paradigm shift to transform territories with civil societies..

Open Urbanism

A paradigm shift to transform territories with civil society and implement the New Urban Agenda signed at the Habitat III conference

The Free IT Foundation of Geneva supports open source approaches of general interest. Since the summer of 2018, our civic-tech Unlimited Cities has been supported by the foundation. Its president asked us about what is driving us forward.

Why change urbanism?

Our civilization is facing unprecedented human and environmental challenges. Our way of life in the world, from villages to metropolises, must evolve. The best way to succeed is to do it in a progressive and shared way, by multiplying inspiring projects.  In our opinion, it is the effectiveness of Open Urbanism projects, and their support by citizens, that will help political authorities to change urbanism. 

Open urbanism offers new paths: its principles lead to approaches that respect living organisms, from the local level, to activate collective intelligence. Open urbanism gives rise to qualitative and thrilling opportunities, where current urbanism often reveals blockages and dilution of responsibilities.

Far from proposing self-centered approaches, the Open Urbanism approach propose an inspiring paradigm shift on a planetary scale, with a global connection of human creativity around solutions that can be multiplied infinitely, because they are produced from local and sustainable resources.

What do you mean by civic-tech? And why do you think that "civic technologies" must necessarily be open source to trigger and support open urbanism processes?

Sociologist Saskia Sassen[1] sees in Open Source technologies “a DNA that resonates strongly with how people make the city theirs or urbanize what might be otherwise an individual initiative”[2].

Civic-tech are timely collective intelligence engineering techniques that respond to the human and environmental challenges caused by today's lifestyles. The scale of the problems should not be too alarming because it is possible to change our life trajectories faster than we think. However, it is necessary to act strategically and use the multiplier effect, It is possible with the logic of open source which has the effect of multiplying the impact of interesting contributions by real chain reactions, because based on the growing desire to participate in projects of general interest. This desire is powerful and is much more widespread than we think. This force is fading with proprietary technologies.

We have learned a lot from the Free IT Foundation[3]. We have moved from a certain militancy to a more rational and effective approach. We have become aware that the strength of civic-tech does not come from their digital dimensions, but rather from their social and legal configurations. It is these very precise configurations that encourage emulation to create communities of contributors who will then share their solutions with confidence. This question is essential to transform urbanism and move towards more emancipatory societies, where everyone will have a place. When citizens participate in discussions on the transformation of a territory in such configurations, they also become capable of inventing their profession for tomorrow or that of their children.

To make collaborative approaches a large-scale lever "to change the world", contributors must be confident, but also contributions that produce useful and recognised solutions of general interest must be "rewarding".  Both for the ego of the contributor and for his wallet.

With the choice of a good license, for example the Creative Common BY-SA, the initiator of a design or method recognized as useful will be mentioned. It will thus develop its reputation and be well placed to sell services. The emulation effect will continue, as contributors wishing to improve the solution will benefit from the same opportunities if their proposals are useful. And there is no obligation to be the initiator of solutions to offer services to implement them. Open source licenses that respect the principles of "copyleft"[4] are the basis of this alternative that allows the economy of contribution that has allowed Wikipedia, Mozzilla and Linux to develop. With open urban planning, we see that designers and political authorities are beginning to apply this logic, from villages to large cities, and all over the world.

Open source certainly produces contributory dynamics, but is it possible to make these dynamics work outside of digital world?

Yes, and that's when it quickly becomes fascinating. Open source civic technology disseminates a culture of contribution that colours the actions of all participants, not just those of architectural and urban planners. When you are in a village for an open urban planning project, you are in contact not only with political authorities, but also with farmers, carpenters, teachers and children. And all kinds of people who are passionate about trees, animal life, sport, heritage preservation... Naturally, without even realizing it, you immerse your interlocutors in the culture of contributory approaches. Why then should they remain prisoners of proprietary methods that they do not master? Why not instead look for ideas in the open source solution banks, improve them and then disseminate in open source an efficient and environmentally friendly agricultural technique, a way of assembling wood, this course for children that uses infrared cameras, etc.? It is these dynamics of excellence that we are beginning to experience in the village of Anières, on the shores of Lake Leman.

With open urban planning, the role of local and regional authorities is gradually changing. Two points are particularly noteworthy. First, political authorities perceive that their role is less to impose the general interest than to promote the emergence of social dynamics around solutions capable of preserving and developing this general interest. Secondly, since closer relations are being established between politics and civil society, with co-constructed expertise, it becomes logical for the authorities to ensure that projects directly supported by the political authorities can accommodate improvements made by civil society in their programming, construction and operations.

