The Collaborative Commons

Ekim Tan
7 min readJan 23, 2023

a platform for integrating online tools for collaborative urban planning and design

The Collaborative Commons -TCC- integrates a group of selected online collaboration tools deployable for design and planning processes. It is a multi-user platform that combines collaborative tools for the use of diverse communities, such as data visualization, collective mapping, digital polling and matchmaking. [Urban] designers and planners active in collaborative processes are direct users, while communities with focus on city and design can utilize TCC.


Ulrich Beck’s analysis of the risk society (1992), thirty years old, is truer than ever. Crisis seems to be our new normal. The social and economic ramifications of the global pandemic, climate migrants, the war in Europe and economic inflation due to increasing oil and gas prices will be felt for many years to come. While we already witnessed the consequences of sudden enforcement of social distancing giving the digital transformation a significant push forward, we still have to wait and see to conclude what other adaptations were needed for our organizations to reposition ourselves for sudden and unexpected conditions. Constantly reinventing our work and accepting that we simply do not know many things, continuous and collective exchange of knowledge and collaborative action can help us respond better to changing situations, thus to survive.

Since 2010, Play the City adapted purposefully low technology and low threshold interfaces to ensure the flexility of the large range of scales and cases and the inclusivity of diverse groups. Chosen method and formats have proven themselves to be functional in diverse planning regimes from China, to Turkey, South Africa and Netherlands and adaptive to various cultural contexts and challenges over the last decade, until the first lockdowns caused by the pandemic.

Which online tools are relevant for collaborative design

In early march 2020, with the first lockdowns in Europe, we witnessed numerous of our city game meetings being cancelled one by one, planned to take place in neighborhood centra, board rooms, conference halls etc. An immediate response was required, which meant for our team going back to the drawing board. To translate largely analog multiplayer interfaces into a digital format, the team started carefully analyzing mechanics of the method, interfaces and play rules utilized in a typical collaborative work session. Parallel to this, we expanded our research from city games to digital tools. Testing of numerous available online collaborative tools that would potentially replace or translate the method into a digital format.

Our research took start from the particular method and formats we use, yet collected online tools are relevant for other collaborative design and planning practices.

We summarize our major findings below in seven collaborative digital tool categories with outstanding examples for each category. We share our conclusions about their functionality in terms of supporting a collaborative planning process. With this, we structure our ideas for the necessity of the Collaborative Commons, while clarifying how we imagine to build it.

1. Data Visualization

Initial research, data detection and information gathering stands at the core of approaching any given challenge. Provision of relevant facts, policy mapping, ecosystem analysis… during a collaborative process is crucial where diverse arguments and visions are built and debated. Accordingly, data visualization and communication plays a key role. In interactive collaborative sessions, visualized data gets translated into tangible props, units that participants can hold in their hands, locate and test them against other data represented, for example GIS data mapped on a spatial three dimensional game-board.

For translating this phase of the work, we looked at online tools allowing access to data from most data sources, including third-party data providers and connecting real time using data connection tools. These include Visme, Google Charts, Infogram, Graph Commons, Chart.js, Observable. Not all these tools are open source, yet they still offer free services and it is possible to integrate with other online tools.

2. Collective Mapping

A spatial map of the focus area [a city block, neighborhood, village, district, region] enable diverse experts to understand challenges, build future spatial scenarios collectively. Meanwhile information gathered from the research, prominently the GIS information, find their place on the map. Digitalization of this step becomes interesting not only for publishing the digital map [game board] online, but also integration of real-time data becomes possible. For some cases, opening the map to larger group of participants for a collaborative mapping process becomes possible.

Digital services with properties as open access GIS data, integration with GIS programs, adaptability for customization [home-style visualizations uploading self made area hatches] are very attractive in a digital tool such as Mapbox, while Commonplace and Maptionnaire allow multi user mapping and can integrate public voting, digital polls for a potential urban design process where, for example, participants enter daily bike routes, suggestions for future bike lanes or asking reactions on an existing plan, participatory budgeting, potential urban housing infill projects. QGIS is a free and open-source desktop geographic information system (GIS) software that allows users to create, edit, visualize, analyze, and publish geospatial information. Users can create visualizations that can be easily shared and viewed on the web, making their work interactive by integrating QGIS and Leaflet. Leaflet is open source, allows building interactions and most importantly collective mapping.

