Blog Post

The Future of Urban Development: Applying Blockchain for Civic Participation

| Oct. 21, 2022

The United States has observed a declining trend in both citizens’ trust in governments and the levels of citizen engagement in recent years [1, 2]. This is in part due to an overall lack of transparency in public decision-making and the ineffectiveness of current mechanisms set in place to facilitate interactions between civil society and local governments [1]. One way to restore trust is to empower citizens to play a greater role in shaping their cities through more direct participation in local city development and policymaking, as this would allow cities to better reflect the needs of their residents.

At the same time, advancements in information and communication technologies (ICTs) over the last two decades—such as the Internet, big data, Internet of Things (IoT), and cloud computing—have allowed for digitally-enabled governments, as well as the development of digital participation platforms, also referred to as “e-participation” platforms, for constituent engagement. A recent poll from Deloitte [3] shows that well-designed digital experiences developed by government agencies for their constituents can lead to more effective public service delivery and help improve public trust in state and local governments. Due to the growing demand for transparent processes, data security, and accurate representation, blockchain has been hailed by some academics and practitioners as the emergent digital infrastructure that has the potential to improve trust and governmental accountability through enabling participatory democracy [4, 5, 6].

So far, academic research has mainly focused on the technical characteristics of the blockchain rather than its social implications. However, the adoption of blockchain for urban development is not a technical problem — after all, the technology is nothing more than a distributed ledger. The problem is rather a sociotechnical[1] one: one which calls for novel institutional designs that could effectively maximize the technology’s potentials for serving the public good (e.g., redistribution of wealth and decision-making power) while minimizing foreseeable risks and harms to various populations.

Over the last several years, interesting experiments involving the use of distributed ledger technologies (DLTs) for urban planning and policymaking have emerged around the world. Yet the current understanding of how blockchain technologies can impact community development, and their capacity to enable more effective democratic processes, is not yet mature. With goals to understand the potential of rolling out this technology in a public-oriented way, I am driven by the following research questions:

  • How can we leverage novel digital technologies such as DLTs to enable participatory urban planning and development in order to empower citizens, while simultaneously building trust?
  • How can the value of local knowledge and “collective intelligence” be maximized to align the needs of citizens and fair public resource distribution in neighborhoods and cities?
  • What social and institutional mechanisms besides technical design need to be put in place to foster a sustainable model of local participation and constituent empowerment in the long run?

Throughout this blog, I will: (1) introduce the concept of participatory urban development and planning as an interesting model for democratic processes; (2) highlight how DLTs such as blockchain and its associated concepts of "tokenization" could potentially contribute to building digital tools that elevate fundamental principles of democracy, such as public participation and ownership; and finally, (3) outline the goals and objectives of my fellowship project that will aim to dive into some of the key questions stated above.

Civic participation and collective intelligence

The practice of civic participation in urban planning and development has existed well before the advent of any digital technologies. Civic participation is regarded as a key component to building public trust in governmental agencies and one of the most important aspects of open government. In fact, it is described by some scholars as an “extension of the democratic process” [8] and a “cornerstone of democracy” [9].

Civic participation in public policy and administration primarily serves to achieve two goals: first, to legitimize decisions executed by public agencies [10]; and second, to harness the power of non-expert knowledge and the collective intelligence of local communities alongside expert knowledge to derive creative solutions that could be applied to specific local contexts [11]. A remark by French philosopher Pierre Lévy in response to the rise of the Web in the 1990s captures the value of collective intelligence: “since ‘no one knows everything, everyone knows something, [and] all knowledge resides in humanity’, we must consciously adopt the technologies and methods which harness this talent” [8].

However, effective civic participation in current form remains hindered by the following set of challenges:

  • uneven access to participation avenues for different social and demographic groups;
  • lack of motivation;
  • distrust of the participation process due to the perception that it does not lead to change;
  • disengaging designs of e-participation platforms, and
  • disconnect between participation processes and actual decision outcomes.

So, the question becomes: how can we leverage novel technologies and tools, such as DLTs, to find new solutions to stimulate productive engagement and participation?

From e-participation to blockchain-enabled civic participation and new community development and ownership models

Due to its unique features of transparency and immutability, blockchain has been considered by many as a valid tool to address the challenges to participation outlined above [12]. Built on DLT, blockchain leverages decentralized consensus algorithms[2] and smart contracts[3] to guarantee security and transparency of data and an immutable record of all past transactions. This ensures that all records are traceable and verifiable, which reduces the likelihood of corruption and data manipulation, and enhances the accountability of government agencies to local residents. The transparency of data also serves to mitigate waste, fraud, and abuse. In the context of urban development and planning, this is particularly appealing because it could provide a potential source of truth in the case of dispute and conflict, and a running record of all changes made on complex issues such as zoning and urban development.

Around the world, we begin to see the emergence of many interesting real-world examples of blockchain-enabled urban use cases which either enhance existing government operations such as improving land record management, or altogether reimagine the very idea of development and ownership through radical experimentations, such as CityDAO in Wyoming where thousands of token holders around the world fundraise through a Decentralized Autonomous Organization (DAO), which uses blockchain as its underlying infrastructure, to purchase a piece of land for development [13].

Meanwhile, the novel concept of “tokenization,” or city tokens, opens up new possibilities for cities. Broadly speaking, tokenization is defined as the process of issuing blockchain-based digital tokens that can be traded, stored and used on a blockchain application. Tokens can serve one of the three categories of functions: payment, utility, and security [14]. They either store value or carry rights of assets such as property ownership and voting rights.