Do you describe utopias or real projects? What is your background and what are your sources of information?

We are architects and urban planners, sociologists and coders. We contribute to Open Urbanism through a laboratory[5] at the origin of a civic-tech[6] based on visual collective intelligence and several collaborative concepts. Most of the members who have passed through the laboratory are also involved in the NGO 7 Billion Urbanists[7], which runs an international network of users and contributors related to this civic-tech. Our productions are open source.

The laboratory was quickly supported by institutional actors. The CNRS[8] funded our first research on “urban ecosystem simulators” in 2007, then the European Commission funded software associated with the civic-tech Unlimited Cities from 2010 to 2012. Since 2018, the laboratory has been a partner of the Geneva-based Free IT Foundation.

The FNAU[9] allowed the NGO to meet UN-Habitat during the Habitat III conference in Quito in 2016. Shortly thereafter, the NGO became an associate partner in the UN-Habitat World Urban Campaign. Since then, she has been the main organizer of a series of "Urban Thinker Campuses"[10] under the aegis of UN-Habitat. The first took place in Grenoble, France in 2017, the second in Wuhan, China in 2018. Two are planned for 2019, in Shanghai and then Geneva.

Our sources of information are direct. They come either from projects developed by members of the network on 4 continents, or from our laboratory.  If each case is different, common patterns appear :

  • 1/ Complexity is never denied in an Open Urbanism project. Complexity is made accessible and functions as a first driver civil society engagment on real issues.
  • 2/  Everyone's creativity is stimulated by the collective visual intelligence produced by the civic-tec we use. This non-elitist, playful creativity, bearing multiple points of view, opens up the field of possibilities and complements the work of experts, it is the second driving force to build the interest of civil society.
  • 3/  The tension between the constraints of reality and the freedom of the imagination encourages contributions of great diversity. This cognitive richness leads architects, urbanists, designers and artists to invent with civil society unique assemblages for each place, far from standardized solutions.  
  • 4/ These assemblies produce new uses that introduce new behaviours. These behavioural changes, which are not produced under government constraints, but through exchanges between local authorities and civil society, integrate the general interest and environmental protection into their DNA as a result.

Open urban planning is aimed at all types of territories. See for example the summaries and illustrations of three open urban planning approaches launched in connection with the civic-tech Unlimited Cities: in a megalopolis of 12 million inhabitants in Wuhan China[11], in a city of 200.000 inhabitants in Laâyoune Morocco Spanish Sahara[12] and in a village of 2,500 inhabitants such as Anières in the canton of Geneva in Switzerland[13]. See also the video[14] presented to the inhabitants of Anières at the beginning of the process. In the village of Anières, the documentation of the open urban planning process is the subject of a separate project. For the moment, elements are shared on the 3DD hub of the canton of Geneva.

How to launch an Open Urbanism project?

The members of the NGO 7 billion urban planners are at your disposal to facilitate the creation of open urban planning projects, while also involving designers from your territory so that the approaches will be integrated into each local ecosystem.

Because the methods and digital tools supporting the civic-tech Unlimites Cities are open source and free of charge, because the 7 Billion Urban Planners network believes in the superiority of distributed intelligence, your architectural or urban planning office, your research laboratory or your community will quickly become autonomous.

Interview between Lionel Lourdin (Free IT Foundation President) and Alain Renk (7 Billion Urbanists ONG President)

June 2019 Geneva.


On the economics of the contribution
On the Free IT Foundation
On the Unlimited Cities approach
On the HOST laboratory
On the 7 Billion Urbanists network
Video shared with the inhabitants and authorities of Anières

[1] Saskia Sassen is the Robert S. Lynd Professor of Sociology and Co-directs the Committee on Global Thought, Columbia University
[4] the practice of offering people the right to freely distribute copies and modified versions of a work with the stipulation that the same rights will be preserved in deviated works created later (Wikipedia source)
[5] “Host Lab”, created in 2000, Paris and Geneva
[6] “Unlimited Cities”, initiated in 2010 in Paris with interest from Japan and Brasil
[7] “7 Billion Urbanists”, created in 2014, cofounders from Europe, Asia, Africa and America
[8] Centre National de Recherche scientifique France
[9] Fédération Nationales des Agences d’Urbanisme publiques France
[10] “Collaborative Urbanism, a New Paradigm ?”
[11] By AaL Architects, Principal Mu WEI, open architect and urbanist, China Norway
[12] By ACP, Principal Aziza Chaouni, open architect and urbanist, Canada Morroco
[13] BY HOST lab, Principal Alain Renk, open architect and urbanist, France Switzerland

Article by Alain Renk