On every continent digital technologies are being used successfully to support people to play a proactive role in shaping their environment and public life. All kinds of tools, from simple digital surveys to bespoke augmented reality systems, are now enabling citizens to share their ideas and be heard by decision-makers. This engagement benefits not just the citizens but also those responsible for developing and managing public spaces, for they can better identify and implement projects that the public actually want – and value.
In London, for instance, the mayor’s office started a city-wide crowdfunding programme allowing Londoners the opportunity to propose and fund the projects that they want to see. There’s a similar initiative in Melbourne, where residents are encouraged to submit their feedback online to several ongoing and proposed city projects. Both examples share the desire for active citizen participation in shaping their neighbourhoods. This intersection of people, place and technology is digital placemaking.
Case Studies: Digital Placemaking for Participatory Urban Planning and Engagement
UK regulation requires public engagement in planning and development, e.g. The National Planning Policy Framework, and technology is playing an increasingly pivotal role in this undertaking. Conferences like PlanTech Week are creating opportunities for central government, local authorities and businesses to come together and discuss how to leverage emerging and data-driven technologies to improve urban planning. Furthermore, as mentioned earlier, governments and local authorities are encouraging local communities to become actively engaged in the planning or development processes, e.g. through the online toolkit Shape My Town by the Welsh Government and Design Commission for Wales.
So, we are seeing a real desire for citizens to play a greater role in shaping their spaces. Across the world there is a growing acceptance of the important role that digital technology can play in enhancing planning consultation and engagement. I’ve highlighted three case studies below that give a taste of the vast range of activities underway.
Flooding in Jakarta regularly affects health, livelihood, and assets. The city’s Disaster Management Agency has partnered with SMART Infrastructure Facility and Twitter to create PetaBencana.id (previously called PetaJakarta.org)—a real-time map indicating flooded areas using geolocated tweets. This project aims to help residents navigate the city whenever flooding occurs. During its pilot study, the project garnered 2.2 million impressions.
Block by Block is an urban planning project created by the UN and creators of the video game Minecraft, in order to help reshape urban slums from Kosovo to Hanoi. As part of their participatory design process, Block by Block collect ideas from local residents, effectively empowering those who otherwise do not have a voice, especially the youth. One area where they explored participatory urban planning using Minecraft is Nairobi’s largest slum, Kibera, which houses approximately 300,000 people.
You Decide is a free digital tool being developed by Knowle West Media Centre, and funded by the EU. The tool makes it easier for people to have a say in the decisions that affect them. People can use the free app to:
- Share their thoughts and preferences about neighbourhood decisions and help to shape the future of the area.
- Set up polls and share ideas with others – is there something a local person wants to change?
- Give feedback to the Council and local organisations.
These three case studies quickly show the real and exciting opportunities that digital placemaking affords communities, developers and local authorities concerned with making places better. In the next section we turn our attention to some of the preparatory thinking (and doing) that should happen before launching participatory planning activities using digital technologies.
Delivering Successful Community Engagement Through Digital Technologies
As illustrated above, there are many ways in which technologies are being used to involve communities in shaping their environments. Of course, the tech is simply one element of running a good community engagement project and, as such, should be considered as part of the whole activity and not in isolation.
Consider why you want to engage the community
This may sound obvious, but before starting an engagement activity, firstly, know why you are doing it and what it is that you want to achieve. Any community engagement project needs to have an overarching goal as this will guide the entire undertaking. Your ambitions may include:
- Collecting data to better understand the current state of the community
- Sourcing public opinion to generate better ideas
- Giving people the power to suggest projects and affect decisions.
2. Identify which community or communities you wish to engage: be inclusive
Understand the various groups that make up your community and don’t view a local community as one homogenous group. Remember that multiple communities make up ‘a community’, for instance local residents, local business owners and visitors.
Be as inclusive as possible. Identify your primary groups and also consider how to include other groups that may have valuable opinions or insights. Where appropriate, remember to seek participation from people who are often marginalised but who have the right to take part in engagement projects.
By following an inclusive approach, you will gather more robust information that should provide your project with better insights and direction.
3. Determine the best methods for engagement
Don’t go straight for a particular digital tool as your tick-box tech solution. While it’s tempting to do so, there are several drawbacks to adopting a digital tool, such as a survey or commissioning a bespoke app, without first doing your homework.
