Prior to the pandemic, digital technologies were occasionally factored into community engagement activities; from communications platforms like Microsoft Teams and Google Meet to collaborative co-design spaces such as Miro and Mural. Now, a seismic shift has happened and software is a valued part of every engagement professional’s toolbox.
Largely, digital technologies were positioned as ‘the other’ and not considered as a useful or creative method for participatory activities. There was a ‘nothing replaces face-to-face’ mentality. However, from March 2020, architects, urban designers and others swiftly shifted their practice online and got to grips with conducting public workshops and consultations through digital means. Whilst physical proximity and village halls were certainly missed, 18 months on and it’s clear that digital engagement is here to stay.
With this new expanded model of community engagement practice in mind, this article explores inspiring participatory approaches to reimagining and creating our built environment that involve digital engagement. The thread joining each of the three featured projects is how I learnt of them – through Zoom!
Developing local neighbourhoods in Scotland
I was recently on the Advisory Board for the University of Edinburgh’s Future of the High Street project, which combined citizen engagement and co-design with rapid prototyping, urban data and research, to better understand key high street challenges and opportunities. Centred at Gorgie-Dalry high street in Edinburgh and Dalkeith town centre in Midlothian, the project explored how small-scale changes to both locations could deliver meaningful impact.
What made this project so effective was its authentic collaborative and grassroots approach. Privileged throughout was genuine dialogue and design with the local communities of both pilot sites to discover what types of interventions would improve the experience of their high streets.
The original project was designed pre-pandemic and based upon physical presence, i.e. meeting local residents and business owners on location at the two sites. As was the experience of many, through necessity the engagement methods had to be redesigned to make use of various digital environments and tools, although critically, the participatory approach remained set in stone. Understandably, there was a steep learning curve for all, but one which the project team embraced and from which all participants benefited.
The project’s engagement ‘shop front’ was replaced by the High Street Tweak website, that was used to share the ways the residents of each area could be involved. Digital tools were harnessed; from online surveys with participatory mapping to signing up for digital co-design workshops using Miro, Whereby and Zoom. I was particularly taken with the use of open source code and CNC machines to create benches that were positioned at both sites once the lockdown was lifted. The seats were props to prompt conversation with locals as well as places to sit.
It is only through the use of software that Future of the High Street was able to go ahead and be as successful as it proved. Of course, for such a hands-on, hyper-local and practice-led collaborative project, physical presence is still the gold standard, but having additional digital spaces to meet and explore only enhances the project and expands possibilities.
In June, I was invited to speak on an ACD panel at the Landscape Institute’s Inclusive Environments conference. My talk centred on how digital placemaking can be used to co-design inclusive environments for young people.
To summarise, I made three key points:
digital placemaking is critical for advancing sustainable urbanisation and improving quality of life for all
it should be seen as an essential part of achieving the place strategies of towns, cities and regions
inclusive co-design should be embraced to create places that everyone can use.
I was joined by Nat Defriend, the deputy chief executive of the Participatory City Foundation, which is responsible for the brilliant Every One, Every Day project – the largest participatory project of its kind in the UK.
Since the project’s conception in 2017 it has been working with residents in Barking and Dagenham to create a network of 250+ projects that they seek to co-produce in their neighbourhoods. These include spaces to share knowledge, bulk cook, grow food, plant trees, trade, make and repair things, as well as projects to help people grow community businesses and bring families closer together.
While this is not a technology-led initiative, digital technologies have enabled Every One, Every Day to carry on bringing communities together throughout the pandemic. Where physical interactions have been significantly restricted, the launch of a new online platform meant people could run virtual activities and share project ideas online instead. This digital space helps people to connect with their neighbours for them ‘to do great things together’.
Importantly – and this speaks to the third point I made during my talk – the Every One, Every Day initiative is committed to being fully inclusive and the community projects are based on the Participatory City Foundation’s 14 design principles for inclusive participation. These include: equal and mutual, 100% open – no stigma, and projects built with everyone.
The Every One, Every Day project will measure all the benefits and outcomes of individual activities and make them public in order to show what is being achieved through participation projects, ultimately aiming to create a new set of indices to inspire and inform other programmes of this kind.
Creative and responsible urban tech
Our digital devices play an intrinsic part in how we understand and relate to the world around us. Since the pandemic our use of digital technology and, critically, people’s expectations of technology to enable new types of interactions and relationships with places, has grown massively.
At a recent PechaKucha talk I gave for the inaugural Durham Digitale Symposium, I made a call to embrace a creative and responsible approach to designing urban technologies, and to expand and reframe the fundamental ways we think about public spaces and spatial practice.
It was here that I shared the virtual stage with Claire Tymon, the executive director of Future Everything, who talked about a new digitally-based project, this place [of mine], which is a prime example of how we can create platforms to support people to co-design their spaces in creative ways.
This place [of mine] has been launched to bring together people from across Greater Manchester to co-imagine the future of high streets and town centres through digital art, culture and creativity – with a specific focus on empowering young people and amplifying their voice in their local neighbourhoods.
Through its Young Producers scheme, 10 young creatives have had an online space to share ideas, influence change and learn new digital skills, while a series of online creative workshops has given them the opportunity to explore place, heritage and the future using digital tools, creative storytelling and collaborative methodologies to co-design an immersive world and interactive 3D gallery space.
It is this kind of creative and innovative participatory approach, enabled by technology, that all high streets should be thinking about as part of their efforts to regenerate in the most creative and future-focused way.
Calvium has been involved with a number of community co-design projects. We have seen first-hand how this approach can play a vital role in the regeneration of local areas and has the potential to deliver socio-economic benefits.
Ideascape, for example, involved working with a range of stakeholders to develop a series of interactive project ideas to demonstrate how digital placemaking could enhance people’s experiences of Cardiff Bay.
One of the key insights from this six-month project was that communities want to contribute to digital placemaking for their neighbourhoods. We have since developed our Place Experience Platform (PEP) and are excited to see it used creatively for public engagement and co-design in a really meaningful way.
Some of the benefits of using PEP for community engagement include:
enabling plural narratives in a social space and not just a single dominant perspective
facilitating community cohesion through supporting communities to identify and tell a range of their different stories
promotes the heritage and identity of a location; allows content to be refreshed regularly using an easy interface.
If I was a council place manager, for example, I would jump at the chance to invite locals to use the tool as part of an intergenerational exploration of the histories of a place and the co-imagining of shared futures. They could produce stories for others to experience, a hyper-local visitor app. The insights and outcomes could go on to inform place strategies, community programmes akin to Every One, Every Day and so much more.
The pandemic put a stop to the familiar methods of public engagement but it provided the spur for community engagement practitioners to test and adopt new digital methods.
As Future of the High Street, Every One, Every Day and this place [of mine] demonstrate, digital technologies are supporting communities to co-design their neighbourhoods in an array of creative ways. These projects also show how important it is to adopt digital technologies in a thoughtful and inclusive manner.
Irrespective of the mode of engagement, we must commit to giving all people agency through the approaches and methods we adopt.