In the context of urban development, the usage of tokens can help incentivize civic participation as well as transform infrastructure projects into community-financed projects. Financing infrastructure projects generally require large amounts of government subsidies and are unattractive to traditional institutional investors due to slow returns on investment. Through allowing for fractional ownership, tokenization opens up the investing opportunity to local community members, who are directly benefited or impacted by such projects.

Take the example of financing for a green energy project such as a hydro-electric power plant: local citizens can purchase tokens as future use rights while benefiting from the potential financial returns of the project in the long-term [15]. This demonstrates the potentials of redistributing power and wealth from institutional investors to local citizens in assets that previously have been inaccessible to them. The use of tokens unlocks the possibility of translating any asset into things communities can co-develop and co-own, where future appreciation can be divided in a transparent and trackable way.

The future of urban development

There is undoubtedly an exorbitant amount of hype surrounding the blockchain and related concepts of Web3. All that aside, I am hopeful that the underlying features of the technology can be our ally in designing tools to democratize urban development and improve urban management. Over the course of this academic year, I will investigate the potentials of using DLTs and their associated concepts to build tools and development and planning models that can address cities’ growing demand for citizens to actively participate in decision-making processes relating to the future of their communities.

The objectives of this project are two-fold: first, to research on existing cases of participatory urban development and planning projects and applications of blockchain in civic participation to derive lessons for best practices; and second, to propose a blueprint and framework on how cities can leverage blockchain and concepts of city tokens to enhance engagement with their constituents and foster sustainable bottom-up urbanization through participatory approaches.

If you would like to engage in this conversation or collaborate in any way, please reach out to me at


[1] The term “sociotechnical” is a way to combine understandings of human-oriented and technology-oriented practices, which enables us to understand how humans and technologies work together and mutually influence one another [7].  

[2] Decentralized consensus algorithms are techniques and mechanisms that enable participants in a distributed network to reach agreement on a shared database.

[3] A smart contract is a software code operating under pre-determined conditions that is built into the blockchain to facilitate, verify, or negotiate a contract agreement.


[1] Rainie, Lee, and Perrin, Andrew. “Key findings about Americans’ declining trust in government and each other”. Pew Research Center. July 22, 2019. Available at:”. Accessed on October 10, 2022.

[2] Brenan, Megan. “Americans' Trust in Government Remains Low.” Gallup. September 30, 2021. Available at: Accessed on October 10, 2022.

[3] O’Leary, John, Welle, Angela, and Agarwal, Sushumna. “Improving trust in state and local government: Insights from data.” Deloitte Insights. September 22, 2021. Available at: Accessed on October 10, 2022.

[4] Rabe, J., Ietto, B., Muth, R., Eisenhut, K., & Pascucci, F. (2021). Citizens' engagement in urban development through blockchain: a human-centered design approach. In 2021 IEEE International Conference on Technology Management, Operations and Decisions (ICTMOD) (pp. 1-6). IEEE.

[5] Centobelli, P., Cerchione, R., Esposito, E. and Oropallo, E. (2021). “Surfing blockchain wave, or drowning? Shaping the future of distributed ledgers and decentralized technologies”, Technological Forecasting and Social Change, 165 ,120463.

[6] Ølnes, S. and Jansen, A., “Blockchain technology as s support infrastructure in e- government,'' in Electronic Government (Lecture Notes in Computer Science), Cham, Switzerland: Springer, 2017, pp. 215-227.

[7] Technopedia. “Sociotechnical.” 2022. Available at: Accessed on October 15, 2022.

[8] Brabham, D. C. (2009). Crowdsourcing the public participation process for planning projects. Planning Theory, 8(3), p. 243.

[9] Tacchi, J. (2012). “11. Digital Engagement: Voice and Participation in Development.” In Digital Anthropology, edited by Heather A. Horst and Daniel Miller, pp. 225. London, England: Berg.

[10] Burby, R.J. (2003) ‘Making Plans that Matter: Citizen Involvement and Government Action’, Journal of the American Planning Association 69(1): 33–49.

[11] Van Herzele, A. (2004) ‘Local Knowledge in Action: Valuing Nonprofessional Reasoning in the Planning Process’, Journal of Planning Education and Research 24(2): 197–212.

[12] Rabe, J., Ietto, B., Muth, R., Eisenhut, K., & Pascucci, F. (2021, November). Citizens' engagement in urban development through blockchain: a human-centered design approach. In 2021 IEEE International Conference on Technology Management, Operations and Decisions (ICTMOD)  (pp. 1-6). IEEE.

[13] Kudelska, Kamila. “Blockchain company CityDAO buys 40 acres in Park County.” Wyoming Public Media. November 12, 2021. Available at: Accessed on October 17, 2022.

[14] Tian, Y., Wang, C., Woo, J., Lu, Z., & Adriaens, P. (2022). The future of blockchain-enabled tokenization in infrastructure investment and development: A Delphi-based scenario analysis. arXiv preprint arXiv:2208.04710.

[15] Pentland, A., Lipton, A., & Hardjono, T. (2021). Building the New Economy: Data as Capital. Chapter 1. MIT Press.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Rong , Helena.The Future of Urban Development: Applying Blockchain for Civic Participation.” Perspectives on Public Purpose, October 21, 2022,

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