Community engagement, collaborative design and digital innovation creating better places


9 minute read
Jo Morrison

Jo Morrison

Director of Digital Innovation & Research

Digital Placemaking

Digital Insights

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‘Collaborative design’ sounds like something that should have a fairly straightforward definition. Yet when you type it into Google (other search engines are available), you will find countless definitions amid almost half a billion results. For most of these, the context will mostly be in relation to human computer interaction and the design of digital products and experiences. 

What doesn’t come to the forefront is collaborative design in terms of the built environment. When you do add ‘built environment’ to your search, you will also find many definitions – nowhere near as many and not agreed.

I was reminded of this when I was asked to give a presentation at the Urban Design London Summer School symposium (wearing my Association of Collaborative Design hat). The event looked at urban design through multiple lenses and featured a programme of excellent speakers.

While there is no single interpretation of ‘collaborative design’ for the built environment, there are many commonalities in the descriptions and explanations – all of which point to the use of a broad range of methods and techniques to engage communities, including citizen participants, in a project’s design and decision-making process. So, fundamentally, place-based collaborative design is a process that relates to community engagement. 

With this in mind, I wanted to explore some of those core commonalities in greater depth and how digital tools and technologies are supporting the collaborative design process and community engagement.

Collaborative design is…

Designing with, not for, people

To design ‘with’ people means to take an intersectional approach which values the lived experience and a diversity of perspectives. This is especially important when designing for the built environment as people have different ways of knowing and navigating places, and different experiences and expectations.

East Quay in Somerset is a manifestation of the brilliant things that can happen when you design ‘with’ people. The new arts centre development is the latest project from the Onion Collective, which is a local social enterprise working to tackle social, cultural and environmental injustice in the area.

The Onion Collective kickstarted the project by asking locals ‘What does Watchet need for a stronger future?’, instantly empowering the community to make the decisions about what developments should take place.

In addition to East Quay, locals chose to have a Visitor Centre built and the Boat Museum restored. The project is now developing a mapping tool with a gaming company and has a pilot facility growing mushrooms. Very cool indeed.

EastQuay Watchet1stbday
East Quay collaborative arts space – 1st birthday celebrations in courtyard

Balancing relationships between practitioners and communities

When it comes to knowing an area, nobody knows better than the local communities themselves. So it should be a no-brainer that engagement and communication with these key stakeholders are incorporated as fundamental aspects of the collaborative design process.

Edinburgh Living Lab’s Future of the High Street is another strong model of collaborative design, with this innovative project combining citizen engagement and co-design with rapid prototyping, urban data and research to reimagine two Scottish high streets.

The project used various online and in-person methods to engage local residents and businesses in order to better understand key high street challenges and opportunities in Gorgie-Dalry and Dalkeith, which led to the development of two ideas to pilot on each site.

The collaborative relationship between practitioners and communities continued into the evaluation process too, with the project’s indicators of success including: open learning, local participation, professional exchange, meaningful contribution and critical reflection.


To be expansive in the context of co-design means to empower everyone to play a part in the design and planning process from the ground up, which is exactly what Nottingham’s Co-PLACE has sought to do.

Co-PLACE is an example of what a truly democratic planning system looks like, bringing together communities, authorities and industry to identify barriers to communication, increase mutual understanding across sectors and offer a neutral, shared platform where stakeholders can find common ground.

Nottingham City Council has now launched a Community Engagement guide, in line with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals and National Planning Policy Framework, which outlines key elements of the process, criteria and appraisals.

Context dependent

While there is no right way to do collaborative design, there are certainly wrong ways to do it. First and foremost, it is absolutely key for all elements of a place to be taken into account; that means thinking about all of the varying social, physical, environmental and economic factors that make a place, and making sure these are considered at all stages.

Community engagement has been firmly embedded into various planning and development policies over the years, too. Many of these policies highlight the importance of meaningfully involving communities in determining how to shape better places for people, doing so inclusively and providing new ways for people to take part. Let’s take a look at some of these below.

