Researchers and Citizens Co-Design Singapore’s Waterfront

Dr. Johannes Müller and his group at the ETH-Singapore Future Cities Laboratory has recently used Maptionnaire in the “Big Data Informed Urban Design” research project. Citizens as creative contributors to a crowd-informed city is one aspect of their project. In a case study, they empowered Singaporeans to plan a new waterfront neighborhood. This blog continues our series of interviews with researchers working with participatory mapping.


Johannes, could you first tell us a bit about your research group?

The Future Cities Laboratory (FCL) is the first program of the Singapore-ETH Centre, an institution established jointly by ETH Zurich and Singapore’s National Research Foundation. In our work, we analyze and develop new strategies to involve citizens in the urban planning process.


What was your research project about?

Singapore’s waterfront is undergoing change as the current and centrally located container terminal in Tanjong Pagar will be moved elsewhere after 2027. The master planning of the site is now in progress, but the work is still at an early stage. We used this opportunity to showcase new forms of participatory design. As a research group, we wanted to not only learn how citizens would like to see the area develop, but also observe how they react to different digital participation tools.

Maptionnaire was one of the tools you experimented with. Can you elaborate what you did with it?

We decided to include Maptionnaire, because it is one of the very few products on the market that already contains a design component for regular people and is accessible via the internet.

And the questionnaire we made was a kind of a “Citizen as a Planner” game. Participants could zone the site as they wished by drawing residential, commercial and green areas on a map of Tanjong Pagar. We also asked participants to draw future pedestrian and cycling paths. Finally, people got to browse through pictures of existing examples from Singapore and choose which types of designs for parks, residential blocks, and malls they would prefer to see in the area.


What did you learn?

We’re still in the middle of reviewing the answers we received. I can, however, already say that a publicly accessible waterfront, good access to public transportation, and low-rise buildings with neighborhood parks were preferred by the participants.

There were process-related lessons as well. We had planned to organize some face-to-face events linked to the online questionnaire. Unfortunately, we did not manage to have quite as many participants join as we wanted to. What we learned is that reaching out to citizens successfully requires multiple areas of expertise, such as marketing, web design and social science.


What was your and the Singaporeans’ experience with Maptionnaire?

We think that the tool was a good choice for getting a sense of the opinion among citizens. Even though our questions were quite openly formulated, participants could clearly share their ideas in a more creative way than conventional survey tools would allow them to.

In general, people liked Maptionnaire because the tool contains elements every participant is familiar with: A map and a survey. Other tools we used in the project work with 3D city models. They turned out to be a bit challenging for some people because 3D models provide an uncommon representation of the existing space, and, hence, are more difficult to comprehend if a low level of detail is given. Our participants preferred tools that are not too abstract and show them a familiar user interference. The simplicity of the elements in Maptionnaire, therefore, was advantageous and motivated people to participate.

From the project management side, I also found Maptionnaire was very easy to use. It’s good that you don’t need specific knowledge about geography or GIS to work with it. You can get your response data automatically in an easily understandable format and further analysis can be done with common software.

The bottom line is that both the citizens and planners liked Maptionnaire because it facilitates the transforming of people’s ideas and opinions into generalized design instructions.