Think practically. What are the best methods for engaging with your chosen group/s? Maybe social media, web and e-mails, maybe community events in schools or pop-up shops – local newspapers and magazines may also come in to the mix in some areas.
Assuming that you have hit upon one or more methods involving digital technology, then ask yourself further practical questions, such as:
- Who is going to take responsibility for this activity?
- What needs to be done to put it into practice and what are the costs and the timescales?
- Is it an assumption that the target communities can access this tech or is it known that they can? If the former, then do some research – the fastest way to waste resources is to develop something on an untested assumption.
Consider combining online and offline methods to spread the word and gain more feedback, as digital technologies have a long way to go before they are the primary source of engagement. Ensure that face-to-face engagement methods are done in suitable places and at schedules that work for your user groups.
Lastly, but critically, remember that to be as successful as possible you should collect data that is useful and is an amount with which you can cope. It’s pointless gathering masses of information that will simply remain untouched as there are not the resources to analyse it.
This is straightforward. Pick technologies that you understand, are available, reliable and that you can operate. In the same vein, use technologies that your participants can access, understand and operate.
There is a vast difference between designing and delivering an engagement activity alongside a university department who is involved so that they can research some form of technology ‘in the wild’, and a small team working with little outside resource input. Be ambitious but be realistic. If you do have a university partner or others, then remember to ensure at the beginning that you understand each others’ motivations for involvement. There’s no point having a surprise some way down the line!
Ethics are so important but so often overlooked. In general, keep in mind the following:
- Make your engagement activities open and accessible when using both physical and digital methods
- Be honest with participants (e.g. let them know if you’re recording them and allow them to decline at any point)
- Let participants know what will happen with the information that they share
- Anonymise all information that is collected unless you have specific permission to cite any participants
- Adhere to GDPR regulations
- Be inclusive.
6. Know Your Resources
Apart from your budget, know how much time and people you have upfront for better allocation. This way, you’ll know whether your objectives are feasible given the kinds of numbers you’re dealing with.
If you’re working with limited resources, divert them into areas where you’ll still be able to reach the community efficiently. If budget is a major constraint, you may need to consider scaling down your efforts or even doing away with creating an app.
7. Set expectations
Make it clear to participants how their feedback will be used, e.g. to influence decision making by the local authority, and when any changes are enacted which is based upon your engagement activity, then let the participants know. In this way, they will feel that their contributions will actually affect change and be more likely to get involved next time. If their input will not be used, let them know as well, to manage expectations.
Case study: Denmark
Calvium partnered with the local housing association in Norrebro to create Jeg Er Nørrebro (I Am Nørrebro). The project aimed to help the increasingly segregated and anti-social community to work together in creating an audio walk app. Our team worked with plenty of young talent who wrote and performed songs together, forming and strengthening bonds that last to this day.
Digital Tools For Planning Consultation and Engagement
There are many tools available for planning consultation and engagement. Keep in mind that the tools you pick should depend on the goals you set and how to achieve your aims in the most ethical way possible. Here are some examples:
The Place Standard tool allows users to accurately assess a place. With the help of their framework, you can better visualise the physical elements of a space (e.g. buildings, transport links) and its social aspects (e.g. people’s opinions). This tool also streamlines the entire planning process, so you can pinpoint all areas that need improvement.
Commonplace aims to help leaders, developers, and the community understand each other without resorting to traditional, time-consuming means. Their online consultation platform allows you to reach those who don’t engage with regular channels, analyse and respond to real-time community feedback, and reduce risks via data insights and analysis.
Arup created a VR simulation tool to improve the consultation process involved in creating new roads and highways—a process that has been largely unchanged for the past two decades. To fill that gap, their platform uses 3D renders and VR fly-throughs, so that both local government, planners and the community can have a sensory experience of how these transport infrastructures can affect their environment, economic, and social lives.
Engaging the community and allowing them a say in shaping their local environment is integral to building cities and towns where every individual can feel that they have a genuine voice in affecting change. Our work with developers, Igloo, at Cardiff Bay shows how effective digital placemaking can be when employed thoughtfully and creatively. Good practice, good communication and empathy with local concerns should always lie at the heart of any planning consultation, with digital technology enabling and not directing the discussion.