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Digital tools and technologies that support community engagement

While traditional forms of community engagement, such as village hall meetings, still have an important role to play in urban planning and development, digital tools and technologies are helping to make the process more efficient and creative.

Importantly, they are enabling and empowering citizens to play a more active role in local decision-making, ensuring people have their voices heard at all stages of the design and planning process.

Engagement Apps

Stakeholder engagement apps are increasingly being used to enable two-way communication between urban planners and the community, also helping to increase the transparency of projects.

Site Podium, for example, allows urban planners to publish pictures, videos and documents to show developments in projects and poll the community about important subjects, while also giving local residents a platform to contact community engagement managers with questions, complaints and feedback.

The app includes a measurement feature as well, which allows planners to benchmark the level of satisfaction between projects and decide whether they need to make any changes in line with what citizens are telling them.

whitelabel apps sitepodium

Participation platforms

Citizen participation platforms provide a central place for people to share their ideas with other citizens and local authorities online. While these sorts of platforms are not always fully-inclusive as they require access to an internet connection and device, therefore excluding some marginalised groups, they still have an important role to play in enabling diverse participation.

Take Linz’s participation platform, for example, which allows citizens to participate on any topic from anywhere at any time, and vote on what they would like to see the city take on. Projects that receive at least 30 votes from other citizens within 60 days are taken into account. Within the first few months of the platform’s launch, 26 proposals were shared; four of these reached the threshold and at least one will be implemented.

VR and AR

Tools like virtual reality and augmented reality are great for engaging communities in urban planning in particular as they give a ‘real world’ perspective and allow people to experience what enhanced areas might look like in ways that other technologies simply can’t.

This immersive nature not only encourages greater engagement with projects, it also helps to strengthen the relationship and trust between local authorities and communities as citizens can actually see what’s being planned.

In one study examining how VR can increase civic participation in designing public spaces, participants that viewed the 360 degree rendered images with VR technology expressed a “significantly higher” engagement in the co-design process than those using their computer at home or viewing 2D paper planes.


Gamification is increasingly being explored as a way to boost citizen participation in urban planning – from enhancing stakeholder exploration, motivation and interactions to rewarding people for sharing their ideas.

Sustainability app GreenApes, for instance, allows cities to choose sustainable behaviours they would like to reward. This could be anything from waste sorting to energy savings to green mobility. Citizens then earn ‘BankoNuts’ when they share their sustainable ideas, for example a creative recycling project, which they can then use to claim rewards from GreenApe partners, venues and companies.

This is an incredibly effective way to encourage community engagement in a way that also encourages more planet-friendly behaviours.Screenshot 2022 10 10 at 13.13.40

Community engagement through digital placemaking

For the past four months, Calvium has been researching how digital placemaking can enhance the physical and mental health and emotional wellbeing of North London’s stakeholder communities.

Given North East London’s growing and diverse population, which covers eight boroughs, stakeholder community engagement has been crucial to the development and direction of this project. This involved various methods of engagement – traditional and digital – in order to imagine digital placemaking futures.

While what we have learned about people’s attitudes towards digital technologies in this context has been mostly favourable, we will also be taking any concerns into account. To ignore these would go against the fundamentals of inclusive design and ethical practice.

Four app screens: app logo, intro to using the app with photo, map with pins, location photo and text
Screenshots of the Heritage Eye app for reporting heritage site issues

The Heritage Eye app we designed and developed for Bristol City Council, meanwhile, shows how digital placemaking has a role to play in community engagement beyond the planning and consultation stage. 

The app enables citizens to submit quick reports about buildings in their neighbourhoods when they spot a potential problem, providing a platform to take photographs and write short comments about local buildings. 

Within the context of the built environment, supporting communities to play a meaningful role in the management and maintenance of heritage sites and urban areas should be seen as a natural extension of the collaborative design process.

If you’re interested in sharing best practice in community engagement, collaborating or discussing product innovation needs, get in touch with us.

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