Published on June 3, 2015

Public engagement to design a better house

By Simon Burall

Simon Burall is a Senior Associate of Involve. He has extensive experience in the fields of democratic reform, governance, public participation, stakeholder engagement, and accountability and transparency.

10100691376_dbdce2c88e_zHenry Ford supposedly said, “if I’d asked people what they wanted, they would have asked for a better horse.” Slightly lost in translation and swapping a letter, a Swedish estate agent has taken this to heart and asked Swedes to help them design the most desirable house in Sweden.

Analysing the data from 200 million clicks on 86,000 properties over a 10-month period the company identified the most desirable features that users of their site want to see in a new house. They then went ahead, designed and built it.

The article suggests that this points to the future role of architects as “interpreters, mediators, and translators to accommodate the input from legions of anonymous contributors.” While it’s certainly true that getting to grips with big data will change many industries, it’s important not to get too over-excited.

The claims in the article that the house represents the dream home for Swedes are large. Even on cursory analysis these claims don’t stand up. It is possible that they represent the dreams of those searching on that particular property website. However, this sample of the population is highly unlikely to be representative of the whole country. Visitors to the site are likely to be more affluent at the very least and to differ from a more representative sample of the Swedish population in some other significant ways. It’s no bad thing for an estate agent to better understand its target audience. However, it risks getting its marketing seriously wrong if it believes that every Swede will want to pay money for this particular ‘dream’.

More damagingly to the claims that the resulting design represents the future, people were only ‘voting’ on what they had in front of them. It’s the equivalent of our apocryphal Henry Ford creating a site selling horses to an early 20th Century public, asking them to chose which they want and then drawing a conclusion about the future of personal travel. It is not a mechanism for identifying killer new ideas that will change the way that Swedes live forever.

Involve is always interested in new approaches to public engagement; eager to see what we might learn that might be possible to translate into our work with government policy makers. However, in this case I’m not taking much away. Indeed it made me worry is that a bright young civil servant will see this article, extrapolate wildly and claim that this represents the future for public consultation and policy making.

I’ve written a series of blog posts on this crowdsourcing and policy making in which I urge caution. In the posts I try to identify the circumstances under which crowdsourcing (and by extension some uses of big data) might be useful to policy makers. It is a powerful tool, don’t get me wrong, but like all tools its use is restricted and it brings dangers if used for job it wasn’t designed for.

The article on the crowdsourced house interested me. However, in the end, as is often the way, it’s more about marketing than genuine engagement with the public to create something new.

HT for the ‘dream house’ article to my colleague Reema Patel.

 

Photo credit: Cheryl S

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