3. Collaborative Design

Collectively brainstorming, imagining and designing is a fundamental mechanic of collaborative work sessions. In this phase, both sequential [round-based] and simultaneous interactions help participants exchange ideas, conclude on shared values and their potential spatial translations. Miro, Mural, Conceptboard, FigJam… are such examples we saw emerge and get widely adopted by design education and practices in the last few years. Figma is popular among design professionals working closely with web developers which allows designers collectively visualize, build in interactivity to publish and make the design process open to external contributions.

While collaborative visualization and design seem to work for design students and professionals, we have been confronted with the difficulty of working in these tools with other stakeholders such as regulators, civil servants or residents as well as other experts [ecologists, social scientist, housing experts…]. These are experts working closely with designers and use a common vocabulary yet not trained as designers. Design communication, on the other hand, works smoothly given video conferencing integrated in most of these co-design tools. Integration of collaborative design tools with functionalities such as digital polls, collaborative mapping and data visualization seems very relevant. [so long as the target group is design professionals collaborating with ecologists, social scientist, economists etc.]

4. Video Conferencing

Mechanisms such as matchmaking for potential partnerships, taking collective decisions, building partnerships based on mutual trust is fundamental to collaborative processes. Video conferencing and co-working platforms are not specifically meant for collaborative design and planning processes. Yet, throughout several lockdowns, these digital tools have proven to play a fundamental role for participants to continue communication, exchange knowledge and run public debate sessions.

Beyond simple video chat tools such as zoom, teams, jitsi, more advanced platforms such as, Topia and Ohyay emerged and offered users functionalities such as spatial navigation of present online users, easier content sharing and more instinctive breakout sessions, mainly simulating a setting of working together physically. Ohyay stands out in this category with high levels of flexibility for customization of self-made visuals and for non-coders to program simple algorithms and highly interactive websites where live videos through user slots are integrated. We see great potentials in this category such as adding functionalities of collective mapping, collaborative design.

5. Online polls and public voting

Recording the input, reactions and decisions by multiple players in a collaborative process is significant for identifying and building arguments for the collective choices made by a groups of participant.

Mentimeter is already a well known online application often used in larger face to face conference settings with open and/or multiple choice questions as well as, collaborative theme-tagging. Among available digital polling tools, Typeform stands out as it allows designers to customize it so that a particular narrative can be built, with supportive self created visuals and homestyle components. Besides open and multiple choice questions logic jumps can be programmed to allow diverse scenarios and narratives to emerge. We experienced online polls as highly complementary formats. Besides providing serious amount of content input for collaborative sessions, they help reach out to individuals who hold valuable experience, and otherwise difficult to reach. These tools are likely to be integrated with a number of online tools mentioned earlier such as collective mapping, video conferencing, data mapping. They also are easily adaptable for processes such as participatory budgeting and public voting.

6. Three dimensional visualization

Three dimensional modular models [of cities, districts, blocks] function as effective tools, not only for design communication, but also for collective design and planning processes. Participants test various three dimensional spatial scenarios with the presence of available data, infographics or input from algorithms on plan costs, CO2 emission calculations, number of parking lots to be generated based on new development etc. A well-known digital translation of this collaboration mechanics is the Block by Block running on Minecraft and back up by the UN Habitat in diverse African towns. With public space design and youth participation as its target, user group is consciously selected and works to generate meaningful outcomes after a full day Minecraft workshop. In this category, game engines Unreal Engine and Unity stand out with lately more popular digital city twin applications integrating real time data and artificial intelligence applications for city development and management projects. Similarly lately also Metaverse offers three dimensional interconnected worlds experienced through headsets and AR glasses. This category is currently popular among mainly smart city communities, technologists and game design communities. They do have offer wide range of possibilities for the integration of various real time data sources and digital applications, however, for the full inclusivity of these platforms concerning collaborative processes, more time will be needed.

7. Community Platforms

We observe services such as Citizenlab, Argu, Mett, OpenStad, which are either developed for the local governments or by the local governments. They are not necessarily an apart digital category, rather they offer multiple tools, in contrast to former categories explained above. Citizenlab from Belgium is an outstanding example for this category, that offer the platform as a commercial service for local governments to run their participatory tracks. Openstad is an open source platform developed by the City of Amsterdam itself. It is meant for internal use by city’s civil servants in running their daily work such as launching and managing neighborhood budgets, running questionnaires or collecting input or ideas from citizens.

In our second follow up article we elaborate on the properties of an ideal platform towards building The Collaborative Commons.



Ekim Tan

architect, urbanist, game designer, writer, founder of Play the City and Games for Cities